Democracy Betrayed, Fascism Unveiled: Art in Revolutionary Spain

Jordan Hindson explains why the Spanish Civil War was such attractive subject matter for twentieth-century artists and intellectuals, and explores the immortal works that they produced in response to the conflict.

Renato Guttuso, 'The Red Cloud', 1966. Image: Chris Ilsley

W.H. Auden’s haunting poem, Spain, contains two lines which capture the anguish of the intellectuals and internationalists who found themselves in combat during the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), struggling to educate themselves out of a lifetime of armchair pacifism:

“To-day the deliberate increase in the chances of death,

The conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder.”

The fight against fascism in Spain cleaved the liberal sympathies and fortified the revolutionary spirit of many who had until then fought only in battles of ideas. The conflict saw a democratically elected Republican government (backed by the Soviet Union) defending itself against a military coup, courtesy of the usual suspects: the army, the church and wealthy landowners.

General Franco, whose megalomaniacal tendencies had already been indulged and exacerbated by his execution of colonial policies in Spanish-owned Morocco, led the fascist forces, propped up by hefty military support from Hitler and Mussolini. Astounded by the British and French policy of Non-Intervention, which neutered the Republican’s supply of weapons and gave the green light to Franco’s levelling of Spain, the Germans were to use Iberia as a playground to try out their newly developed toys of destruction. After three years of often vicious fighting, the Francoist forces won the war, and a vile level of repression ensued. The Republican cause – support for which included communists, socialists, anarchists and much of the Western media – had been undone by factionalism and betrayed by Stalin.

Stephen Spender called it “the poet’s war”, as scores of poets, artists, and intellectuals – many of them members of the Communist-run International Brigades – flocked to Spain in an almost Byronic defence of liberty. The war itself was seen as a pure fight between democracy and fascism, freedom and repression, and this influx of creative souls produced an imperishable cultural record of the war; particularly important in light of the fact that Franco and his victorious thugs did everything they could to try and recast the entire conflict as one Republican atrocity after another.

George Orwell

George Orwell

George Orwell – who incidentally was deeply critical of Auden’s lines, describing them as flippant – joined the POUM, a Catalan-based, anti-Stalinist communist party, and took a bullet through his throat from a fascist sniper. His memoir, Homage to Catalonia, remains one of the most interesting and enduring of all time. It was instrumental in establishing the view that the Republican cause was fatally weakened, not only by the obduracy of the British and French governments and the Hitler-Mussolini alliance, but by Stalin’s own cynical brand of realpolitik.

By providing the Republican forces with just enough resources to keep Hitler busy and Chamberlain happy, Stalin and his communist followers proffered military aid in exchange for the ‘Sovietisation’ of the Republic. The already precarious factionalism of the Republicans finally splintered under the weight of Soviet pressure, a collapse from which the Francoist forces capitalised. Orwell’s memoir contained the germ of this idea, which is now commonplace in Civil War scholarship; he is the man who, above all others, best illustrates Auden’s later observation that, “Nobody I know who went to Spain during the civil war who was not a dyed-in-the-wool Stalinist came back with his illusions intact.” Perhaps for this reason, Auden was to disown Spain, which is now considered by many to be his masterpiece.

Any war that took place in the nation of the matador had to attract the attention of Ernest Hemingway, who went to Spain first as a war correspondent and later as an ambulance driver on the Republican side. The novel he wrote based upon his experiences, For Whom The Bell Tolls, has yet another Hemingway self-image (in this particular novel, Robert Jordan) as the protagonist. An International Brigadier, Jordan is tasked with blowing up a bridge controlled by the fascist forces. The novel is hardly an artistic success, and yet its tale of love in the time of cordite has had a colossal impact on millions of readers, many of whom have been inspired to learn more about the war that ripped Spain apart.

Pablo Picasso's Guernica. Image: Manuel Galrinho

Pablo Picasso’s Guernica. Image: Manuel Galrinho

The most accomplished painting of the Spanish Civil War was produced by a man who had not experienced any of it himself. Commissioned to create a mural for the Paris International Exhibition, Pablo Picasso quickly abandoned his preliminary sketches in response to the bombing of Guernica – a symbolic bastion of Republican resistance – by the German Condor Legion in 1937, an unprecedented aerial assault on an urban town. No wonder the painting displayed at the Exhibition was abstract; even Picasso’s imagination couldn’t conjure a realistic image of such devastation. Guernica is an abstract flurry of clashing images – a mourning mother, a mutilated horse, an eye-shaped light bulb – that coalesce into a stark denunciation of modern warfare.

Robert Capa: The Falling Soldier. Image: Yu-min Wang

Robert Capa: The Falling Soldier. Image: Yu-min Wang

Often called the first ‘media war’, photographers and cameramen converged on Spain to document the unfolding events. Robert Capa was one of these, and his photograph The Falling Soldier remains the iconic image of the conflict. Purporting to show a Republican soldier at the time of his death, the authenticity of the photograph is now strongly doubted. But this does not diminish the cataclysmic effect that it and other photographs had on concerned observers, particularly those outside of the country. These tireless chroniclers of brutality had the enviable and essential “power of facing unpleasant facts”, to steal Orwell’s self-description.

Shelley once called poets, and by extension all artists, the “unacknowledged legislators of the world”. This astoundingly talented group of writers and artists managed to transmute their memories of Spain into immortal works of art that retrospectively condemn and convict Franco and his allies. One could also mention the likes of John Dos Passos, André Malraux, Arthur Koestler and dozens more who each played their courageous part in propping up the Republican cause, and who left countless memoirs, paintings, and poems for the benefit of posterity. In many ways, coming as it did just before the Hitler-Stalin pact, the conflict acted as a dress rehearsal for the coming World War. To immerse oneself in its history and its art is to reflect on the tragic tale of the Republican’s defeat after seeing their principles hijacked by Stalin and crippled by Western inaction, and to remind oneself that even the most just of causes can be undone by demagogy in the ranks of the noble.

Jordan Hindson is a third year student at the University of Warwick, studying Biomedical Sciences. He writes a regular column for the Warwick Globalist.

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