British Artists and the Spanish Civil War

Felicity Ashbee 1937 lithoThe First World War is rightly seen as engendering some of the greatest and most avant-garde art and poetry of the twentieth century.  But Pallant House has chosen to highlight another conflict that – without any official impetus – spurred a significant cross-section of British artists to create striking and progressive work.  The Spanish Civil War brought political developments in Europe to a head in 1936-9, and was seen by most as a testing ground for the newly powerful ideologies of Fascism and Communism.  This exhibitBrangwyn_SpainReliefPoster_loion brilliantly illustrates the response of British artists to this threat – whether overtly political or more philosophical, actively propagandist or contemplative – in a wide range of media that gives an immediacy to their work.

Moreover, many are relatively unknown artists whom it is a pleasure to discover more than holding their own amongst famous names such as Henry Moore.  Felicity Ashbee, for instance, whose hard-hitting posters urging aid for the Spanish people (above left) were deemed too much for London Transport passengers.  Frank Brangwyn’s design (above right) appears Felicia Brownedated in comparison, its Madonna-like central figure at odds with the Republican cause he promotes (Brangwyn was a Catholic, yet in Spain the church had sided with Franco’s Nationalists, while the Republican anarchists were accused of atrocities against religious buildings and clergy).  And Felicia Browne, the only British woman to fight in the war and the first to be killed in August 1936, is represented by sketches of Spanish peasant women (left, 1936) which were exhibited posthumously in London to raise money for the cause she had died for.

Clive Branson is another name that is new to me, and on purely aesthetic terms his naive proto-‘kitchen sink’ style does not appeal.  However, in this context his paintings illustrate the political passions aroused by the Spanish cause.  Branson, a staunch communist who fought with the International Brigade in Spain, saw the conflict as part of a wider struggle for worker’s rights, and pictures such as ‘Demonstration in Battersea’ (below, 1939) or ‘Selling the “Daily Worker” outside Projectile Engineering Works’ (1937) link the immediate cause of unity against Fascism in support of the Spanish Republic with the unity of workers against capitalism (the pertinence of the Projectile factory in the latter painting being that the workers are building the bombs that will be used to destroy them).

branson demo in battersea 1939

From Realism to Surrealism… The outbreak of the Spanish Civil War coincided with the International Surrealist Exhibition in London in 1936, and though the movement was ostensibly concerned with depicting the subconscious and the dreamlike, many who showed at that exhibition were to engage – perhaps obliquely – with the unfolding tragedy in Spain.  edward-burra-medusa-for-websiteThe room is dominated by two large scale paintings: Edward Burra’s ‘Medusa’ (left, 1938) and S.W. Hayter’s ‘Paysage Anthopophage’ (below, 1938).  Burra’s mythological monster stands amid a ravaged landscape of ancient ruins with a cloak of dead bodies slung over one shoulder; it is a chilling and deeply unsettling image that conveys all the sense of dread that Burra had experienced briefly in Spain in early 1936.  Hayter’s painting is more metaphorical, drawing parallels with ‘The Siege of Numantia’ by the Romans in 133BC (recounted in a play by Cervantes).  Despite the bright abstract shapes, there is an impression of searing heat and the sinuous bodies sprawled on the arid ground stand out in tragic finality.

hayter_paysageanthropophage 1938

A collage by Roland Penrose seems less relevant, though perhaps draws attention to the crucial part the artist himself played  in both the surrealist movement and in focusing public attention on the plight of Spain by enabling Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ to be shown in London.  Andre Masson and John Banting both contribute surreal satires on the morally ambiguous role of the Catholic church in the war.  It wasn’t just through painting, however, that the surrealists took made their views known; photographs and ephemera recount their political declarations and show Penrose and others wearing Neville Chamberlain masks designed by the sculptor F.E. McWilliam on the May Day march of 1938, in protest at Britain’s non-intervention policy.


F.E. McWilliam is also represented by ‘Spanish Head’ (right, 1938-9), its features reduced to a single piercing eye and a scream that from the bared teeth seems to resonate upwards into space and time.  This makes an arresting companion piece to Picasso’s ‘Weeping Woman’ in the next room; Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ (1937) was and is seen as the seminal artistic response to the Spanish Civil War and ‘Weeping Woman’ is a continuation of this theme, an image of universal suffering.  Roland Penrose, having organised the exhibition of ‘Guernica’ in London, bought the painting and both these images had a significant impact on British artists both politically and stylistically.

neslerwalter_premonition 1937

‘Guernica’ depicted the impact of the first full scale aerial bombing of civilians, and this now loomed as a potential threat to any city that came into conflict with Fascism.  Walter Nessler’s powerful ‘Premonition’ (left, 1937) sums up the attitude that prevailed post-1937, its ominous red light outlining a shadowy urban landscape of ruins culminating in a gas mask keeping watch over the distant pinnacles of St. Paul’s and the National Gallery.  Merlyn Evans’s brooding tableaux of abstracted mechanical figures in metallic colours embody the same sense of an inhuman threat.

John Armstrong - RevelationsIn contrast, John Armstrong’s tempera paintings in bright pastel colours evoke a sense of pathos; still and silent in the blazing sunlight, they depict the empty ruins of Spanish homes, wallpaper torn, fireplaces cold and abandoned, as in ‘Revelations’ (right, 1938).

The V&A, in an unusually controversial move, chose this moment to exhibit Goya’s series of prints ‘Los Desastres de la Guerra’; depicting the horrors of the Peninsular War in 1807-1814 this was considered a direct parallel to the current conflict, a comparison to which a number of artists responded.


Of these, the two artists shown alongside a selection of Goya prints were interestingly either pro-Nationalist or ambivalent.  Wyndham Lewis began painting ‘The Surrender of Barcelona’ (left, 1934-7) before the civil war broke out; he described it as a 14th century scene, with the frieze of soldiers in the foreground believed to refer to Velazquez’s ‘Surrender of Breda’ (1635), but pertinently he changed the title from ‘Siege’ to ‘Surrender’ as Barcelona, long the stronghold of the Republicans, finally fell to Franco’s forces in 1939.

burra_thewatcher 1937Meanwhile, Edward Burra’s ‘The Watcher’ (right, 1937) depicts a sinister hooded and cloaked figure facing another with his back to us holding a two-pronged scythe amid a landscape of imposing ruin.  Burra is sometimes described as pro-Franco but was in fact apolitical, deeply affected by the burning of churches he had witnessed in Spain.  His paintings of this period reflect his horror of the violence and suffering inflicted by both sides, their ambiguous and theatrical historicising enabling the artist to distance himself from the situation.


The final room considers the plight of those affected by the violence – the prisoners and refugees.  Henry Moore’s sculpture ‘Helmet’ is accompanied by his designs for a poster (‘Spanish Prisoner’, left, 1939) that was in the end abandoned as world war erupted in 1939.  Ursula McCannell, hailed as a ‘child prodigy’ when she first had her work exhibited aged thirteen, had visited Spain early in 1936 and back in Britain painted stark, almost biblical, images of emaciated Spanish refugees in the style of El Greco or Picasso’s Blue Period (‘Family of Beggars’, below right, 1939).mccannell_familyofbeggars 1939

Clive Branson was himself a prisoner of war in Spain, and produced both small oils of the landscape he could see from the camp, and touching pencil portraits of his fellow prisoners (below). Back in Britain, a ship full of Spanish children arrived on the south coast in 1937 where they were put up in hostels. Edith Tudor-Hart photographed them at play or happily peeling vegetables; they might as easily be scenes of an annual scout camp, but in the context it was a poignant message that Britain had finally intervened to help in some way improve (or perhaps save) the lives of these children.

branson - Portrait at prison camp palencia Aug 1938

Among all these various pictures and sculptures are documents and artefacts, propaganda posters and banners, which give a rounded view of the efforts of British artists in all fields to raise awareness and support the cause of the Spanish people.  Beyond this multifaceted history, the appeal of the exhibition lies in the unusual and fascinating mixture of artists brought together by their involvement with Spain, artistic hierarchy put in second place to passion and spirit.

The later response to the Spanish Civil War, including artists such as RB Kitaj in the 1960s, I felt irrelevant and uninteresting; however, I was thrilled to find a room in the permanent collection dedicated to Spanish paintings – mainly of the same period though not related to the war – by artists such as David Bomberg, Walter Nessler, John Banting, William Nicholson and Muirhead Bone.  This made a stunning accompaniment to the show and a tribute to a beautiful, if betimes ravaged, country.

Picasso Revisited

I thought that I’d seen enough Picasso.  I thought that I knew all the permutations of his multi-faceted talent.  But despite visiting entire museums dedicated to the modern master, and countless exhibitions, the small collection that the Courtauld has brought together in just two rooms was a revelation.  In my experience pre-Blue Period paintings seem to be largely ignored – perhaps because, as the curator willingly admits, prior to the emergence of these distinctive images Picasso’s debt to the Post-Impressionists was evident.  Yet even those compositions that appear amalgamations of Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec have a verve and style, an assured dexterity that for an artist of only 19 is astonishing.


Here, the shadowy theatrical backdrop, the blurred and ghostly figures behind the bright, artificially lit dancers, and the close cropping of the scene recall Degas’ images of dancers on stage, or the opera Robert le Diable; while the dancers themselves, with their lurid make-up and flash of black stockings are pure Lautrec.  There are shades of Lautrec’s Bohemian underworld too in Picasso’s charismatic portrait of ‘Bibi-la-Puree’, a former actor, one-time secretary to Verlaine and inveterate absinthe-drinker (etre dans la puree apparently meaning to be in dire straits).


The loose expressive brushwork perfectly captures the dishevelled, anarchic vitality of this self-styled King of Bohemia.  Meanwhile, the colours – the turquoise blue of Provencal skies, the mint green of Japanese prints, the pale rose, and the flash of orange and red reveal the hallmark of Van Gogh.

And then suddenly his style changed.  Though the image of the absinthe-drinker is drawn from Degas’ famous painting, the treatment of it is utterly different.  Picasso abandons the painterly brushstrokes in favour of almost flat planes of colour and pattern, a sense of volume and space only grudgingly suggested by simple modulations of colour.  Like Degas’ couple these characters look miserable, caught up in their own thoughts – but Picasso has substituted the bearded Bohemian for Harlequin, who with Columbine has erroneously strayed from his fantasy world into the sordid reality of a Parisian cafe.

harlequin and companion 1901

Here is the start of the melancholy that pervaded the Blue Period.  These silent, contemplative, desolate figures, with their pale faces and hunched shoulders and with elongated hands enveloping themselves, would be replicated in ever more emaciated guise and steeped in an inky blue light.  It was famously the death of Picasso’s friend Casagemas which started this mournful fixation, and two large paintings are displayed which testify to the profound effect that this had on the artist.  One, an indigo funerary monument, intense as Mantegna’s dead Christ; the other, a surreal imagining of his friend’s funeral with ladies of the night in place of angels, accompanying him to heaven on a white horse in the manner of Chagall’s blue-tinted visions of floating men and beasts.

If anything this trauma spurred Picasso on.  What is difficult to comprehend is that so much work (and only a selection from hundreds of canvases is displayed), and such extensive experimentation, was achieved in just one year: 1901.  The approach of the Courtauld, isolating a short but massively productive period, and one which would prove seminal in establishing the artist’s reputation, is in this sense a masterstroke.  By the end of the year Picasso had made an indelible mark on the Parisian art world.  His self-portrait, shown on the occasion of his first solo exhibition, says it all with the ambitious arrogance of youth – ‘Yo – Picasso’.


One rainy morning in Oxford…

… I paid a visit to the Ashmolean.  I took against the redesign because accessing the modernist painting displays proved such a complex procedure.  I ended up going backwards through time – beginning on the cusp of abstraction.  A Kandinsky landscape of the Murnau era – ‘Staffelsee I’ – leapt out at me, a lone example, full of the rich velvety purple hues of dusk in the mountains.  Chalet lights glimmer on the tenebrous slopes.  Below the sharp, rugged outlines above, I hesitated to ascertain where the landscape ended and the mirror image began, the reflections working to abstract the subject matter and confuse the eye.


Past two elegant nudes courtesy of Bonnard and Matisse, and I reached the dawn again in  Picasso’s ‘Blue Roofs, Paris’.  A reproduction cannot do this painting justice; it has in it all the essence of that feeling experienced when you open the curtains at sunrise and the world is glorious.  It’s there in the powerfully joyful, daffodil yellow of the the first rays of sun stealing up on attic bedrooms still shrouded in an indigo dream, and in it’s there in the boisterous clouds whose dance dominates the sky.


A whole roomful of Sickert and his Camden Town crew presented itself next, a true delight.  How, I wondered, is Sickert so very modern when his use of colour is so very limited in comparison to such paintings as the above?  Because, I supposed, of his spontaneous Impressionistic style, married to that very lack of interest in seasonal colour.  And to finish, the arbitrary cropping and sudden flashes of colour that epitomise a modern urban world of chance encounters and electric light.  The scene of the ‘rue Notre-Dame des Champs, Paris’ serves as a perfect illustration: a dingy night, shadowy figures hurrying home, the puddles a sinister yellow against the grey pavements, and the vertiginous buttress of buildings on the right seeming to encroach on the space of the street in a vaguely threatening manner.  One would flee to the nearest bistro if one were there.  Yet the whole composition hinges on a few delicate spidery characters etched in luminous yellow light, valiant against the rapidly approaching darkness.  There it is, the safe haven, a glass of absinthe waiting, or perhaps it is a venus fly-trap, tempting the urban wanderer to sin … but we will never know.


imagesAnd in ‘Gaiete Montparnasse, derniere galerie de gauche’, the figure is almost lost within – or at the very least secondary to – the insistent arabesque.  What could possibly be more subversive or avant-garde than making the underside of a theatre box the dominant element in a painting?!  The lack of narrative, the cropping of the stage at its very edge so that nothing at all can be seen, and the tortuous angle of vision – Sickert did not need blazing colour to achieve his own artistic revolution in 1906-7.

The rooms became more opulent as we moved back through Impressionism – a roomful of Pissarro’s Eragny landscapes, developing to dew-drop fresh pointillism – to the nineteenth century and the Pre-Raphaelites at the far end.  En route, I came across this painting of an Edinburgh slum by James Pryde.  I suppose it should have been no surprise to read that he was a set designer, the building almost a cut-out facade and the rags hanging from the windows adding a heavy dose of melodrama.  Recent images of the poor orphan Cosette sprang to mind… Followed by an ironic smile at the memory of many shabby student flats in those old tenement buildings that are so peculiar to Edinburgh.  Goodness they were cold, and our washing flung about in a similar manner – though we lacked the touch of civility lent by the classical statue.

WA1961.2And finally, while trying to find my way out again, I was waylaid by a room full of oil sketches.  Two insisted that I stop and stare: Giuseppe de Nittis’ ‘Winter Landscape’ and Giovanni Boldini’s ‘In the Garden’.  Two Italians in the suburbs of Paris.  Two distant, anonymous figures of women tending their gardens under a cold grey sky.  Two black-clad wives, perhaps, missing the warmth of the Mediterranean sun.



Exhibitions – part 1

On Thursday I saw the Bronze exhibition at the RA.  Far later than everyone else, I know, but in the relative peace and tranquillity that presides at 8am.  In a pre-coffee state, I was quite prepared to ignore all the blurb and just look at the sculpture without trying to form any sort of art historical interpretation, or even a compare and contrast sort of attitude; if anything I returned to my childhood approach – ‘out of everything in THIS room, what would I take home?’  Well, of course what I would really like is to have the entire Royal Academy as my personal museum, on a deserted island a bit like the one in Bond where he first meets the villain.  But failing that, here are some of my choices and rejections.

The Dancing Satyr, yes, as this was the only piece in the first room so no difficulties there.  Only if I had some sort of circular entertaining space with spectacular lighting.  Really, what better to set an example for a really Bacchanalian party than this figure totally absorbed in his ecstatic dance?  The only really obvious example of influence the curators allowed was the (not quite) juxtaposed Etruscan votive figure with a small Giacometti.  I found that very satisfying among the overwhelming variety elsewhere.  The Etruscan version showed a smiling boy’s face with a sort of Tintin quiff aloft a very elongated body; Giacometti’s figures are more melancholy, haunted, a tortured aspect to their roughly modelled, skeletal features – maybe they feel their lack of votive purpose in this alienating modern world?

The animal rooms were always going to be a difficult choice.  Who wouldn’t want a small elephant from Shang dynasty China from which to pour their wine?  Or a pair of good-natured and well-groomed leopards from mid C16th Benin to guard one’s entrance?  The Egyptian cat was perfect, sleek, mysterious, and utterly contemptuous of its neighbours – Picasso’s baboon (constructed from a vase and two of his son’s toy cars – can you imagine the distress of the small boy? Unlikely that he appreciated his father’s artistic Genius in this case) and Germaine Richier’s Praying Mantis, a towering but petrified threat.  The monster pug was in a league of its own.

Too much to write about… Only I can’t resist mentioning Adrian de Vries’ Hercules, Nassus & Deianira (1622); oh, the drama of the rearing centaur and his hapless victim – totally ignored by the mongrel who is wearily trying to protect his flask of wine.  And the Etruscan Chrysippos Cista – one of the few blurbs I did read, but which failed to inform me why there should be two soldiers carrying a naked woman horizontally on the lid (dead? drunk? fainting?) or why the claw feet of the vessel rested upon squashed toads.  And nearby, the Aquamanile Lion from Hildesheim, who with downturned eyes seems to smile indulgently as a lizard-like creature with a fleur-de-lys tail whispers in his ear (helpfully forming a handle in the process).  Or the Emaciated Buddha, a sad sight with his protruding ribs and veins in the company of so many well-fed brother buddhas (not one I would take home; he is not enjoying the party).

The contemporary additions were well chosen to show the diversity with which bronze could be employed; however, it was difficult not to notice a certain art-for-art’s-sake quality – in contrast to the functionality or decorative purpose of the sculpture of the past – which sometimes slipped into cynical subversiveness in the case of Jasper Johns or Jeff Koons.  Hepworth and Kapoor provided positive examples of absolute abstraction that allowed an appreciation purely of material and form without distraction.  And in the last room, Brancusi’s Danaide (1918) would be my final choice.  Primitive and glowing, in symmetrical perfection, her ghost of a smile silently and hesitantly heralding peace and the modern age.