British Artists And The Spanish Civil War Examined In New Exhibition

The Spanish Civil War

The first major exhibition to examine the response of British visual artists to the Spanish Civil War is to take place from 8 November at Pallant House Gallery. The Spanish Civil War (1936  – 1939) was one of the most significant conflicts of the twentieth century. It was    fought between the democratically-elected Spanish Republic and a rebel Nationalist force led by General Franco and was emblematic of the widespread clashes between right- and left-wing ideologies that dominated Europe in the lead up to the Second World War. Whilst British literary reactions to the Spanish Civil War have been widely celebrated, the story of the nation’s artistic responses remains largely untold.

The exhibition, which marks the 75th anniversary of the end of the conflict, will reveal how a generation of British visual artists were drawn to engage in the conflict, either by fighting in the war themselves, providing artistic manpower for relief campaigns or creating independent works of art that made fierce political statements. The British artistic response to the Spanish Civil War crossed boundaries between abstract and realist artists, uniting diverse elements of the avant-­‐ garde in the fight against Fascism.

The exhibition will include works by Henry Moore, Edward Burra, Wyndham Lewis, FE McWilliam, Merlyn Evans, Roland Penrose, SW Hayter and John Armstrong, amongst others. The exhibition will include loan works from both public and private collections and will feature more than 80 artworks in a range of media, including painting, printmaking, design, textiles, sculpture, photography and film. It is the first time that many of these works have been brought together and some of the works have not been shown in public for several decades. The exhibition will provide new insights into the politically engaged work of many well known artistic figures but will also present long forgotten works by artists such as Frank Brangwyn, Clive Branson and Ursula McCannell. The little known involvement that female artists had in the conflict will also be an important element of the exhibition.

A highlight of the show will be Picasso’s Weeping Woman (1937), which will be on display alongside material detailing the impact in Britain of the exhibition of the iconic Guernica, which travelled to the UK in 1938. A chief section of the exhibition will explore the different ways in which organised artistic responses to the war were mounted, looking especially at the particular response of the Surrealist Group. The exhibition will also explore artistic responses to the plight of refugees of the conflict, many of whom were sent to Britain. Britain received huge numbers of Basque refugees following the bombing of Guernica who were accommodated in hostels across the South of England, in towns including Worthing and Hove.

The exhibition will examine the support shown by different groups, beginning with the organised artistic response that was coordinated in favour of the Republican cause. Over 2,500 British men and women travelled to Spain to join the International Brigades. The Artists’ International Association, which was set up in 1933 to present a ‘United Front Against Fascism and War’, had 600 members by 1936 and organised numerous fundraising exhibitions. These included ‘Artists Help Spain’ (1936), and the ‘Portraits for Spain’ scheme (1938), for which artists painted portraits whose proceeds went to Spanish relief. It also organised a posthumous exhibition of the artist Felicia Browne, the first British volunteer to die in the war, who produced drawings of Republican soldiers and Spanish peasants affected by the conflict. Several of Browne’s works will be on display.

By contrast, several artists were forced to leave Spain upon the outbreak of war, including Edward Burra. Burra’s traumatic experience witnessing the outbreak of violence inspired macabre paintings that combine symbolic scenes from Spain’s history with references to the Civil War. Several of his watercolours will be on display including The Watcher (c. 1937) and Medusa (1938). In a similar manner, Wyndham Lewis, who was in fact critical of communist activity in Spain, depicted the 15th century Siege of Barcelona as a telling comparative event in his painting The Surrender of Barcelona (1934–7), which will also be on display. A number of artists were supportive of General Franco, including Francis Rose and William Russell Flint.

Several British artists designed posters in support of the Spanish Relief Campaign, examples of which will be on display. A powerful poster featuring an El Greco head, entitled Help Send Medical Aid to Spain (c. 1937), was designed by E McKnight Kauffer and Spain by Frank Brangwyn features a Madonna-­‐like mother holding a child amidst desperate scenes. The British Surrealists published manifestos that campaigned against the official British policy of non-­‐intervention. They called for ‘Arms for Spain’ to counter the military support supplied to Franco’s Nationalists by Hitler and Mussolini. Henry Moore designed the cover of a Surrealist Manifesto ‘We Ask Your Attention’ (1937) and a later print The Spanish Prisoner (1939) anticipates several of his drawings and sculptures that express themes of containment and threat, such as The Helmet (1939-­‐40). In the 1938 London May Day Procession FE McWilliam, Roland Penrose and Julian Trevelyan protested at appeasement policies by marching in masks made by McWilliam that depicted Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, one of which is included in the exhibition.

A number of artworks will convey the general strength of feeling in Britain at the time. Works depicting political protests include Demonstration in Battersea (1939) by the communist Clive Branson, who himself fought in the International Brigades. The painting depicts workers waving flags and banners in support of Spain. Also included is May Day (1938) by the Bloomsbury artist Quentin Bell, son of Vanessa Bell, whose brother Julian was killed in Spain whilst serving as an ambulance driver. Ursula McCannell, who is 91, painted in Spain in 1936 at the age of 13 and had exhibitions in the late 1930s of her depictions of refugees. Her paintings and source photographs will be on display.

The exhibition will also examine the showing in Britain of Picasso’s iconic anti–war painting Guernica (1937), which protested against the bombing of civilians and is without doubt the most famous artwork to emerge from the conflict. Guernica and related studies were shown at the New Burlington Galleries in London in October 1938 before touring the country. The exhibition will focus on the specific impact of the Guernica group of works, including Weeping Woman (1937), which was bought by the Surrealist Roland Penrose, who had himself been instrumental in bringing Guernica to Britain. The works had an immense impact on the imagery of British art, notably influencing FE McWilliam’s Spanish Head (1938–9) and Merlyn Evans’ Distressed Area (1938). The desolating effects of the Guernica bombings directly influenced John Armstrong in Revelations (1938) and Walter Nessler’s Premonition (1937), which prefigured the London Blitz.

The philosophical and political issues raised by the Civil War continued to fascinate artists in the decades following the conflict and still do today. RB Kitaj was a regular visitor to Catalonia in the 1960s and ’70s. Prints from his ‘In Our Time’ series will be on display in the exhibition, including La Lucha del Pueblo Español for La Libertad and Kampflieder – Battle – Songs de las Briagadas Internacionales (1969–70). Works will also be on display by other influenced artists, including Sean Scully, Ron King and Tom Phillips.

Selected works from Francisco de Goya’s etching series ‘Disasters of War’ will be shown within the exhibition, illustrating the controversial exhibition of the prints at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1938.

‘Terry Frost – Eleven Poems by Federico Garcia Lorca’ will also be shown in conjunction with the exhibition. It will feature a suite of etchings created by the St Ives artist in 1989 in response to the celebrated poetry of Lorca who was killed in the early months of the Spanish Civil War.

The exhibition is curated by Simon Martin, Artistic Director of Pallant House Gallery, who has written extensively on Modern British Art. He has written catalogues and monographs of Edward Burra, Eduardo Paolozzi, Colin Self and John Tunnard. A fully illustrated book, featuring new research by Simon Martin and published by Pallant House Gallery, will accompany the exhibition. The exhibition will tour to the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle-­upon­‐Tyne (7 March – 7 June 2015).

Image: Clive Branson, Demonstration In Battersea, 1939, Oil on canvas, Collection of Rosa Branson

Conscience and Conflict: British Artists and the Spanish Civil War

8 November 2014 – 15 February 2015 Pallant House Gallery,


, ,