Conscience and Conflict: British Artists and the Spanish Civil War

Exhibition at the Pallant House Gallery, Chichester
Review by Adela Gooch

Demonstration in Battersea, Clive Branson

Two images stayed with me, from among the wealth of those on display, at an exhibition on the response of British visual artists to the Spanish Civil War currently at Chichester’s Pallant House Gallery. One, a striking lithograph, shows a foot wearing a traditional, intricate alpargata about to stamp on a swastika. The other, a gentler photograph of Basque children playing cricket at a refugee camp in Hampshire.

The first by Catalan artist, Pere Catala Pic, entitled Let’s squash fascism (1936), vividly conveys how what began as a Spanish social conflict took on much wid- er international resonance and became, in the words of Ernest Hemingway, a “dress rehearsal for the inevitable European war”. The second, by Edith Hart, an Austrian- born, Jewish, communist photographer, who herself sought refuge in England, carries particular poignancy because it was taken in 1937, soon after the bombing of Guernica, which marked a fundamental shift in 20th century warfare – a portent of what was to follow.

The response of British literary figures to the civil war has been well documented – the impact on the artistic world less so. This exhibition seeks to redress that featuring a wide range of artists, who worked with a variety of materials, in different media, and who spanned the political divides generated by the conflict. Its subtle and nuanced approach provides a visually and intellectually enriching contribution to commemorations of the 75th anniversary of its end.

British political involvement in the war was the subject of heated debate in Parliament and the press – the official policy of non-intervention was seen by many as tacit support for the right-wing nationalist insur- gents led by General Franco. Among the ensuing debates that involved British artists was the issue of direct action versus artistic creation as the most appropriate response. The show highlights the work of artists involved in the Artists International Association, set up in 1933 to present a “united front against fascism and war” which, by the outbreak of the war, had more than 600 members ranging from establishment figures to younger modernists, including Henry Moore, well represented among the exhibits. It also seeks to explore the work of less celebrated commercial artists and designers whose posters and leaflets were to pioneer latter day campaigns on behalf of humanitarian causes.

The gallery traces the involvement of artists, some of whom had visited Spain in the 20s and 30s but many of whom knew little about the country. The drawings of militia men and women, by Felicia Browne, are taken from a sketchbook recovered after her death on the Saragossa Front in 1937 fighting with the communists – the first British volunteer to die in the war. Others, who stayed home, organised fundraising campaigns and auctions of their work.

It reflects on the artistic battles between surrealists, such as Roland Penrose, whose Elephant Bird Collage (1938), is on loan from the Victoria and Albert Museum, and realists, among them Clive Branson whose 1939 canvases Demonstration in Battersea and Daily Worker depict the impact of the conflict on ordinary working people in Britain. Branson joined the International Brigades and went to Spain in 1937. Turning to artists more broadly sympathetic to the nationalist side, a small but not uninfluential minority, the exhibition features works by Francis Rose and Edward Burra. Rose’s satirically titled The Reds are Really Not Bad Sorts (1936), shows the reds of the title holding the severed head of a cleric beneath chandeliers hanging from trees, in condemnation of attacks on the clergy and looting of wealth. The elongated figures in Burra’s watercolours The Watcher (1937), Medusa (1938), and The Torturers (1935), not on display but photographed together with many other relevant works in the superb catalogue, recall the Spanish old masters to convey a sense of social unease and latent violence strongly reminiscent of Goya.

The Watcher, Edward Burra

The section on poster design and the Spanish aid movement also explores how both artists who were familiar with Spain, and others, who had little or no knowledge of the country, were drawn in by the impact of the conflict. “HELP wounded human beings” is the message on a poster by the American designer E. McKnight Kauffer whose power lies in showing nothing discernably to do with medical aid save for a red cross symbol and rests instead on his gouache sketch of the gaunt face of a man, based on El Greco’s Self Portrait as Saint Luke. By contrast, a lithograph, by Sir Frank Brangwyn, Spain (1937), produced in sup- port of the non-partisan General Relief Fund for Distressed Women and Children, contains some universal images of suffering women and children.

The impact of Picasso’s iconic canvas Guernica is another highlight of the show. Picasso’s Weeping Woman (1937), a preparatory work, is on display. Paintings such as Walter Nessler’s 1937 Premonition of the London Blitz show how quick artists were to grasp the wider repercussions of the Guernica bombing.

The exhibition concludes with a tribute to those who sought to reflect, and alleviate, the plight of prisoners and refugees after the war.

John Armstrong’s dry, dusty The Empty Street (1938), is a harbinger of the sub- sequent “years of hunger” – and shows a timeless, empty village scene, under a bright clear sky, familiar to anyone who has travelled through the hot Castilian plain.

The artists’ depictions of fraught flight, misery and displacement resonate at a time when arguments over intervention and appropriate response to humanitarian crisis continue to provoke fierce debate. They are strongly in keeping with the gallery’s links to Chichester Cathedral, a centre for peace and reconciliation dating back to the work of Bishop George Bell during the Second World War. The gallery itself was founded with a core collection of modern British art donated by Walter Hussey, Dean of the cathedral from 1955 to 1977.

Comments in the visitors’ book provide a modest rebuke to those who claim that we hear too much about this conflict and have little left to learn from the issues so ably raised and discussed in the exhibition. “Thank you for remembering,” said one.

Conscience and Conflict, curated by Simon Martin, Artistic Director of Pallant House Gallery is on at Chichester until 15th February and will then tour to the Laing Art Gallery in Newscaste-upon-Tyne from 7th March to 7th June.