Pablo Picasso: red period

The artist must take sides

Exhibition: Conscience and conflict: British artists and the Spanish Civil War Pallant House Gallery, Chichester until February 15, 2015; then Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, from March 7 to June 7

The Spanish Civil War 1936-39 was the opening chapter of World War II. Central themes of the inter-imperialist conflict were acted out in Spain: democracy versus dictatorship, socialism versus fascism, enlightenment values versus obscurantism, internationalism versus xenophobic nationalism.

This war was fought, on the one hand, by forces loyal to the democratically elected republic and, on the other, by nationalist rebels led in a putsch by general Francisco Franco. Quickly, the French and British governments announced their non-interventionist policies and embargoed any voluntary choice by their citizens to join the republican forces. Hitler and Mussolini had no such qualms. Around 75,000 of their troops served with Franco’s fascists as ground troops, as well as in the Luftwaffe and in Mussolini’s navy.

Forty thousand volunteers from 53 countries flocked to the other side and, despite the British ban, 2,500 left the UK to join in the struggle, becoming part of the legendary International Brigades. UK volunteers were organised by the Communist Party of Great Britain and consisted largely of working class men and women. Additional participation came from middle class intellectuals, poets and writers: eg, W H Auden, John Cornford and George Orwell, scientists such as JBS Haldane and even aristocrats like Winston Churchill’s communist nephew, Esmond Romilly, who left for Spain with his companion, Jessica Mitford, one of celebrated Mitford sisters. (Of the other sisters, Nancy, travelled to France after Franco’s victory, to assist the defeated republicans in their vast refugee camps, whereas Diana married the British fascist leader, Oswald Mosley, and Unity devoted her energies to assisting Hitler in his aims.)

Not well known is the history of British artists’ involvement in the Spanish Civil War, but this exhibition rectifies this. From the very first, artists travelled to Spain to join in the struggle, or agitated here to raise funds for the republican cause. The first Briton to be killed - and this in advance of the brigades’ formation - was a communist artist, Felicia Browne. When her body was recovered from the battlefield, a sketchbook was also found, filled with drawings of her fellow militia and other Spaniards. Others who travelled to Spain were the surrealist painter and collector, Roland Penrose, the etcher, SW Hayter, and the cartoonist, WD Rowney, also killed in battle. Fifteen-year-old Michael Ayrton volunteered, but was recalled by his mother, Labour politician Barbara Ayrton Gould; while Henry Moore and Jacob Epstein were prevented from going by the British government.

Whether or not artists made the journey, they became active in the struggle, creating posters, weaving banners and offering artworks for sale in benefit exhibitions and auctions. Artists went out to Spain not only to fight, but also to record Spain’s artistic heritage, vital at a time when nationalist propaganda was claiming that the republican government was selling off artworks from the Prado Museum or religious icons from churches - lies on a Goebbels scale. Artists helped arrange for a London exhibition of Goya’s etching series, Disasters of war, at the Victoria and Albert. Even though the etchings were produced at the beginning of the 19th century, their London showing angered Franco and the nationalists, while the pusillanimous British government prevaricated before authorising the exhibition to go ahead.

An important development was the involvement of the Artists International Association, formed in 1933 in view of the rise of German Nazism and Italian fascism. Their declared aim was to mobilise the “international unity of artists against imperialist war on the Soviet Union, fascism and imperial oppression”. By the outbreak of the civil war, the association had 600 members, including Augustus John, Stanley Spencer, Eric Gill, Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant. Younger artists were Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, John Piper and Ben Nicholson. Core members of the association were communists and this led, in due course, to some disputes with artists from tendencies other than academic or socialist realism.

The main dispute was with the surrealists, whose first exhibition in Britain in 1936 coincided with the outbreak of the civil war and who, as a group, strongly identified with the republican cause. The British surrealist group issued a number of proclamations and declarations to counter the charge that they were dilettantes, interested only in the psychic state of the individual. The energetic Roland Penrose now pulled off a master-stroke: he visited Picasso and convinced the artist to allow his epic painting Guernica to be brought over to England.

In 1937, the German bombing of the Basque town of Guernica was the first European aerial attack against a purely civilian target. It so shocked world opinion that the nationalists tried to disclaim authorship and put the blame on the republicans, to no avail. Catalysed by the bombing, Picasso worked tirelessly to produce a large painting which became a totemic emblem of the suffering caused by the bombing. Guernica was the centrepiece of the Spanish Pavilion at the 1937 Paris World’s Fair. Although the Spanish finance minister, Juan Negrín, wrote that “in terms of propaganda, the presence of the mural painted by Picasso is equal to a military victory on the front”, many artists in the AIA believed that cubism was ill-suited to conveying a political message. One who joined in the criticism was the art historian, Anthony Blunt, who voiced his opposition in The Spectator, only to reverse his opinion after the war.

As a result of the bombing and further menacing attacks from the nationalists, the Basque government asked countries to give temporary asylum to its refugee children. The British government refused, citing its non-interventionist position, but volunteer associations pressured the authorities, who reluctantly gave ground and warned that not a penny contribution would be made from the treasury. In all 40,000 children arrived in Britain. With her husband serving as surgeon at the front, the communist photographer, Edith Tudor-Hart, visited the children’s camps and during that summer took a series of memorable documentary photos of their new life.

Meanwhile, Penrose decided that bringing Guernica to London would convince many of its importance, and this is what happened. In 1938 it was exhibited, along with 67 preliminary studies, at the New Burlington Galleries, which in 1936 had been the venue for the international surrealist exhibition. Sales of the catalogue were donated to the National Committee for Spanish Relief, whose patrons and supporters included Virginia Woolf and EM Forster, filmmaker Humphrey Jennings and CPGB leader Harry Pollitt. The preliminary studies were then exhibited in Oxford, a show organised by the future labour MP, Denis Healey, before returning to London to be reunited with Guernica at the Whitechapel Gallery. Here the exhibition was opened by leader of the opposition, Clement Attlee, who had the No1 International Brigades battalion named after him. The Whitechapel attracted 15,000 visitors, many of them from the industrial East End working class, and raised considerable sums for a food ship, as well as large quantities of working men’s boots (the price of admission), which were sent to the Spanish front. Finally, in 1939 Guernica travelled to Manchester and was exhibited in a car showroom there, again attracting large crowds, while the studies were shown in Leeds.

At the time Picasso was painting Guernica, a large gathering was held at the Royal Albert Hall in London and the programme featured a preliminary sketch for the mural. This fundraiser was addressed by the African-American actor and singer, Paul Robeson, who was due to broadcast from Moscow, but instead decided to come in person. His appearance was a sensation and in his speech, he made telling points: “The artist must take sides ... the liberation of Spain from the oppression of fascist reactionaries is not a private matter for the Spaniards, but the common cause of all advanced and progressive humanity.”

As Europe slid towards a greater armed conflict, it is fitting to learn that so many artists sided against fascism as soon as it erupted in conflict on Spanish soil. Unsurprisingly Britain and other imperialist powers tried to wish the problem away. For the 1938 London May Day procession, artist FE McWilliam fashioned papier-mâché masks of Neville Chamberlain, which were then worn by surrealist artists as a protest against non-intervention. One artist, the German émigré Walter Nesler, clearly understood the danger: his painting, Premonition 1937, uncannily depicted a bombed London around St Paul’s, three years before the event.

René Gimpel