Sunday Supplement: ¡Guerra! The Spanish Civil War
While I gather it’s traditional for blogs to be published on workdays, here at the Daily Norm, we like to provide a complete weekly service. So every weekend I aim to provide the Daily Norm’s loyal readers with a Sunday supplement of a cultural kind (after all, if you’re like me, you’ll head straight to the culture section of the Sunday paper!). For the first few weeks, the Sunday Supplement with provide me with the opportunity to showcase some of my (non-Norm) artwork. While pictures of my paintings have been online in various forms for some time, the Sunday Supplement provides me with an opportunity to discuss the meaning behind the imagery.
This weekend, in conjunction with the Daily Norm’s current Spanish focus, I am showcasing the painting “¡Guerra! The Spanish Civil War 1936-1939” from my “España Volver” Collection. Meaning “return to Spain”, I painted the collection in 2009-2010, when a reinvigorated interest in Spain inspired several comprehensive works. It was a “return” because Spain has long been an influence in my work. But with the España Volver collection, my return to Spain as a subject was inspired more specifically by the nation’s social, political and historical landscape. It seems appropriate then to discuss one of my most political of Spanish paintings on this, the day that Spain goes to the polls in a general election.
I was inspired to research and then paint the Spanish Civil War after I read the novel “The Return” by Victoria Hislop in which the narrator discovers Spain’s turbulent Civil War history on a visit to contemporary Granada (the book is excellent – well recommended). Having gained only a periphery knowledge of the Civil War at school, I was completely shocked by the accounts of a war which tore apart a nation, which, unlike the first and second world wars, played host to an internalised conflict, with Spaniard turning on Spaniard, and families and friends divided over a brutal political struggle which left countless innocents dead. What was so difficult to swallow was that this apparently innocuous country, where I have been holidaying in relative tranquillity for the past ten years, was only 70 years previously the scene of complete devastation, and only 35 years ago was the continuing victim of the brutal and suffocating dictatorship of the war’s original proponent. Of course, since the death of Franco in 1975 accounts of this savage war have started to come to the fore. Nonetheless it is perhaps unsurprising that even to this day, the Spanish population are reticent to discuss the horrors of that time. I was particularly surprised when a gallery who was showcasing my work in Marbella in 2009 warned me that I would not be able to exhibit my Civil War painting because feelings about the conflict still run so strong in Spain. It is not surprising that many find the subject uncomfortable – it is not as though they can blame a foreign invasion for the brutality which ensued. However, under the most recent government, much has been done to lift the country’s previous “pacto de olvido” (pact of forgetting) so that the memories of the countless victims on both sides can be properly acknowledged.
My homage to the Spanish Civil war contains multifaceted imagery exploring various aspects of the conflict. The top left shows the bombing of Guernika, the basque village which is the focus of Picasso’s famous anti-war masterpiece. The ruins of the town have become overrun by stray cats. The German bombers are shown bombing olives. For me, olives are synonymous with the culinary and agricultural heritage of Spain and therefore appropriate in representing a conflict which saw one Spaniard turn upon another. This same element of internalised conflict is additionally represented by the interlocking bulls on the left bottom corner, the bull of course constituting perhaps the most recognised symbol of Spain as a nation. Above the bulls is the map of Spain. Upon it, Franco sits like a toad on a lily pad. His invasion from North Africa is marked by the red arrows, while on the north of the map, the new generations of Spaniards, represented by tadpoles, flee the nation over the boarder. A whole group of young Spaniards also escaped the conflict from the port of Bilbao on the SS Havana which brought the children to safety in the UK. The ship is shown just right of centre. The plight of children in the war is also illustrated by the doll on the right of the canvas, a foot print cross its body showing the lack of regard which was shown to innocent lives by the soldiers of the conflict. Beneath the doll, waves of scrunched up newspaper illustrate the cessation of truthful news reports reaching the Spanish people, as the invading Nationalists attempted to manipulate news accounts of the war.
The most imposing image in the painting is the large guitar which is shown cracking apart. This represents Franco’s attack on intrinsic Spanish culture, and in particular his ban on gypsy culture in the Andalucía region. Over the guitar march Republican soldiers, fighting for that same political and cultural freedom which Franco’s regime was trying to suppress. From the right, the arm of a Nationalist soldier is thrust into the canvas with violent momentum, the gun in his hand shooting at an unborn baby, a poignant symbol of savagery destroying innocence, while around his arm, a rosary culminating in a swastika instead of a crucifix is illustrative of the role of the both the Spanish church, and the Nazis as supporters of Franco’s attack on the Spanish Republican government. The blood dripping off the swastika is the blood of communist soldiers, the likes of whom formed a large percentage of the Republican army. At the centre of the painting, the violent core of the image contains, asides from the firing gun and splitting guitar, a bunch of lilies, symbols of death, and banderillas, the tools used in a bullfight to torture the bull. Finally, in contrast to the painting’s explosive core, the shoots of an olive tree, signs of peace, emerge from the cracks in the guitar. These are signs of hope for the future, a peaceful, democratic future which we are all relieved to say has now been established in Spain.
Who knows what the future has in store for Spain, what with the economic gloom that has ascended over the country and is progressively turning into a rising panic across Europe. Nonetheless, as always, the importance of historical reflection remains as vivid as ever, particularly now that we live through the same pressures of economic collapse as loomed before the outbreak of war in the 1930s.
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