Conscience and Conflict

© Succession Miro/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2010

Richard Warburton has his preconceptions challenged by a beguiling exhibition of British artists’ reflections on the Spanish Civil War.

Propped up on my desk is a reproduction of Miro’s small propaganda poster Aidez l’Espagne’. Its yellow clenched fist rallied support for the republicans fighting on the Iberian Peninsula. I refer to it when tempted to power-off for the night – its spirit of defiance always inspires a flagging writer to persevere for a while longer. I came across the original at Pallant House Gallery’s exhibition of British painters’ responses to the Spanish Civil War. Henry Miller described British involvement in Spain as ‘a load of baloney,’ and I too had my doubts. However, keeping an open mind, I headed down a quiet Georgian street that hosts one of England’s most invigorating galleries.

It was the first day of the show and I inadvertently blundered into a private view for the gallery’s friends. No-one spotted the interloper in their midst and I caught myself nodding humbly when thanks were expressed for all the help and donations received. I had even flashed my student card at the entrance for a discount.

It is apt that British painters should be exhibited; the civil war may have left Spain riven and bloodied but it also caused ripples in Britain, disturbing the status quo in politics, art and culture. The first room displays emotive posters designed to elicit aid from British pockets to ease the plight of refugees from the conflict. The clenched fist is here again, this time at the centre of a banner of the British Battalion of the International Brigade. W.H. Auden drove an ambulance for them and George Orwell was a corporal in their infantry.

Room two’s surrealist, obscure take on the conflict serves only to niggle, which I am beginning to think is the point of surrealism. More effective than their work was the march these artists went on to protest the British Government’s appeasement of fascists. To make their point, they all wore Neville Chamberlain masks. A mask and photo from the event are amongst the most fascinating objects on display. The Guy Fawkes mask worn by anti-capitalists today perhaps owes something to the surrealists’ 1938 act of defiance.

And then room three shows us the soul of the exhibition with John Armstrong’s quiet quartet of ruins. The Empty Street is a rubble strewn road on a blue sky day, pink wall on the left, pink houses on the right. A warped telephone pole stands erect, glinting wires snapped and stretching heavenwards. Amongst it all flutter white papers, political leaflets or doves of peace, torn and broken. Next to Armstrong’s work hangs Picasso’s Weeping Woman that normally lives in the Tate. Such a heavyweight piece could threaten to over-balance the show but somehow its anguished beauty manages to complement its neighbours. Picasso completed Guernica in the same year and the Weeping Woman could well be a survivor of that town devastated by the Luftwaffe.

I started to wonder the representations of the nationalists were in what had so far been an elegy to the left. The next room however explores the work of the Brits who came out for Franco. Inevitably the insufferable windbag, Wyndham Lewis, makes an appearance. Lewis has been following me about of late. I had a bellyful of him at the Tate’s Vorticist exhibition, then again this year he featured at the Imperial War Museum’s show of British art of World War One, Truth and Memory. There he was knocking a fellow artist, here at Pallant House he is giving the thumbs up to fascism. Auden called him ‘the lonely volcano of the right’. The Surrender of Barcelona is a colourful and optimistic paean to the 14th century siege overlaid onto a contemporary cityscape. When Barcelona fell to Franco in 1939 he described it as the happiest day of his life. Lewis was in good company, as Evelyn Waugh and Edmund Blunden also failed to see the terror that was coming.

‘If you tolerate this, your children will be next,’ is used on a republican poster in the same room. A familiar phrase, it took me a moment to connect it to Welsh Trotskyite troubadours, Manic Street Preachers; a band so out of place in our homogenous political world they will no doubt be visiting Chichester before you can say ‘ice pick’. Nevertheless after the Germans’ dress rehearsal at Guernica there would come a time for tolerating or not. Chamberlain waved his little note from the Führer and the die was cast. Walter Nessler’s Premonition is uncanny in its prescience. It shows a nightmarish cityscape of London with its sky glowing red and a gas mask dangling off a building. It was painted in 1937.

Other delights include several paintings by Clive Branson, a second cousin of Richard. He fought and was captured, and while incarcerated, sketched his fellow brigade prisoners. These simple drawings bring both the lofty ideals and sickening horrors of war into perspective. There is nothing like a picture of a prisoner of war to conjure melancholy in the viewer.

For a war whose history has been written by the losers, this exhibition provides evidence in favour of the defeated and just enough balance to keep a sceptic happy.

Image © Succession Miro/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2010