When the Spanish Civil war hit in 1936, it became a battleground for much more than the obvious struggle between the Fascist Falange and the government of the Second Spanish Republic. The war became a conflict of ideologies: fascism versus communism. As such, it gave countries preparing for war, like Germany, Italy and the USSR, an opportunity to test new weapons and, more crucially, new strategies on a smaller scale, whilst defending their national ideology. The new strategy that received the greatest reaction, sending a jolt of shock throughout Europe, was a total war tactic employed first by the Germans on the Spanish city of Guernica. Using “Strategic Bombing”, a method in which elements of an enemy’s economy are targeted and destroyed in order to defeat the enemy, the Germans bombarded Guernica. This would be one of the first times in history that a civilian area was subjected to mass bombing. Such an evident violation of human rights, an enormous step in the extension of total war, could not pass by unnoticed, in fact, the Spanish Civil War as a whole had a profound effect on many groups in Europe. The Surrealist artists of the time were particularly influenced by the atrocities of the war. Thus, a great array of Surrealist artwork, by Pablo Picasso, Joan Miro, and Salvador Dali, among others, depicted through symbolism the horrors of the Spanish Civil War.
In order to properly comprehend the remarkable response of Surrealist artists to the Spanish Civil war, it is important to understand Surrealism as a cultural movement. When most
people think of Surrealism, the first thing that comes to mind is Surrealist art, but of course, Surrealist art is only an element of Surrealism as a whole. In fact, Surrealism is an entire cultural movement with its own set of ideologies. The original group of Surrealists was made up of visual artists, but also of musicians, filmmakers, poets, and writers, as well some individuals who had previously been a part of the Dadaist movement, which had an undeniable influence on the creation of Surrealism. The Surrealists played a great deal with the notions of Dadaism, to the point that Surrealism can be seen as an extension of early Dadaism. Understanding the link between Surrealism and Dadaism, therefore, is essential.
Dadaism, born out of the First World War, sought to protest the barbaric nature of the war that the Dadaists were experiencing. Whilst being critical of what war had become by 1914, Dadaists were also critical of the society that accepted and was accepted by this new incarnation of war. Anything that was widely popular, anything generic, was resisted and openly insulted by Dadaists. Dada wanted to counter what had become standard during the First World War, from one-toned literature to mind-numbing propaganda and total war, with “total art” (Gualdoni 283), a unification of all forms of art, including literature, drama, music, and painting. As Paris was to continue as a great cultural centre at the end of the First World War, the Dadaists chose to gather in Paris. Here, they caught the attention of many young and avant-garde intellectuals. Among them was Andre Breton.
Breton became intensely involved in Dadaism. His participation in the movement was
further pronounced once he was introduced to well-known Dadaist, Tristan Tzara. Breton and
Tzara would work together until Surrealism, and Breton’s leanings, began to differentiate from Dadaism in 1922. While both movements embraced a radical way of life that tossed aside
normalcy, Surrealism was in no way adverse to contemporary ideas in art. From this point, Breton’s interpretation of Dada became central to what would be known as Surrealism. For him, Dada was not about the artistic result so much as it was about the “state of mind” (Gualdoni 283) or process in which the art forms and creativity combine. Here, Surrealism drew its most defining component. Breton’s interpretation of Dadaism in combination with the new developments being made in psychiatry by Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud, created the Surrealist belief in using the most symbolic of visual imagery rooted in the subconscious mind to produce a sort of figurative art without any logical sense. These visual elements were of great appeal to visual artists and were most easily expressed through this medium. Thus, the Surrealist artists would become the carriers of this cultural movement, and although Breton founded the Surrealist Manifesto, artists like Dali, Miro and Picasso would play an equally important role in supporting the movement.
Later on in the Surrealist period, it would begin to seem as though Dali was destined to take Breton’s place in maintaining the movement. He was becoming increasingly well known and had begun showing his art in America, most notably in New York City, where modern art was thriving with the Museum of Modern Art, or MOMA. Here, Dali’s absurdities of character gave him a reputation that would precede him. “New York had begun a process which was to continue for the rest of Dali’s life: the creation of an impenetrable and gleaming persona” (Brandon 410). In 1936, however, when Dali turned his attentions back to Spain, he was not
entirely surprised that war had broken out in his country. Just that year, Dali had completed a
painting entitled “Soft Construction with Boiled Beans”, also known as “Premonition of Civil War”. This painting depicted a contorted body, broken in two parts, one with a head, chest region
and leg, the other with a body and remaining limbs. In the face of the one part and the claw-like hands of the second there is a look of frustration, desperation and physical pain. Both sections of body are balanced upon a small cupboard with a drawer. Considering the title of the work and Dali’s leftist political views at the time, it would be reasonable to assume the body to be a representation of the Spanish nation, the head section, containing the brain, with little brawn, being the Second Spanish Republic, and the limb section, with its primal aggression, being the Fascist Falange. The small cupboard, too, is an interesting piece of the painting. As the turmoil within the Spanish nation is balanced upon it, the cupboard could very well be seen as the last string withholding Spain from a civil war, the minuscule, and therefore, perhaps, weak administration of the Spanish Republic. The painting shows great conflict separating a whole in to two parts, just as the civil war would. In the background, though, the sky is still primarily a vibrant blue, as light clouds begin to roll in, signifying the turbulence to come.
As the war proceeded, it became evident that the Fascist Falange would be victorious in the war. Although Dali had held mostly liberal beliefs up until the Spanish Civil War, he saw that a change in allegiances would be his only opportunity to return to his homeland, and possibly even survive the civil war. This was, in fact, a worriment for Dali, whose outspoken friend Federico Lorca had recently been assassinated in Granada by Francisco Franco’s Fascists. Moreover, Dali’s home was of the utmost importance to his creative process. It was there that he was most inspired and created his best work. Without “the mineral shoreline of Cap Creus which
was the constant setting for his pictures” (Brandon 417), Dali’s connection to his art would be largely lost, considering his susceptible character. This made the political change a necessity.
After Dali’s strategic change of sides in the Spanish Civil War, he would cease making any political statements about the war. Still, once the civil war had finished, Dali would continue to illustrate the war through his work, with paintings like “Spain”, where “Spain appears… as a female allegorical figure whose head and bust dissolve into the fighting figures and riders of a battle melee” (Weyers 41). Dali would be allowed access to Spain in order to carry on with his painting and draw inspiration from the rubble that was left after the Spanish Civil War.
The same could not be said for Miro, who was forced to leave Spain in 1936, at the start of the Spanish Civil War, but would not return until much later, in 1941. This did not, however, prevent him from producing a significant array of pieces on the subject, despite his not being what one would call a “political artist”. Miro’s “Black and White Series”, completed by 1938, is a set of eight etchings depicting the Spanish Civil War in only black and red. As much as the colours could symbolize the darkness and immorality of the war, they could just as well be symbols of the two clashing ideologies in the Spanish Civil War, the black fascists attacking the red communists, followed by the reverse. In the first and third plates are shown the impressions of bombs being dropped. First they are shown in black, then in both black and red. The second plate is a scene of human-like creatures in black, screaming and reacting to the madness of dropping bombs. The fourth through eighth plate repeat this scene, but with more war torn chaos. First, the pained creatures are black and the bombs red, then, the bombs are black and the creatures red. This repeats with an increasingly chaotic setting until the eighth plate, where every
part of the image is twisted in a bizarre way, upside-down, left to right, as if the whole scene has been blown apart by a bomb. The series is like a symbolic comic strip that shows the similar
positions of both sides involved in the Spanish Civil war, and the muddled end in which they would both be found.
Miro would also produce propaganda art in support of the Spanish Republic, and would be commissioned in 1937 to paint a piece, “The Reaper”, for the Spanish pavilion at the Paris World Fair, along with other artists, like Picasso.
Picasso’s composition for the Paris World Fair was entitled “Guernica”, after the German bombing of the city on April 26, 1937. A concentrated piece that symbolically displayed the victims of the Spanish Civil War, “Guernica” would become, arguably, the most well known painting of the twentieth century. At the time of its creation, Picasso had already made his mark in art history, but this piece would propel him even further as an artist. It contains many representations, the one layered upon the other, in a manner so as to constantly distract the viewer until each portion has been examined. The painting has a hollow and deceased warrior, soul lost from the terrors of war, an individual reaching their hands skyward in pain, an on-looker with a mournful expression, and a mother holding her child’s dead body. Among the mess of human figures, there are two animals, a bull and a horse. “The bull and horse, through their association with bullfighting, stand for Spain: the horse is the people suffering, the bull the people triumphant, but both are victims of aggression and destructive violence” (Warncke 153). Through this incredible oeuvre, Picasso is trying to express the fact that in times of war, everyone is a victim, especially with the extension of total war. As the Spanish Civil War made evident, there is no escaping the effects of war when it is near, no matter one’s direct military
Now, one might wonder at why Surrealist artists like Dali, Miro and Picasso all responded in such a way to the Spanish Civil War. What would lead to a response from this specific group in particular, on such a spectacular scale? The Spanish Civil War was, of course, a war that would make its mark in history as an overwhelming preview of the atrocities to come in World War Two due to the great developments in modern warfare after World War One. It was an event to take thorough notice of. If, however, the Spanish Civil War truly was an event to stun the masses, why then did the Surrealist reaction seem to stand out above so many others? Much of the answer lies in the origins of Surrealism. A hatred of the brutal acts of war is the basis of Dadaism, and hence, Surrealism. This sort of opinion attracted young people, left-leaning in the political spectrum, those who strongly opposed war and all that it encompassed. This created a Surrealist culture that was highly sensitive to war. Furthermore, the Surrealist group was made up of individuals with little fear of revealing their thoughts and true beliefs, radical as they were. This was another trait inherited from Dada. With these characteristics of Surrealism, and an ability of self-expression through visual art, the impressive display of political consciousness on the part of Surrealist artists Dali, Miro and Picasso should come as no surprise.
From a more personal perspective, these three men, Dali, Miro and Picasso, were all intensely passionate individuals, as seemed necessary to the survival of any artist of their historical stature. They were moved and motivated by the obscene horrors, which displayed themselves throughout the Spanish Civil War, transforming the future of war worldwide. Indeed, how could they not feel this sense of motivation when their home country, to which they were,
all three, artistically and personally linked, was being torn to pieces? But beyond even this, the Surrealist artists understood the unbelievable importance of such an event. This was an event to
change Spain, to change the lives of Surrealist artists Dali, Miro and Picasso, and, finally, to change the world.
Brandon, Ruth. Surreal Lives. New York: Grove Press, 1999. Print.
Gualdoni, Flaminio. Art: The Twentieth Century. Torino: Skira, 2008. Print.