Exhibition review by Dolly Shaer
New Worker 11th January 2002
The Spanish Civil War - Dreams and nightmares, an exhibition at the Imperial War museum, Lambeth Road, London SE1 6HZ, open from 20th October 2001 to 28th April 2002 (10am-6pm), nearest tube: Lambeth North, Rail: Waterloo.
IN the 65 years since the outbreak of the anti-fascist war in Spain there has been an acceleration of interest in the subject, especially after the death of Franco. There are a growing number of books, biographies, articles and films on the subject from a number of points of view. And according to Professor Paul Preston it shows no sign of slowing down.
We have to ask ourselves why? Then ask whether this latest exhibition answers any of the questions or contributes to those answers. Or is it a well meaning but disorganised display, which follows the stereotypical idea that there are two sides to any question?
It seems to me that if you call it "The Spanish Civil War" you are diverting from the fact that from the beginning of Franco's rebellion he enlisted the aid of the then oldest Fascist dictatorship in Europe -- that of Mussolini -- whose planes transported Franco's army from North Africa to Spain in 1936.
So from the beginning International fascism was involved on a grand scale and that was what the Republican Government was fighting. The struggle was made even harder by the fact that the alleged democracies of France, Britain and the United States agreed not to "help" the Republican government because they didn't want to see a socialist state in Western Europe.
Why is there a growing interest in what has been called the "first battle of the Second World War" as a number of people have called it!
I would suggest there are a number of reasons for this interest. First of course there are those who want to muddle the issues and decry the role of the International Brigades and the International Labour Movement. Because anything that shows anti-fascism in action must be destroyed.
Secondly there is a resurgence of fascism across the world at both national and international levels -- the imperialist attacks upon Iraq and Afghanistan, which have their roots in crisis ridden capitalism, have many resonances with war-mongering fascism in the past.
Thirdly both in Britain and in the United States the work of the International Brigade Veterans with their talking, lecturing, raising of memorials and public work generally is stirring people to think about these issues.
Fourthly the period is one of the proudest chapters in the history of the British Labour Movement. This movement came together as a united front against fascism through the war against Franco and his cronies. They united to send ambulances, medical aid, food money and not least 2,500 men and women of whom 500 plus did not return. There are a growing number of people who think that this part of our history should not be lost.
These points were also relevant to the labour movements of a large number of other countries across the world who all reacted against their own governments in much the same way.
Lastly, there has been an on going argument as to whether the men and women who went were intellectual idealists, communists or mercenaries.
The truth is the majority who went to Spain were ordinary working class people. Of course some were communists and some had been organising in Trade Unions and unemployed groups. But most were concerned anti-fascists who saw the war as a way of stopping Hitler and the danger of a much wider European war.
The exhihition is in two areas. The first room has two sets of illustrations to some Lorca poems one det by Scan Sculley the other lithographs by Terry Frost RA. There is a very strong bronze head of Antonio Machado that was hidden from Franco.
There is a display cabinet that has, among other things, a letter from George and Nan Green written five weeks before George was killed at the front. It explains to his mother why they went to Spain:
My dear mother
... I would like to say as clearly as possible why we came to Spain -- and by we I mean not only Nan and myself but all the volunteers of the International Brigades.
1. We came to war because we love peace and hate war.
2. Fascism, which is the maker of wars today, and which is threatening everybody's home and everybody's safety, this same fascism can he decisively beaten in Spain and if it is beaten in Spain then it is beaten forever as a world force.
3. We are not pacifists because we believe that the pacifist line is a direct encouragement to the war makers . . . For us, we shall be glad when it's all over. My idea of a good time is not being shot at but is connected with growing lettuce and spring onions and drinking beer in a country pub and playing quartets with friends and having my children about me to educate me and keep me human. And we're most of us like that out here.
Mother dear, we're not militarists, nor adventurers nor professional soldiers: but a few days ago on the hills the other side of the Ebro, I've seen a few unemployed lads from the Clyde, and frightened clerks from Willesden stand up (without fortified positions) against an artillery barrage that professional soldiers could not stand up to. And they did it because to hold the line here and now means that we can prevent this battle being fought again later on Hampstead Heath or the hills of Derbyshire ...
All our love George and Nan.
In files there are poems by the Republican writers Alberti, Gonzales Neruda and Rolfe. There is a 2'6" sculpture by Arthur Dooley, made for the TGWU, which is normally in their headquarters and commemorates their dead of the war.
On entering the second area there is a video of many photographs from the war. You then turn round and there is a corridor about five foot wide. On one side there are four large photos of Franco and his government and six fascist posters.
On the facing wall parallel there are 12 large Republican posters and six photos (two of them showing women in the fight). This very layout seems to give equal validity to the fascists -- something which would not normally be given in an exhibition of the war against Japanese militansm or of the Nazi death camps in Europe. Sadly this even handedness is typical of the exhibition.
It is interesting to note that the Republican Government found time to appoint a General Director of Fine Arts, Joseph Renau.
Throughout the exhibition there are photographs taken by Frank Capra, many well known some not so. But all are a silent witness to the war.
Also scattered around are well bound files of photos. In one I found a photo of Burgos Town Hall when Franco was in power there. On the facade of the Town Hall are three flags together with their insignia. One is German, one Italian and one of Franco. The photo was taken in 1936. This was while the rest of Europe was saying they must be neutral.
The last exhibit in this room is a two-storey glass case, floor to ceiling. The centrepiece contains an elaborately carved armchair used by Franco!
On either side are uniforms of the military. In the lower case is the metal of war -- guns, rifles and bullet-ridden items.
In the next area there are four showcases, One is packed with British International Brigades memorabilia, personal effects, letters, drawings and photos. Most of these are on loan from the Marx Memorial Library Archive. The second has fascist material -- France's baton, a morse code tapper and a diary of a British woman who nursed For Franco's rebel army. The third case shows Republican material, a helmet, postcard of Passionaria and a blood stained shirt.
There is also a small POUM (anarchist) collection.
In the following sections there are showcases on the Aid to Spain that brought some relief. The Basque children and their evacuation from Spain to Great Britain and Mexico -- the only country apart from the Soviet Union who helped the Republican Government. There is a section on the "Spanish Home Front" that has a leaf from the oak tree in Guernica that is an age-old survival symbol for the Basque people as the tree survived the Bombing by Franco.
The introduction to the Art and Literature section of the exhibition has the 1937 survey of 148 British writers, who were asked whether they supported the Republican Government or not: 127 said they supported the Government, five said they were against, 16 said they were neutral/couldn't make their minds up -- including T S Elliot and H G Wells.
There are etchings by Picasso including "The dream and lie of Franco" together with a hand-written poem by Picasso. Miro is represented too.
There is a case with photos, passports and memorabilia from Christopher Caudwell, Laurie Lee, John Cornforth, Stephen Spender, George Orwell and Koestler. Brecht, Benjamin Britten, Alan Bush, Pablo Cassals and others represent musicians.
Finally, there is a short summary of what the Spanish War cost the Spanish people: 350,000 were killed in the war, 50,000 were killed between 1939 and 1943, 1,000,000 were imprisoned.
The transport infrastructure collapsed half the rolling stock and a third of the mercantile fleet was destroyed. And that was only the beginning as the Spanish people know.
I would not want to guess how many people could/will go through this exhibition. If they just want to glide through, fine they can do that but if they want to learn something then they face problems.
The exhibition is very badly designed and lit. It is not user friendly, partially sighted friendly or physically handicapped friendly. The information on each item needs you to go up close, bend down or stretch your head back to see. The labels are not printed clearly and large enough to read in a crowd. How to move round the exhibition is not arrowed clearly. The audio aids are sparse and only two phones at each point. Parts of the exhibition are claustrophobic pushing down on you.
What does this exhibition set out to do and what does it accomplish? I referred at the beginning to what I would call a "fair play" attitude -- it leaps out to you from the moment you enter that corridor of posters, From the juxtaposition of Left and Right all through that exhibition (although the positions are reversed it has Franco on the left and Republican on the right!)
The Imperial War Museum also has a large display of the fight against fascism in the 1939-1945 war. It has a large display about the Holocaust. Both of these were caused by fascism as was the Spanish anti-fascist war.
I cannot imagine as a former primary school teacher and a Further Education College teacher that visiting groups to this exhibition would learn much from it. Frankly I can't see many adults coming new to the subject learning much from it either.