The Spanish Civil War raised passions with British artists in a way that few such conflicts have done; in part a response to horror at the actions of Franco’s elected government, supported by Germany and Italy, against the reasonable aspirations of its own people; in part a premonition of what the Civil War would mean if it spread further across Europe.
The exhibition at the Laing Gallery in Newcastle displays 80 works by leading British artists of that period including Henry Moore, Edward Burra, Wyndham Lewis and Roland Penrose, with later works by R.B. Kitaj who visited Catalonia in the 1960s and 1970s. Artists became involved in the conflict through their work, through fundraising efforts and, in some cases, by even joining the Republicans – more than 2,500 people from Britain and Ireland joined 35,000 volunteers from 53 countries to support the Republicans in Spain; the painter Felicia Browne being the first Briton to be killed in the conflict.
The bombing of civilians in the Spanish Republican cities of Barcelona, Madrid and Valencia caused widespread condemnation in Britain, as did the destruction of Guernica, the ancient capital of the Basque region of Spain, which was bombed by German and Italian planes on behalf of Franco’s government and which inspired Picasso to create one of his greatest works Guernica, which toured the UK in 1938.
Guernica is in delicate condition and cannot today travel from its home in Spain, but the exhibition shows Picasso’s Weeping Woman from the Tate Gallery, one of several paintings based on figures in the mural, this one showing a weeping woman holding her dead child, for which Picasso’s lover Dora Maar was the model.
The war had a human impact. Refugee children, many of whom had lost their homes and their families, were taken in by Britain and other countries; 4000 children and their teachers arrived at Southampton on the steam ship Habaña to be sent to homes financed by volunteers, trade unions and church groups around the UK. Over 500,000 Spanish Republicans left Spain for France and were interned in camps there.
In the exhibition, Walter Nessler’s work Premonition, painted in 1937 and now in the Royal Air Force Museum, does indeed provide an eerie premonition of what would happen to London a few years later when it was bombed during the Second World War.