Conscience and Conflict

Issue section: 

Many will be familiar with writers such as George Orwell, who wrote about the Spanish Civil War. Less well known is the response of British visual artists. They are splendidly surveyed in this ground-breaking exhibition which marks the 75th anniversary of the end of the war.

This multimedia show includes many fascinating paintings, sculpture, photography, posters, banners of International Brigade battalions and even billboards that encouraged people to contribute food supplies to Spain.

Around 2,500 volunteers went from the British Isles to support the Republican government. They included artists such as Felicia Browne who was the first volunteer to die and whose work is exhibited here. Another visitor to Spain in 1936 was Ursula Mc Cannell, then aged 13, who went on to produce some evocative paintings of refugees in 1939. She is one of the women artists featured in the exhibition.

One of the most striking paintings is Weeping Woman (1937) by the Spanish artist Pablo Picasso. This is part of his Guernica group, which was exhibited in London in 1938 and 1939 and strongly affected other artists and the British public. Although Guernica itself, his most famous war painting, is not here, there is a textile version of it on display in the gallery foyer. This has been created by a variety of artists and activists in southern England. Most notable is the use of a keffiyeh — the symbol of Palestinian protest.

A great strength of the exhibition is the abundance of artworks showing the variety of campaigns that were run in Britain to support the Republicans. These include some realist paintings such as Demonstration in Battersea (1939) by Clive Branson, a member of the Communist Party. There are also several surrealist works, such as Henry Moore’s Spanish Prisoner (1939).

The Artists International Association, which comprised left wing artists of all types, held exhibitions to raise money for Spain. There are some fine posters and photographs of billboards that were painted individually around London. An example of the aid provided is a plate from an ambulance which was donated, “From the workers of Battersea to the defenders of democracy in Spain”.

One eye-catching photograph shows a surrealist protest on the May Day procession in London in 1938, when Roland Penrose and other artists wore Neville Chamberlain masks to protest at the government policy of non-intervention. Also hard hitting is the critique of the appalling role of the Catholic church in the conflict.

Of particular interest are photographs of some of the 4,000 Basque refugee children who came to Southampton in 1937. Refused any help from the government, they were looked after by local trade unionists and churches. This is an excellent and rare exhibition which is well worth visiting.