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Chapter 70; Posters of the Spanish Civil War

Posters from the Spanish Civil War represent one of the most painful documents of this historical period. As many eyewitness accounts show, posters were an essential part of the visual landscape in which people experiencing the tragedy of war carried out their daily tasks of survival.

The British writer Christopher Caudwell wrote home from Barcelona in December of 1936:

"On almost every building there are party posters: posters against Fascism, posters about the defense of Madrid, posters appealing for recruits to the militia...and even posters for the emancipation of women and against venereal disease."

 Robert Merriman, an American volunteer fighting in Spain wrote from the same city in January of 1937: 

"Streets aflame with posters of all parties for all causes, some of them put out by combinations of parties."

 In Republican territory, when a house was destroyed by the enemy bombs, propaganda agencies would fix posters on the ruins in order to denounce the enemy, hoping to turn aggression into rage. In Madrid, the capital of the Republic, shop owners were exhorted to fill their store fronts with posters: "Every space must be used to incite the spirit in its fight against the enemy," stated an article in the newspaper ABC on October 30, 1936. 

In Seville, portraits of two of the leaders of the military rebellion that originated the war, Generals Queipo de Llano and Franco, were posted everywhere shortly after the city was taken. Further from the front, a different lifestyle was accompanied by the same backdrop of war posters. Arturo Barea, a patent officer who is the author of one of the most sensitive memoirs of the war, wrote about his experience in Valencia, where he had arrived from the front in Madrid: 

"I walked slowly through an outlandish world where the war existed only in the huge anti-fascist posters and in the uniforms of lounging militia men...a wealth of loose cash was spent in hectic gaiety. Legions of people had turned rich overnight, against the background of the giant posters which were calling for sacrifices in the name of Madrid."

Aidez Espagne (Help Spain) Joan Miró, 1937 

Miro in this poster, appeals to the international community to intervene and help the Spanish people. It reflects the themes and values of Modernism, such as experimentation, fragmentation, and disillusionment.

 It was created in 1937 to raise money and support for the Republican cause in the Spanish Civil War. The poster shows a Catalan peasant raising a clenched fist, a symbol of resistance and solidarity, against a bright yellow background. 

The poster also features the colors of the Catalan flag, red and yellow, and the slogan “Help Spain” in four languages: French, English, Catalan, and Basque. 

Miro was a Catalan artist who opposed Franco’s fascist regime and sympathized with the Republican side. He moved to Paris in 1936 to escape the violence and turmoil in Spain. He was influenced by Surrealism and developed his own style of abstract and symbolic imagery. His poster was one of the many artistic responses to the Spanish Civil War, along with Picasso’s Guernica and Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia.

Grabad en vuestro pecho esta consigna atacar es vencer,
 Remember in your heart this watchword: To attack is to win
By Oliver

In the Spanish civil war Republicans were defending the legitimately elected Popular Front government against a coup staged by Generals Francisco Franco and Emilio Mola in July 1936. 

More often than not, the rebel military had the upper hand at the front. On the other hand, this poster sends the message that attacking the enemy is the way to win the war. The offensive message of this poster is reinforced by the image of two steel-like soldiers who tightly grip their rifles and hold them resolutely in the air, ready to advance against the nationalist forces. The red hearts on the soldiers' chests reflect the inner strength needed to fight the enemy. The repetition of the stylized soldiers contributes to the power of the image.

Despite encouragement from posters like this one, loyalist forces failed to launch offensives against the rebels throughout the war. In fact, they did not mount their first significant offensive, the Battle of Brunete, until a year into the war. The failure of this offensive and other loyalist offensives such as that organized in Asturias in August 1936 and the Battle of the Ebro in the summer of 1938 confirms the weakness of the Republican army and its inability to successfully lead an offensive against his enemy.

Little is known about Oliver, the artist who designed this poster, except that he worked Madrid for the Sindicato de Profesionales de las Bellas Artes and the Junta Delegada de Defensa. This poster dates between November 31, 1936 and April 21, 1937, dates of existence of the issuing entity, the Junta Delegada de Defensa de Madrid.

Josep Renau: 

Born in Valencia in 1907, Josep Renau was one of the artists most heavily involved in the Civil War. He was the director of the Republican government’s propaganda department and a member of the Communist Party. He created posters that used photomontage, surrealism, and social realism to promote the Republican cause and denounce fascism. He also designed the famous mural “The Spanish People Have a Path That Leads to a Star” for the Spanish Pavilion at the 1937 Paris World Fair.

Hoy más que nunca, VICTORIA [Today more than ever, VICTORY]. Signed: Renau, 1938. 

 This poster is an homage to the Republican Air Force, which remained loyal to the government to a larger degree than other sections of the military after the rebellion of July 1936. In the image, the planes in the "V" formation display the flag of the Republic on their wings. This is different from the red-yellow-red flag of the Spanish monarchy, which was used before and after the Republic and remains the flag of Spain to this day. Because of its close relationship with the Soviet Union, which supplied it with planes and provided training throughout the war, the Republican Air Force had strong communist sympathies. 

Antoni Clavé:  

Antoni Clavé was born in Barcelona on 5 April 1913. He was a Catalan painter and sculptor who joined the Republican army as a volunteer. He created posters that used abstract and geometric forms, bright colors, and symbolic elements to convey messages of hope, resistance, and solidarity. He also collaborated with Pablo Picasso on the stage design for the ballet “Romeo and Juliet”. During the Spanish Civil War Clavé served as a draughtsman for the Republican government but at the end of the war he fled to France. After internment at Les Haras camp in Perpignan, Clavé settled in Paris in 1939, drawing comics and working as an illustrator. During the 1940s Clavé's painting showed the stylistic influence of Bonnard, Vuillard, Rouault and especially Picasso, with whom he became acquainted in 1944.

Carles Fontserè: 

He was a Catalan painter and illustrator who was influenced by Miró and Picasso. Influenced by the art of the Mexican and Russian revolutions, Fontserè led a life that reads like a picaresque novel. Self-taught, he started work at the age of 15 in a theatre design workshop, developing his skills with cinema posters, book covers and adverts. When the civil war broke out in 1936, he became active in the union of graphic artists. He created posters that used expressionist and cubist techniques, dynamic compositions, and vivid contrasts to depict the heroism and suffering of the Republican fighters and civilians. He also designed the poster for the film “Land Without Bread” by Luis Buñuel.

Helios Gómez: 

 Spanish-born Roma artist Helios Gómez (1905–1956) was a gypsy painter and activist who was a member of the anarcho-syndicalist trade union CNT.

He was among the most prolific of the left wing anti-fascist political graphic artists from the country’s Republican period, before Franco’s Falange Party Fascists overtook the nation. Gómez was first published in the anarchist newspaper Páginas Libres, and he also illustrated books by Seville’s political authors. In 1927, political disputes forced his exile to Paris. According to the French writer, poet and museum director Jean Cassou, Gómez “was an artist because he was a revolutionary and a revolutionary because he was an artist.”

 He created posters that used woodcut, collage, and stencil methods, dark tones, and dramatic images to portray the brutality of war and the oppression of the working class. He also participated in the defense of Barcelona against the Nationalist troops.

Spanish civil wars and modernist movement in art

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the radical modernist movement emerged in art, literature and culture, aiming to challenge the traditions of the past. The Modernists were avant-garde artists, writers, musicians and architects who challenged the status-quo and sought to understand and analyse the human condition through their own unique interpretive style.

Inspired by the industrial revolution, urbanization, social changes and the tragic consequences of multiple wars, modernists experimented with new forms of expression, new materials and techniques to reflect modern life from a new perspective.

The Spanish Civil War was an international war amid tensions created under the influence of modern ideology. Across the world, from the Far East to Western Europe, dynasties, empires and aristocracies were collapsing. The paradigm proposed by socialism and Marxism promised to be the answer to eliminating vast inequalities and social injustices. It is therefore not surprising that many artists and writers have adopted their proposals.

Like their European counterparts, Spanish artists enthusiastically welcomed popular revolutionary ideas and the paradigm shift of the modern industrial world, and their art aimed to reflect these changes. But for conservatives, these rapid and radical changes were unfamiliar and threatening. Cinema, photography, the automobile, the telephone, the radio, the transformation of the family structure call into question the moral and ethical fiber of society, and at the same time, the excesses of pseudo-artists incapable of controlling their complexes, sometimes reflecting their repressed psychological emotions, added to social tensions and challenges.

The Spanish civil war of 1936-39 started with General Franco's coup against the democratically elected Republican government of Manuel Azaña, on July 17th 1936. Franco issued a manifesto announcing the military rebellion, which was broadcast from the Canary Islands. He ceased Morocco and took the full control of the protectorate and then landed in Spain, marching with his army toward Madrid. The cabinet resigned on the 18th and Borrios, a right wing republican, was made prime minister.

The Second Republic of Spain, that had came to power in 1931, was made up primarily of leftists and centrists. The king Alfonso XIII, a constitutional monarch, was forced to abdicate. Those victorious at the election then declared Spain a republic and monarchy was abolished. They enacted reforms to breakup the feudal system, and attempted to reduce the size of the military. As well, the republicans introduced a number of acts against the catholic church. State stopped paying priests' salaries, demanding that they should be paid by Roman Catholic Church’s funds. These reforms angered many privileged groups including the military, industrialists, land owners and the Roman Catholic clergy. They were supported by right wing countries in Europe that were fearful of Stalin’s Russia, in particular Italian fascists under Mussolini, and Nazi Germany after Hitler came to power in January 1933. The 1930’s Depression, weakened the government position further. Two powerful left wing political parties, the anarchists and syndicalists (powerful trade union groups), criticized Azana’s government for not paying attention to the plight of the unemployed workers and poor farmers who were devastated by the impact of the depression, and the extreme left organised strikes and riots in an effort to destabilize his government. Azana resigned as prime minister and elections were called for November 1933, in which the Nationalist won a majority of seats. The new government immediately nullified all the reforms.

A period of instability, strikes and riots ensued, and as result a general election was called for February 1936, in which Azana's Popular Front won and once again he became prime minister. However, the ongoing instability intensified. Franco's coup against Azana made some headway in parts of the country but in Catalonia, and especially Barcelona, the CNT (Anarcho-Syndicalist union) resisted fiercely. They declared a general strike and took to the streets looking for arms which the government refused to give them. In the end they stormed the barracks, and took what they needed. The Republicans were supported by the European left and the Soviet Union, while the Nationalists were armed and equipped by the Fascist governments of Germany and Italy.

The Spanish Civil War would prove not only both tragic and bloody, but also as David Sanders writes:
..retained an evocative quality which the other crises preceding World War II lack. Although its concrete result was a fascist triumph, it also offered international communism its greatest political opportunity since the Soviet revolution by converting the concept of a united front against fascism from a topic for discussion to battlefield reality. And, long before the surrender of of Madrid, it had inspired an impressive literature, even though party line reportage must be entered into the canon with Man's Hope and For Whom the Bell Tolls.

The inescapable relationship between politics and writing in this war is, of course, the obscuring factor in judging the real worth of its literature . This problem of how far communist objectives came to be shared by noncommunist writers may be seen most clearly in the relevant works of Ernest Hemingway. No other writer, so involved , was more provably noncommunist than the author of Green Hills of Africa, yet none was to call more urgently for militant struggle against fascists. Twenty years later, Hemingway, of all American writers dealing with the struggle, has been most consistently faithful to his early convictions."
Studying the amazing works of the graphic artists who dealt with the Spanish civil war, and here we can see the works of artists both, the Nationalist and the Republican, sides, it would be very difficult to disagree with Hemingway's profound  judgement.

Spanish Falangists Posters;

At the same time, in Germany, Hitler was fighting against decadent art or “Entartete Kunst”. Two months after the opening of the Paris World's Fair, perhaps in response to the enthusiastic reception given to Spanish artists in that country's pavilion, Rudolf Ziegler and the Nazi Party organized an exhibition on "the degenerate art” in Munich from July 19 to November 30, 1937. 

740 modern works were exhibited in the Degenerate Art show in Munich in order to “educate” the public on the “art of decay.” The exhibition purported to demonstrate that modernist tendencies, such as abstraction, are the result of genetic inferiority and society’s moral decline. An explicit parallel, for example, was drawn between modernism and mental illness. Some of those works were later destroyed; others, officially declared “internationally marketable,” were sold through art dealers acting on behalf of the German government.

The Spanish nationalists'  Falangist posters, which emphasized national pride and patriotic slogans, were influenced by images similar to those of the fascists in Germany and Italy. On the other hand, the Republicans wanted to follow the Soviet revolutionary spirit and develop it. Therefor  their emphasis was on the peasant and patriotic style of the scythe and clenched fist and on the provocation of the oppressed worker in the design of their communication. Of course, Republican posters outnumbered nationalist posters, mainly because many Republican artists came from Barcelona and the largely anti-fascist cities, that monopolized the printing shops. They were the ones who sent out their bold, colorful and artistic posters with inspiring messages to the toiling masses.

The Falangists used unity as the main message of their communication. In their propaganda, they accused the Republicans of sowing chaos and disorder. In doing so, they fostered their loyalty to a strong and unifying leader, generalist Francisco Franco, who could lead them to resolve the country's problems and crisis.

“Jamás” (Never) is a Nationalist poster that depicts the communists as a gigantic, inhuman beast while the Nationalist soldier stands defiantly, protecting the Catholic families.

“Squeeze hard, comrade!!”  

“Communism destroys the family.” This Nationalist poster depicts the communist as a murderous brute. The father and husband lays dead while his wife wails, and his daughter is carried off

To arms: country, bread and justice, by Juan Cabanas
The heraldic image of a bundle of arrows, known as "el yugo y las flechas" was created for the Isabel and Ferdinand, who ruled in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. Their marriage and the union of Castile and Aragon which gave birth to Spain is represented by the bundle of arrows. The F was the first letter of Fernand's name, and the Y the first letter of Isabella's, spelled in the older style of Ysabel. Franco's Falangists adopted the symbolism of monarchism and unity to fight for a divided Spain.

To speak of the Falange is to name Spain

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