The Spanish Civil War was a particularly bloody war. It was a time of intense turmoil that generated inspiration for artists to express the situation and their feelings. Spanish Civil War art gives us incredible insight into the agony and suffering that people went through in a modern war in which civilian populations were very much part of the battlefield.
From horror to hopelessness to pain and desperation, these images capture the emotions and experiences that were present at the time and were felt long after the guns had fallen silent.
1. Salvador Dalí, Soft Construction with Boiled Beans (Premonition of Civil War), 1936
Unlike many of his contemporaries, Salvador Dalí did not take sides during the Spanish Civil War. He seemed to vacillate from one extreme to the other, and his refusal to renounce Nationalism brought much ire from his peers. Nevertheless, his art is no less poignant.
Soft Construction with Boiled Beans depicts the state of Spain just before the war. In torment, a disjointed, tortured body tears itself apart. The chaotic absurdity hints at a malevolence that is to cause immeasurable pain to a confused nation. The meaning of the mysterious addition of boiled beans can only be guessed.
2. Pablo Picasso, Guernica, 1937
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It is impossible to examine the art of the Spanish Civil War without mentioning the masterpiece that is Picasso’s Guernica. Widely regarded as the most powerful anti-war painting in the world, one of its most striking features is its size. It measures 3.49 meters (11 feet 5 inches) tall and 7.76 meters (25 feet 6 inches) across. This massive piece of art was painted in response to the 1937 bombing of Picasso’s hometown of Guernica by the Italian and German air forces at the request of the Spanish Nationalists.
In 1937, Picasso was approached by the Republican government and asked to create a mural for the 1937 Paris World’s Fair to raise awareness about the plight of Spain. Picasso accepted the commission and worked half-heartedly on it. Upon hearing of the bombing of his hometown, Picasso scrapped his original idea, and Guernica was born.
The painting depicts the suffering of the victims of that event, and upon completion, it immediately drew widespread international attention to the horrors of what was happening in Spain.
3. André Fougeron, Martyred Spain, 1937
André Fougeron made his public debut with Martyred Spain, included in the 1937 Salon des surindépendants in Paris. It immediately marked him as a political leftist.
Unlike Guernica, which deals with the horror of the moment, Martyred Spain by André Fougeron deals with the immediate result just after the traumatic event. The painting depicts a rotting horse and a woman who had been raped. It pulls no punches, and the honesty presented is genuinely unsettling.
The colors used to depict the woman are indicative of the colors used to represent Spain, while the whole image is a metaphor for the condition that the Republic of Spain was in.
4. Frank Brangwyn, For the Relief of Women and Children in Spain, 1936-37
It wasn’t just Spanish artists who felt the need to depict scenes from the Spanish Civil War. Many artists abroad saw what was happening in Spain as a precursor to what would happen in the rest of Europe.
Frank Brangwyn’s For the Relief of Women and Children in Spain shows helpless children clinging to a woman who represents hope. Meanwhile, the city they are evacuating burns in the background. Instead of focusing on fighting, the artist has focused on the real aspect of civilian suffering as a way to respond to the dangers of modern, international war.
5. Edward Burra, The Watcher
Like Salvador Dalí, Edward Burra, an Englishman, received negative feedback over his stance on the Spanish Civil War. While the vast majority of his contemporaries supported the Spanish Republicans by creating art and protesting in the streets of England, Edward Burra supported the Nationalist cause. Like Dalí’s works, Burra’s art makes no moralistic pleas but simply depicts the absurdity of a land gone completely mad. The Watcher depicts faceless figures. An ominous being in a flowing red cape confronts another in a cardinal’s hat while around them are ancient ruins.
6. Joan Miró, Help Spain, 1937
The work of Joan Miró is difficult to define. The foundation of his art was most notably surrealist but was influenced by Fauvism and Expressionism. For over two decades, at the beginning of his art career, he managed to keep politics out of his art, but the intensity of the Spanish Civil War forced him to rethink his principles.
Invited to the International Exposition of Art and Technology in Modern Life, held in Paris in 1937, Miró quickly realized the event was an opportunity to spread awareness of the plight of the Spanish Republic.
Originally designed to be a postage stamp, Aidez L’Espagne evolved into a poster. The theme is a common one – a citizen of Spain, likely a peasant, holding his fist in the air. The proportions are morphed in Miró’s trademark style, along with bold, flat colors that mimic the colors associated with Spain. Underneath his poster, he wrote,
“In the present struggle I see, on the Fascist side, spent forces; on the opposite side, the people, whose boundless creative will gives Spain an impetus which will astonish the world.”
7. J. Pons, Lina Ódena, 1937
While little is known about the artist, this piece of Spanish Civil War art is famous for its subject. Lina Ódena was a devoted communist who fought for the Republican cause during the war. While working as a reporter for Mundo Obrero, she became lost and was seized by Falangist troops. Before they realized the prize they had captured, she pulled out a gun and shot herself. She instantly became a martyr for the Republican cause.
The painting also serves to show the role of women in the war. They were not relegated to the sidelines but regularly, and en masse, took an active part in the war, even fighting alongside the men on the frontlines.
8. Martí Bas, Executions at Badajoz Bull Ring, 1937
When the Nationalists took the town of Badajoz, mass executions were carried out. The entire city turned into a bloodbath. Martí Bas’ Executions at Badajoz Bull Ring is a chilling representation of this chapter of the Spanish Civil War. The victims throw their hands in the air, surrendering, pleading for mercy in desperation. Their killers, their faces obscured, represent a ruthlessness that does not have the humanity required to be appealed to. Meanwhile, onlookers in the stands watch on in nonchalance, marking the indifference that human beings have to the suffering of others.
9. Salvador Dalí, The Face of War, 1940
Salvador Dalí painted The Face of War after the Spanish War had concluded. He returned home from France (fleeing another war) to find his life in Spain had been destroyed. His home was in ruins, and his sister had been imprisoned and tortured by Nationalists.
Dalí fled to the United States, where he painted The Face of War in 1940. His handprint can be seen in the lower right-hand corner of the painting, and despite the interpretation of the snakes representing the treachery of the Nationalists who are seen to have destroyed Spain, Dalí nevertheless met with Francisco Franco in his later life and painted a portrait of his granddaughter.
The Memories of the Spanish Civil War
Art of the Spanish Civil War need not be confined to the time period in which the war happened. The war is still depicted today and has inspired street art in the form of murals that capture the spirit of those still fighting against fascism.
The Spanish Civil War produced many themes in art. Among the depictions, the artists used suffering, confusion, sadness, tragedy, chaos, and horror as just some of the ideas they wanted to express.
There is little positivity to be drawn from these remarkable pieces of art other than perfectly capturing the spirit of the time in Spain when a country was torn apart, causing irreparable damage and deep wounds which still exist as scars today.
Bender, Rebecca M. Painting the Spanish Civil War. October 2013. https://rebeccambender.com/2013/10/07/painting-the-spanish-civil-war/
Grass, Kacper. Art of the Spanish Civil War: Political Propaganda and the Modernist Avant-Garde. Daily Art Magazine
Conscience and Conflict: British Artists and the Spanish Civil War (exhibition). https://pallant.org.uk/whats-on/conscience-and-conflict-british-artists-and-the-spanish-civil-war/