It’s well known that from 1933 to 1939, the battleground for ideas that was the Spanish Civil War proved an irresistible magnet for leading poets and writers, including WH Auden, George Orwell and Stephen Spender
But until now now the response of Britain’s artists to the civil war, and in particular its importance and influence on leading establishment figures from Wyndham Lewis and Henry Moore to Barbara Hepworth, has gone unnoticed, bar the odd footnote in artist monographs.
Now, a new exhibition and publication, the result of two years of research by Pallant House Gallery curator Simon Martin, aims to rectify that.
It shows how artists responded to the civilian violence that was brought closer than ever to home by the very first photographic war reportage and Pathé newsreels. More than that, it reveals how a fascinating, purely visual debate took place between artists grappling with how best to respond to a public war.
While no unified movement emerged from the period, what is played out on the exhibition walls is a battle of styles ― among them Abstract, Surrealist and Social Realist.
The outcome of this would provide a crucial language in the dark years to come. As Martin says, ‘It wasn’t like World War II broke out and suddenly there were war artists. Henry Moore didn’t just walk down into the underground and produce those works.
‘When you see his drawings and lithograph of Spanish prisoners [at Pallant House], you see that he was already thinking about issues of conflict and suffering years before.’
Moore’s Spanish Prisoner (1939) is a semi-abstract image of a figurative head looking through bars and barbed wire. The lithograph was never published because World War II got in the way, Martin says.
‘But you can see how it leads on to other works such as Head (1939) and Helmet Head (1950), where you have the same form within this protective and also prison-like environment. These days we romanticise the poets who went to Spain, but Henry Moore, like Jacob Epstein, tried to go and was denied a visa by the British government.’
Works by several British artists who did volunteer are on show, however, including drawings by the first British volunteer to be killed in Spain, artist Felicia Browne, who was shot while carrying a stretcher. Browne’s drawings were brought back from Spain and exhibited in England shortly after her death.
‘For many people,’ explains Martin, ‘[Felicia Browne's posthumous] show encapsulated an important dilemma among artists and intellectuals ― whether to create work or to engage directly.’ Crucially, this debate culminated in the display of Picasso’s Guernica (1937) in London in 1938.
The British Surrealist and collector Roland Penrose brought the painting to England from Paris, just a year after the Germans bombed the Spanish city of Guernica on behalf of Franco’s nationalists.
‘It was the first civilian-targeted bombardment in Europe and a game changer for European public opinion,’ says Martin. ‘It's a fascinating part of the story because when the painting was shown at the New Burlington Galleries in the West End about 3,000 people saw it. But when afterwards it was shown at the Whitechapel Gallery, in a working class area, about 14,000 people went to see it. There was a big debate in the 1930s as to whether abstract art was understandable, and whether it could be political. But of course people went to see Guernica and its visceral power immediately conveyed an anti-war message. People got it.’
Penrose, who also bought Picasso’s iconic Weeping Woman (1937), had his own motives for displaying the paintings in London, Martin suggests. Not only did he want to rouse the public’s sympathies, but to prove an aesthetic point.
So why has it taken so long to bring this story to light? ‘It’s been overshadowed by the World Wars,’ Martin explains. ‘But also a lot of the work was ephemeral.
‘Artists from the Euston Road group, Graham Bell and Duncan Grant, made banners based on Goya’s Disasters of War, and Barbara Hepworth created an extraordinary maquette for a monument to the Spanish Civil War. We have a photograph of it but that was destroyed, ironically, when her studio was bombed.’
Above all, though, Martin is interested in his lesser-known discoveries. Pallant House, located in a Grade I-listed townhouse in Chichester, 80 miles from London, has established a reputation over the years for uncovering the stories of overlooked artists; the gallery staged the first Edward Burra show for 25 years in 2011, the same year that one of Burra’s paintings fetched a record-breaking £2m at auction.
When asked for his favourite works in the current show, the curator points to a painting by Clive Branson. Second cousin to the entrepreneur Richard, Branson lived in Battersea, London, with his aristocratic Communist wife who spent her mornings selling copies of the Daily Worker newspaper. He painted a scene of working class Londoners protesting with Union Jacks and Spanish Republican flags [see top of the page]. ‘It really gives you an insight into how ordinary people engaged with the issues,’ says Martin.