Art by Emily Bao.
Prior to the Spanish Civil War, art was typically apolitical, however, as seen in the works of Pablo Picasso and Joan Miro, during the war, art was employed to make political statements. As Picasso states, “painting is not made to decorate apartments. It’s an offensive and defensive weapon against the enemy.” He emphasizes the possibility to manipulate a viewer with a piece of art; whether it be to sway someone to one side or to create a harmful image of the other side, art can be a powerful force during times of war. This use of art is specifically evident during the time of the Spanish Civil War. From 1936 to 1939, the Nationalists – led by General Francisco Franco – and the Spanish Republic – led by socialist Francisco Largo Caballero – fought for power and control of Spain. The Nationalists consisted of primarily businessmen and landowners whereas the Republic consisted of farm and urban workers as well as the educated middle class. As conflict rose over time, artists shifted their focus. Before the war began, surrealism was rising in popularity, and politics did not have much of a place in art. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, art still remained rather apolitical, however, the turmoil pushed surrealists artists like Pablo Picasso and Joan Miro to create pieces sharing their political stances against fascism.
In 1937, people worldwide were struggling due to the Great Depression. In response, the Paris World Exposition was held. The exposition was intended to provide jobs to the unemployed and to help boost the economy. Different European countries had their own pavilions at the Exposition: The German and Soviet pavilions were meant to display power and superiority whereas the Spanish pavilion aimed to be a more subtle display of support for the Republic during the war. The Republic commissioned artists like Pablo Picasso and Joan Miro to create political pieces that demonstrated anti-fascism and anti-Francoism. What resulted was one of the most anti-war symbols in history: Picasso’s Guernica, depicting the horror and pain of the civil war, a contrasting piece that demonstrated hope for Republic success, Miro’s The Reaper, was also on display at the Exposition
In his early years, Picasso was an opponent to mixing politics with arts but as war became imminent, he felt the need to speak out against the rise of fascism. He was an activist in support of the Republic as well as an open Anti-Francoist. Surprisingly, when he was first commissioned by the Republic for the Paris World Exposition, he was going to paint an apolitical piece despite the wishes of the Republic for a political message. However, after the bombing at Guernica, he adjusted his original vision. On April 26th, 1936, the quiet town of Guernica was attacked by Nazi and Italian bombers. Franco chose Guernica as a symbolic target because it was the first place in Basque County where democracy was established; hundreds of people were killed in the attack. The bombing at Guernica was one of the war’s first assaults on innocent citizens; Franco wanted to terrify those who did not support him. Due to his hatred towards the regime and his horror at the violence that occurred, Picasso painted the Guernica. The intention of the piece was to remove the sense of heroism that is often attached to war. Ingeniously, Picasso not only used his piece as a vessel for his own political view but also made it a symbol of Anti-Francoism for all Spanish artists. Standing at 11.5 feet tall and 25.5 feet wide, Guernica was a monstrosity of a piece filled with anguish and suffering. Picasso stated: “In Guernica, I clearly express my abhorrence of the military caste which has sunk Spain in an ocean of pain and death.” He openly shared his stance towards the violence brought on by the Nationalists, and he immortalized the horror of what occurred on that day.
While Picasso created a piece showing the pain and suffering that Franco caused, Miro, depicted an image of Republic support and defiant optimism. Miro, like Picasso, wished to make a social statement about what was occurring in his homeland. During the 1920s and 1930s, he resided in Paris like many other artists; however, he never chose to become a French citizen and remained loyal to the Spanish republic. Due to his commitment to the Spanish cause and his Catalan roots, he was also asked to create a piece for the Spanish pavilion. In Miro’s mind, being Catalan was associated with independence and heroism; therefore, he created The Reaper also known as Catalan Peasant in Revolt. The painting shows a peasant whose torso appears to be rising from the earth, and the figure is meant to be representational of El Segador, a famous figure of Catalan independence, showing the Republic’s hope for success; he is shown holding a sickle, defying Francoism. Unlike Picasso whose painting shows the pain of war and the horrifying results, Miro’s artwork shares the possibility of success and provides the viewer with a sense of hope for the future of the Republic.
In another version of The Reaper titled Help Spain or Aidez l’Espagne which was intended to be a French postage stamp, Miro wrote the following accompaniment: “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 that will astonish the world.” He demonstrates his belief in the eventual success of the Spanish republic as their power is not “spent.” Miro provides the viewer with a sense of Republican strength and potential. In 1978, He said the following about his intentions for Aidez l’Espagne: “I wanted it to have great visual impact. That was the important thing. I was standing up against everything I considered antiquated and vesting my hopes in something that seemed to me more human, more genuine.” Miro paints the power of the peasant and the “hope” in “something that seemed more human, more genuine.” While Picasso’s piece bears faint optimism, Miro’s provides the viewer with a sense of empowerment with the bold colors and fighting spirit of Segador.
In the time of the Spanish Civil War, Pablo Picasso and Joan Miro showed the power that art has and how it has the potential to influence viewers. They both used their art as a vessel for their own anti-fascist agendas. Picasso and Miro are only two examples of artists politicizing their pieces; today, much art from Instagram to newspapers contains political statements. Most pieces are used primarily to draw attention to a prominent issue in society. Many of the protests occurring for the Black Lives Matter Movement and Protect Asian Lives Movement use art as a weapon against oppression through signs, murals, sculptures, and more. Nikkolas Smith is a concept artist whose pieces have been featured on TIME magazine and The New York Post; his focus on Black culture. His imagine envoke viewers emotional reactions as well as prompt reflection. Even today, art is more than decoration it holds the power to manipulate viewers.
McCloskey, Barbara. Artists of World War II. N.p.: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2005. (a book)