La Maleta Mexicana

Since moving to Barcelona several events of regional import have occurred. A ban on bullfighting in Catalonia, viewed as a cruel and solely Castillian pastime, has been put into effect. The Popular Party, which began from the ashes of Franquismo and still contains elements of it, has ejected the PSOE from national power. Wide scale revelations of Catholic social agencies falsely pronouncing newborn children dead to their mothers so that their children could be given to deserving Francoists has happened. Additionally, the Civil War pictures of Robert Capa, Chim (David Seymour) and Gerda Taro have returned to Spain. While this last event is of the least world-historical significance, there is good cause to recognize the pictures themselves for their artistic value but to see in it also a return of something precious once lost to Spain’s cultural history. If it weren’t for the fact that the photos reproducible, the return of the photos to Catalonia for the first time would be similar to the return of the Elgin marbles to Greece.

The Civil War is a taboo topic in Spanish society. According to one of my Spanish instructors, the extent of its teaching in schools is that “it happened” and the only to the extent that Franco took power. The sundry reasons for the war, the scope of the tragedy during the war and that afterwards political purges against those sympathetic to the Second Republic killed tens of thousands more are disavowed. Yet what cannot be silenced is the profound influence that such occurrences had on the current makeup of Spanish society. When all that is spoken of is that a political liberalization followed Franco’s death it ignores the fact that many of the potential political activists, intellectuals and other people that could have been significant in institutional statecraft or non-governmental structures were exterminated.

Yet despite the potentially painful and conflict inducing nature of this exhibit, this hasn’t stopped many people from visiting the museum and coming to see them. I have no figures to say just how many people have gone, but I can relate that it wasn’t until the second time that I went to the museum that I was able to see the pictures as the first time the exhibition was filled to capacity and had a long line of people going outside of the MNAC.

The exhibition was organized from the start of the Civil War. The narrative thrust of the pictures, from the speeches of agitators and crowd shots of peasants and factory workers, the first preparations of defense from an assault by those that had once been their neighbors, the ruins following aerial raids, and ground combat was gave an idea of what was going on, however with the above historical understanding there is many things implicitly missing. Unseen are the roving squads of Nationalists going through conquered cities at night in search of those that had been enemies or sympathizers by day. Visible are the poor conditions that the Republican Army and International brigades fought under and their stoic faces when preparing for an air raid by Nazi planes. At the end of the exhibition we learn through that the photographers felt they must flee to Paris and then the United States in order to survive the continued victories of fascism.

The exhibit is designed to show a dialogue between these pictures that were known of and printed in international magazines documenting the war along with the 4,500 other negatives that hadn’t been published. It exudes a certain sadness to it in that not only is the effect of though we see widely publicized pictured hinting at what a new conflict would look like amidst the advanced industrial powers of Europe, people were still unwilling to mobilize in order to prevent it’s occurrence. Along with the pictures themselves were two videos, one of which was an American newsreel, with subtitles in Spanish and the other a film reel shot by Capa, as well as original magazines from the period which used the pictures of the three authors. One of these magazines includes an article by Winston Churchill, which tellingly states that unless the United States is willing to openly declare that it won’t allow any one power to control the European continent that there will be war. Such articles are an interesting accent to the exhibition as they openly hint at the historical context outside the immediate pictures. It displays not only the “special relationship” between Britain and the United States, but the idealistic isolationism of the latter and the devastating effects of it’s unwillingness to replicate the balance of power diplomatic policy used by Britain for hundreds of years.

In this regards, despite the fact that very little attention is given to the details of the Spanish Civil War, Henry Kissinger’s writing about this in Diplomacy is highly insightful in pointing out the context wherein virtually every Western power saw a Fascist Spain as less of a danger to their interests than they did a marginally Leftist Spain presumably tied to the Soviet Union. That such a position was radically misinformed, as the Spanish Republicans and Libertarian Communists were not puppets tied to Stalin and certain sections of the myriad groups supporting the left only later came under Soviet influence after the total isolation by the world community left it little choice, only became clear in hindsight for those involved.

While all of this is only visible through a dialectical reading of the pictures, the pictures themselves are significant not only in their documentary nature but in their composition as well. The photos of Branguli, which I wrote about earlier, are another set of images quite literally helps provide a fuller picture to the economic and political developments occurring in Barcelona at this time.

If you cannot get the chance to see them in person – I would highly recommend buying the book showing all of these once thought to be lost pictures.

I’ve not gone into too much detail on the history of the photographers as there is an excellent documentary on Capa and La Maleta Mexicana that once released is eminently worth viewing.