‘Conscience and Conflict’ – An exhibition at Pallant House Gallery!
On Sunday, I went along to the ‘Conscience and Conflict: British Artists and The Spanish Civil War’ exhibition at Pallant House Gallery. Having visited Catalunya a few times now and even spending a week in Tarrega taking part in performance workshops with the theme of Guernica, I thought this would be something of personal interest to me.
I’ve not been to the upstairs galleries before, only the De’Longhi room for Barbara Rae’s prints (read the blog here), and I loved the layout of the house, with furniture from beds to chaise longues amongst the art. On viewing one high-back chair, a sculpture, spilling its velvet seat out onto the floor, I thought it was as if it were liquid and moving. I love to explore old houses and although this is a gallery, the house itself feels like taking a tour of a grand manor house! Tucked away in the bedroom, in a cupboard, there was an art piece of open mussels with red velvet tucked inside. Their location and suggestion of feminine form intrigued me and on further research, I found it is a piece of the installation ‘Shell’ by Susie MacMurry (2007). Some 20,000 mussels were used to line the stairwell, as a response to the history of the house and the couple who lived there.
The Spanish Civil War exhibition is in the top floor galleries and the rooms have been divided in to themed sections. From ‘Historical Parallels: from past and present’ and ‘Amongst the ruins: from Guernica to the Threat of Bombing’ to ‘The British Surrealist Group’ and ‘Mobilising Public Opinion’, each room took you in to a different part of that world at that time. The exhibition features more than 80 artworks from painting and textiles, to sculpture and photography.
British artists such as Henry Moore, Edward Burra, FE McWilliam, SW Hayter and John Armstrong have works on display. One of Burra’s watercolours ‘Medusa’ (1938) is on display in the surrealist group’s room. Its macabre depth and layers of tragic imagery were influenced by his own experience of the conflict there and the things he saw.
In the first room, numerous political posters hang on the walls: from satirical posters of Franco, campaigns for relief from arms and medical aid to milk and ‘Help For Spain’. In particular I was drawn to a photograph poster by Pere Catala-Pic, ‘Let’s Squash Fascism’. A traditional peasant Catalan sandal (espardenya) squashes a swastika, a symbol of fascism. The message is clear and depicts the people’s strength against the regime. About the room are some cabinets with objects. Seen in one is an ambulance number plate covered in bullet holes whilst trying to deliver medical aid to refugees. The feeling of sorrow, anger and defiance in this room, truly showed the scale of the various campaigns and the desperation for support and intervention.
Protests for British intervention of Franco’s regime demonstrated the majority of British opinion and on one wall there is a mask of Neville Chamberlains face, worn in the May Day parade of 1938. FE McWilliam, sculptor and artist, made four to be worn by the artists who led the parade. With a parody of his likeness to Hitler as they walked, they protested the appeasement with Germany and non-intervention in Spain. The Artists International Association (AIA) started numerous campaigns such as, ‘Artists Help Spain’ (1936), to help raise support and funds for relief. The British Surrealist Group also got involved and published manifesto’s such as, ‘Arms For Spain’ in protest to the British policy of non-intervention, whilst Franco was receiving further arms and support from Germany and Italy.
The highlight of the exhibition is most certainly Picasso’s ‘Weeping Woman’ (1937). Based on the woman carrying her dead child in his painting ‘Guernica’, she is a symbol of the anguish and pain the conflict brought to the Basque country. Her tears demonstrate the wide spread suffering and in her eyes you can see tiny fighter planes. I returned to this painting I think 4 or 5 times. To be so close to one of Picasso’s most well-known pieces and the emotion it evoked was moving and lent itself to the intensity and reality of the exhibition as a whole for me. They are also exhibiting a ‘Weeping Woman’ etching by Picasso, as well as some of his postcard designs, which were initially intended to be made up and sold to help raise funds for relief, but never went in to production.
Textiles also feature in the exhibition with banners from the British Battalion Volunteers and one sewn by the women of Barcelona in 1938, which was presented to the Battalion at their farewell parade. Embroidered in to the cloth are the names of the some of the towns & villages affected, such as Gandessa, Ebro, Cordoba, Madrid and Aragon.
Across from the main gallery were images of refugee children with the tagline ‘Help Them To Forget’. Refugee children were originally refused entry in to the UK as it infringed the non-intervention political agreement. Thousands of children were orphaned, abducted or went ‘missing’ during the Franco years, with a shocking figure of 30,000 being the ‘lost children of Franco’. However in 1937, Britain agreed to allow in refugee children on the promise it had no financial responsibility for them; and following this were campaigns for funds and support for the Basque children refugees.
The exhibition layout takes you on a journey beginning with political posters and campaigns for relief, through to destruction, death and suffering and the aftermath, the refugees, the prisoners detained and the hauntings. It tells the untold story of the artists and their journey, highlighting their involvement and the messages their art brought to the people.
Down in the foyer of the gallery is a banner of Picasso’s Guernica, sewn by artists and activists and touring with the exhibition. I went to see the banner before going up to the gallery and I have to say that on coming down I went and looked again; the intensity had grown and the chaos of anguish and fear, shapes and surrealism, seemed to have doubled in impact and clarity.
Robynne Willowby, November 2014