Art and Diplomacy in Franco’s Spain

The Pact of Madrid, signed on 26 September 1953, brought the United States into a controversial alliance with Spain’s fascist government, ruled over by General Francisco Franco. Since the end of World War II, and the defeat of its Axis collaborators, Spain had been largely isolated from the international community and formally excluded in a UN resolution of 1946. But the deepening Cold War presented a glimmer of hope for Spain’s diplomatic future.

With the Soviet Union strengthening its influence over the Eastern Bloc, and the Marshall Plan barely containing the rise of Communism in failing European states, the United States began to see Francoist Spain as the lesser of two evils. In return for America giving Spain billions of dollars in military aid between 1954 and 1989, the United States was allowed to use Spanish territory to operate air and naval bases, a valuable deterrent to the USSR and a strategic preparation for the possible outbreak of World War III. The pact helped to ease international tensions and Spain was welcomed back into the United Nations in 1955.

The pact also transformed the fate of art in Spain. As recently shown in the exhibition Campo Cerrado: Spanish Art 1939–1953, at Madrid’s Museo Reina Sofía, during Spain’s years of post-WW2 isolation, artists had grappled with how to conceive of their nation. After Picasso’s masterpiece of 1937, Guernica, had famously exposed the ruthlessness of Franco’s regime, and many artists had died or been exiled as a result of the Spanish Civil War, those who remained found themselves living in an artistic vacuum. Campo Cerrado explored how some artists submitted to Francoism, benefiting from the resurgence of academic art and propaganda, while others fell victim to repression and censorship. However, unlike other 20th-century European dictatorships – including Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union – which attempted to stamp out modern art, a variety of styles were allowed to develop in Spain, so long as the artists refrained from criticising the regime.

Franco’s tolerance of modern art presented a great opportunity for cultural diplomacy, when Spain entered into its anticommunist alliance with the United States, at the time seen as the centre of the modern art world. Keen to brush off its image as a poor and backward dictatorship, Spain put modern art at the forefront of its efforts to present the country internationally as sophisticated and progressive. In attempting to mirror America’s successful strategy of associating abstract art with the concept of freedom, the Spanish government was even willing to shamelessly appropriate the work of anti-Franco artists, such as Picasso and Joan Miró, to extend the international success of its diplomatic mission.

Not long after the US-Spain pact was signed, two exhibitions of modern US art were assembled by curators at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and presented in Spain: Modern Art in the United States in Barcelona in 1956; and The New American Painting in Madrid in 1958. In return, exhibitions of Spanish art were shown at MoMA and the Tate Gallery in London. In the midst of this cultural exchange, in December 1959, Eisenhower travelled to Madrid to meet Franco, marking the first official visit to Spain by a US president.

New Spanish Painting and Sculpture – which ran from 20 July to 28 September 1960 at MoMA and travelled to venues across the US over the next two years – was billed as “the first survey of avant-garde Spanish art to tour the United States”. And thanks to MoMA’s newly-digitised collection of exhibition documents and photos it is now open to visitors once more. Meanwhile, further stories of art in Cold War Spain can be seen in the Museo Reina Sofía’s new display of works from its permanent collection, Is the War Over? Art in a Divided World (1945–1968). You can also read more about Franco’s use of cultural diplomacy in Germán Páez’s essay on

Images: Pablo Picasso, Guernica, 1937. Oil on canvas, 349 cm × 776 cm. Museo Reina Sofia, Madrid, Spain; Installation view of New Spanish Painting and Sculpture, 20 July – 28 September 1960 at MoMA. Courtesy Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York.

The Non-Aligned Movement and the Birth of Computer Art

On 1 September 1961, the presidents of Egypt, Ghana, Indian, Indonesia and Yugoslavia gathered in the latter’s capital of Belgrade to form the Non-Aligned Movement. The group shared a commitment to remaining neutral in the Cold War, and this informal alliance offered a way to protect their developing countries from being absorbed into either of the rival blocs of nations, led by the United States and the Soviet Union. Today, the Non-Aligned Movement has outlasted the Cold War, and continues to provide its 120 member states with an opportunity to promote the interests of the world’s poorer nations.

Just as the Non-Aligned Movement was getting underway in Belgrade, elsewhere in Yugoslavia a non-aligned art movement was being announced. The exhibition New Tendencies ran from 3 August to 14 September 1961 at the Gallery of Contemporary Art in Zagreb, and included work by artists from Austria, France, Germany, Italy and Switzerland alongside Yugoslavian artists including Ivan Picelj and Julije Knifer. The artists rejected both the “official” American and Soviet art styles of Abstract Expressionism and Socialist Realism, and New Tendencies represented an attempt to forge a new form of art that embraced modern technology.

In total, five New Tendencies exhibitions took place in Zagreb between 1961 and 1973. The participating artists shared an interest in constructivism, optical and kinetic art, and the exhibitions and supporting symposia attracted the involvement of scientists, engineers and theorists. Towards the end of the 1960s, the exhibitions heralded the start of the digital art movement that would take hold during the 1970s. New Tendencies 4, which opened in 1968, was dedicated to exploring the role of the computer as an artistic tool, and featured computer-generated images and kinetic installations. The same year, the launch of the group’s multilingual magazine bit international, which lasted for nine issues, confirmed Zagreb as the unlikely centre for the intersection of art and computer technology.

Two books recently published by MIT Press have helped to raise awareness of New Tendencies and together they tell the fascinating story of how the Non-Aligned Movement inspired the creation of computer art: A Little-Known Story about a Movement, a Magazine, and the Computer’s Arrival in Art: New Tendencies and Bit International, 1961–1973, edited by Margit Rosen (2011); and New Tendencies: Art at the Threshold of the Information Revolution (1961–1978) by Armin Medosch (2016).

Images: Ivan Picelj, CM-3-II, 1964-66. Acrylic print on chipboard,  102.5 x 102.6 x 1.8cm. Photo: Damir Fabijanić, Courtesy Museum of Contemporary Art-Zagreb & Anja Picelj-Kosak; Jean-Claude Halgand and GAIV (Groupe Art et Informatique de Vincennes), Surf III, 1972. Computer-generated and hand-colored print, 40 x 50 cm. Shown in New Tendencies 5, 1973.

Painting Through the Berlin Wall


“We enjoyed painting a line through that one!”

The German journalist and author, Frank Willmann, recalled with glee the moment in 1986, when he and four friends daubed white paint across Keith Haring’s iconic Berlin Wall mural. This iconoclastic act was part of an art-activist stunt that stretched 3 miles along the infamous structure. Since the wall was suddenly erected on 13 August 1961, to separate the German Democratic Republic from the neighbouring Federal Republic of Germany, it had been a hated symbol of the Cold War divide between East and West. But by the mid-1980s, the western face of the wall had become a tourist destination, with visitors attracted by the growing number of artworks that adorned it following Thierry Noir’s first wall painting in April 1984.

Born in the East German city of Weimar in 1963, Willmann along with his friends – Frank Schuster, Wolfram Hasch, and brothers Jürgen and Thomas Onisseit – had grown up never knowing a world without the Berlin Wall. By their late teens, the group had begun to rebel against the government of Erich Honecker and the notorious Stasi. Between 1983 and 1985, the authorities agreed to let all five of the young troublemakers emigrate to the West, and they reconvened in Berlin.

Their experience of living on both sides of the wall made the five friends keenly aware of the devastating effect it had on the lives of so many German citizens. They were therefore infuriated to see the wall dismissed by many in the western world as “little more than a big canvas. They just didn’t care what was going on behind it.” The willingness of the West German authorities to pander to the wishes of a famous American artist was particularly irksome, and the five friends decided to retaliate when Haring’s paint was barely dry.

berlin wall 2.jpg

On 3 November 1986, armed with paint rollers and buckets, and wearing masks to conceal their faces, Willmann, Schuster, Hasch, and the Onisseit brothers embarked on their daring feat. They continued to paint an uneven white line for several hours, until eagle-eyed East German border guards surprised them by appearing through a secret door and dragged Hasch back to the GDR, where he spent 3 months in prison before returning to West Berlin.

As The Guardian newspaper reports, the men today give a number of reasons why they chose to paint on the wall, ranging from a desire to feel empowered and proclaim their move to West Germany, to a protest against the complacency of those fortunate enough to be living on the western side. In a surprising development, only in 2010 when Willmann began researching for a book about the project, did it come to light that Jürgen Onisseit – the friend who had first suggested the white line action – had once been a Stasi informant. In a bitter irony, this revelation has created a more unassailable division between the friends and brothers than any concrete wall.

Nuclear Art in the Swinging Sixties

When Colin Self began his studies at London’s Slade School of Fine Art in 1961, Britain and the wider world were in the midst of a terrifying year. The ever-present threat of nuclear war reached a crisis point in the aftermath of the disastrous Bay of Pigs Invasion, while Yuri Gagarin’s pioneering space flight in April and the installation of the Berlin Wall in August signalled a dramatic shift in East-West relations. The prevailing sense of unease would seep into the young artist’s work at the height of the Swinging Sixties.

Colin Self’s visit to the United States in 1962, the year of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and again in 1965, inspired a series of disturbing works on the theme of the nuclear threat. Adopting Pop Art principles, Self blended everyday materials and consumer imagery to create works with a sense of menace that subverted the comfortable or desirable associations of their components. In those early days, recurring motifs in Self’s drawings, paintings, prints and sculptures included the fall-out shelter and the nuclear bomber.

In the second of his series of ‘Leopardskin Nuclear Bombers’ in 1963, Self fused the image of a predatory animal, a warplane, and a phallic object, as a biting critique of the machismo and primal aggression that was pushing the world to the brink of annihilation. Self’s attendance at CND (Campaign For Nuclear Disarmament) marches also resonated in his work. In 1966, Self made Nuclear Victim (Beach Girl), a shop mannequin covered in cinders and black paint that gave a spine-tingling glimpse of the outcome of a nuclear bomb. This image of burnt flesh and disfigurement continues to evoke a visceral response in viewers.

Suspicious of the commercial art world, Self increasingly isolated himself during the late 1960s and 1970s. Returning from London to his native Norwich, Self focused on more conventional Pop Art works and traditional landscapes and still lifes. However, ominous images of destructive forces have continued to creep into Self’s art, particularly in the aftermath of his visit to the rapidly disintegrating Soviet Union in the mid-1980s.

In 2008, Self was celebrated in a retrospective exhibition at Pallant House in Chichester. The catalogue Colin Self: Art in the Nuclear Age gives a deeper insight into the artist’s work.

Images: Colin Self, Leopardskin Nuclear Bomber No. 2, 1963. Wood, aluminium, steel and fabric, 95 x 800 x 420 mm, 2 kg. Courtesy Tate; Colin Self, Nuclear Victim (Beach Girl), 1966. Mixed media, 28 x 170 x 58 cm. Courtesy Imperial War Museum.

John Keane, Gulf War Artist

Soon after the start of the Gulf War on 2 August 1990, painter and photographer John Keane was invited by the Imperial War Museum (IWM) in London to be Britain’s official war artist for this new conflict, forged in the disintegration of the Cold War. At first refused accreditation by a suspicious Ministry of Defence, due to his record of painting an unflattering portrait of war, the 36-year-old Keane eventually travelled to Iraq, where he was embedded with the British army. The artist later spent five days in Kuwait, in the aftermath of the US-led liberation that brought the Gulf War to an end on 28 February 1991.

While stationed in the region, Keane took photographs and made a video diary that captured the daily lives of citizens, soldiers, medical staff and journalists against the backdrop of major military operations and the machinery of war. Keane later recalled, “My aim was just to be a sponge – absorb and record as much as possible. I didn’t know how I might react. The whole experience was very alien and disturbing. Like a dream that I awoke from on my return.” Alongside the more traditional subject matter for a war artist, Keane also photographed items such as an abandoned shopping trolley containing rocket warheads on the streets of Kuwait City, palm trees bent over like tortured humans, and a smiling child giving a V sign in front of a marauding tank, revealing his keen sense of irony and eye for seemingly innocuous and easily-overlooking details that in their quotidian mundanity reveal the strangeness of war.

 Upon his return to the UK, Keane used this photographic material as the basis for a series of paintings that aimed not only to address the conflict, but also reflected on the media coverage of events. Paintings such as the series Scenes on the Road to Hell – so named after photos taken on Basra, Highway 80, which became known as the “Highway of Death” after the Allied forces attacked retreating Iraqi troops in the last days of the war – brought together material from several images to tease out their disturbing and ominous nature. Through the application of lurid colours, smudged and dripping, Keane distorted the scenes and created a visual world has been compared both to Goya’s epic print series The Disasters of War and The Scream by Norwegian expressionist painter Edvard Munch.

John Keane’s Gulf War pictures were first exhibited in London in 1992, where they were met with surprise at their apparently subversive content. The painting Mickey Mouse at the Front became a particular subject of discussion and more than some outrage. At the centre of the painting, the famous Disney cartoon character sits grinning on a Kuwaiti beach covered with excrement, surrounded by the decimated palm trees and rocket-filled shopping trolley, and in front of bombed-out city ruins. While The Sun newspaper branded it “sick”, and vilified Keane for his perceived slight to the families of dead soldiers, the scene was a realist tableau, composed from Keane’s photographic images and visual memories from his time in Iraq and Kuwait.

Keane, John, b.1954; Mickey Mouse at the Front

Since his Gulf War project, John Keane has continued to travel to conflict zones and to engage with traumatic subject matter, producing paintings that record campaigns against illegal logging in the Amazon, life in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, the Chechen War and the rise of Islamist terrorism, and the treatment of detainees at Guantánamo Bay. The artist understands the Gulf War as the bridge between Cold War and War on Terror, “the opening salvo on a war that is still going on, being waged with greater ferocity than we could ever have imagined.”

You can see John Keane’s Gulf War photographs on the Imperial War Museums website, while his paintings are displayed on Keane’s website.

Images: All images by John Keane. Top – Photographs from The Gulf War 1990–1991, part of the John Keane Collection, Imperial War Museums; Middle – Scenes on the Road to Hell 1, 1991. PVA on paper, 150 x 85 cm; Bottom – Mickey Mouse at the Front, 1991. Oil on canvas, 173 x 198cm. All images courtesy John Keane and Imperial War Museums.

Imelda Marcos’s Missing Art

The name Imelda Marcos is synonymous with excess, corruption and, above all, shoes. Between 1965 and 1986, as President of the Philippines, her husband Ferdinand Marcos took advantage of his country’s strategic importance to the United States – at the time desperate to prevent the further spread of communism in South East Asia – to establish an extravagant and brutal dictatorship. During her 21-year reign as First Lady of the Philippines, Imelda Marcos became internationally notorious as she shamelessly amassed a vast collection of expensive clothing and jewellery. And like any self-respecting kleptocrat, Marcos’s spending sprees also extended to art.


Imelda Marcos is thought to have acquired up to 200 masterpieces by artists including Monet, van Gogh, Michelangelo, Botticelli, Canaletto and Raphael. Yet in the confusion surrounding the collapse of her husband’s regime, the works vanished. Over thirty years later, the hunt continues.

In recent years, this art world mystery has come back to public attention, as some of the missing works have started to reappear. In 2013, Imelda Marcos’s former secretary, Vilma Bautista, was jailed for trafficking in stolen art after she sold one of Claude Monet’s famous Water Lilies paintings Le Bassin aux Nympheas (1919) to a London gallery for $32 million. Bautista was also found to be in possession of three other Impressionist canvases from the Marcos collection, including Monet’s L’Église et La Seine à Vétheuil (1881), Alfred Sisley’s Langland Bay (1887), and Le Cyprès de Djenan Sidi Said by Albert Marquet (1946).

This case reignited the interest of the Philippine government, which claims that the artworks were purchased by Marcos using stolen state funds. As well as attempting to recover the four paintings held by Bautista, the authorities have stepped up attempts to locate the other missing artworks. In 2014, they seized 15 paintings from Marcos’s properties, including works by Picasso, Gauguin, Michelangelo, Bonnard, Miró and Pissarro, although the authenticity of some of the works has been called into question.

The Philippine government is now exploring the possibility of using crowd-sourcing technology to find the remainder. However, its efforts are hampered by the fact that there is only an incomplete list of all works owned by Imelda Marcos, and the prosecution of Vilma Bautista in fact brought to light the painting by Monet which was not previously known to have been owned by the former First Lady. Meanwhile, the artworks are also of interest to a group of several thousand Filipino victims of human rights abuses, who won a class-action lawsuit against the Marcos estate in 2011 and are therefore entitled to claim a stake in their possessions.


The case has also brought up some other surprising stories. Last April, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) came under scrutiny, when the LA Times revealed that one of the paintings seized from Marcos’s apartment in Manila had somehow made its way there from the LACMA collection. The newspaper investigation found that in 1978 the museum had discreetly deaccessioned a beloved painting by Francisco de Goya, The Marquesa of Santa Cruz as a Muse (1805) (see above, on display in Marcos’s apartment in 2006), before the canvas was resold through a gallery to Imelda Marcos. Further details of the discovery were given in a Blouin Artinfo blog post.

It remains to be seen what other uncomfortable truths will come to light as more artworks from the missing Marcos collection finally come to light.

Images: Top – Imelda Marcos in her Manila apartment, showing paintings including Reclining Woman VI by Pablo Picasso. Courtesy AFP; Lower – Imelda Marcos in her Manila apartment, showing Marquesa of Santa Cruz as a Muse by Francisco de Goya. Photograph by Steve Tirona.

Warning of the Cold War Horse

The life-size effigy of the horse stands alone in a windswept field in Jefferson County, Colorado. But this is no pettable pony. The Cold War Horse is a warning that something sinister has occurred on this remote plateau, about 15 miles north-west of Denver. Cast in fiberglass, steel and resin, the sculpture depicts the horse cloaked in a bright red hazmat suit, with a grey respirator strapped over its nose and mouth.

The Cold War Horse is wise to be dressed so strangely. Between 1952 and 1992, this area, known as Rocky Flats, was the site of a top secret factory where 70,000 highly toxic plutonium “triggers” were produced. These triggers were then dispatched to the Pantex Plant near Amarillo, Texas, where they were assembled into hydrogen bombs, to be used in the event that the Cold War suddenly became blazing hot.

Throughout its forty-year history, the Rocky Flats Plant witnessed a series of dangerous incidents, including a plutonium fire in 1957 and numerous leaks of radioactive waste into the surrounding soil and rivers. As a result of these incidents, a 4,600-acre buffer zone was imposed around the plant in 1972 and extended a couple of years later by another 4,500 acres. In the early 1980s, revelations about the activities at the plant and its environmental effects led to public outrage. In 1983, 17,000 people travelled to Rocky Flats to join hands around the 17-mile perimeter fence as part of a peace protest. Finally in 1987, the plant was raided by the FBI and its managers were fined what at the time amounted to the largest fine in history for an environmental crime. Although officially cleaned up in the early 2000s, the site is still heavily contaminated and uninhabited by humans, and has since been designated the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge.

The Cold War Horse was made by sculptor Jeff Gipe, who grew up near to Rocky Flats and whose father worked at the plant for over 20 years and now suffers from serious health problems as a result. The statue was dedicated in September 2015, ten years after the cleanup of the site was declared complete. But this is no memorial. The Cold War Horse is intended as a renegade artwork, to symbolise the locals affected by the scandal who have yet to be recompensated, and a protest against plans to construct a large housing development near the contaminated land.

However, the story doesn’t end there. Just a week after the Cold War Horse was installed, it was knocked to the ground and attacked with sledge hammers by unidentified assailants. The horse is now under repair and Gipe has set up the website for people who would like to donate towards its reinstallation.

Image: Jeff Gipe, Cold War Horse, 2015. Image courtesy Jeff Werkheiser