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 academia.edu.

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.

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One thought on “Art and Diplomacy in Franco’s Spain

  1. Pingback: Sakiet Remembered: Painting the Algerian War of Independence | ESPIONART

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