Filonov’s Ambiguous Portrait of Stalin

Cover of ‘Les Lettres Francaises’, featuring portrait of Stalin by Pablo Picasso, 12 March 1953.

Anyone who has watched the 2017 satirical movie The Death of Stalin will have a darkly humorous although roughly factual understanding of the events of 5 March 1953, when the Soviet dictator finally met his end. After 3 decades in which ‘Stalinism’ had increasingly dominated all aspects of political and cultural life in Russia and the wider Soviet Union, it would take the country many more years to adjust to life without this fearsome ruler.

The ever-popular Espionart post Stalin by Picasso (or Portrait of a Woman with Moustache) introduces readers to the equally ridiculous story of Picasso’s comically bad tribute to the newly-deceased tyrant. However, the painting of the leader that I find the most fascinating, due to its ambiguously perceptive portrayal of his menacing and mercurial character, is an oddly unrepresentative work by the Russian avant-garde painter, Pavel Filonov.

In the early 1910s, Filonov developed a unique painting style that he called Universal Flowering (Mirovoi rastsvet). Using fine brushes, Filonov meticulously crafted dense networks of line and colour, resembling the finest filigree or spider silk, that built up kaleidoscopic images from which the viewer can gradually distinguish layers of people and objects. He referred to these works as ‘formulas’. Filonov blended artistic inspiration from across Russian history with post-revolutionary experimentation, incorporating folk art, orthodox iconography, Cubism, Futurism, Expressionism, Surrealism, and magical realism. While he was a contemporary of luminaries such as Malevich, Chagall, Rodchenko, Kandinsky and Mayakovsky, Filonov’s work has remained relatively unknown outside Russia due to his socialist principles. Refusing to sell his work to private collectors, even when he was left penniless and destitute, Filonov instead remained committed to his promise to leave his life works to the proletariat, hoping that they would eventually be housed in a dedicated museum in St Petersburg.

Filonov Formula

Pavel Filonov, ‘Formula of Spring and Acting Forces’, 1928–29. Oil on canvas, 250 x 285 cm. State Russian Museum, St Petersburg.

However, as Stalin consolidated his authority and gradually reduced all opportunities for deviation from his all-encompassing vision for Soviet life, Filonov was one of many Russian artists whose commitment to the revolutionary cause was cruelly betrayed. Previously renowned as a professor at the St Petersburg Academy of Arts, Filonov was left struggling to survive after his work was condemned as bourgeois and his large retrospective exhibition was banned in 1929. After more than a decade eking out a living in this inhospitable environment, in 1941 Filonov became one of the first of an estimated 1.5 million Russians to starve to death during the Nazi Siege of Leningrad. Yet it would take over 40 more years for Filonov’s work to be made available to the general public, after his descendants were finally permitted to bring his paintings out of the storerooms of the Russian Museum in St Petersburg in the late 1980s.

Pavel Filonov, ‘Portrait of J. V. Stalin’, 1936. Oil on canvas, 99 X 67 cm. State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg.

Sometimes lost of this dramatic biography is Filonov’s decision in 1936 to paint a large, sombre portrait of Stalin. That year, the period now known as the Great Terror or Great Purge was just getting started. Over the following years, political rivals, intellectuals and anyone else who Stalin saw as a potential threat to his total rule was condemned in a series of show trials or summarily arrested in the middle of night, tortured and executed. With little evidence to the contrary, Filonov’s portrait has been explained as an unsuccessful attempt to curry favour with Stalin’s regime by producing an official portrait of the ruler. But this haunting image, where Stalin appears to emerge out of the darkness, his eyes empty, black holes, his cold, hard stare unflinching and merciless, his face appearing more like a death mask than living flesh, instead suggests to me Filonov’s feelings of helplessness and inevitable tragedy in the face of the unforgiving Stalinlist machine.

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Prisoner Art from Guantánamo Bay

Muhammad Ansi, ‘Hands Holding Flowers through Bars’, 2016.

In recent weeks, a small art exhibition in New York has raised thorny questions about the link between art and propaganda, creative ownership, and the possibility of judging a work of art irrespective of its creator. Ode to the Sea opened in October 2017 in the gallery of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. The exhibition features 36 paintings, drawings and sculptures created in Guantánamo Bay by eight of the inmates. Four of the men have now been released, while four remain incarcerated as suspected Islamist terrorists. All have been confined to the infamous US prison camp between 10 and 15 years. The artworks were sourced by curator Erin Thompson, a professor of art crime, from American lawyers representing the prisoners.

According to guards, art in Guantánamo Bay dates from the early days of the camp, when inmates often scratched floral designs on Styrofoam cups. During the Obama presidency, an art programme was introduced to provide “intellectual stimulation for the detainees”, allowing them “to express their creativity”. Pencils, pens and paintbrushes were prohibited and the men wore leg shackles during classes. Most of the works produced during these early years have since been confiscated during raids and hunger strikes. But in time, some prisoners were rewarded for good behaviour by being granted art materials and allowed to draw and paint in their cells.

Recalling tales from the notorious prison on Alcatraz, the theme of the sea occurs again and again in the art of the Guantánamo inmates. As Thompson explains, they are haunted by the sound and smell of the sea, but it is hidden from their view.  Only for four days in 2014, as a hurricane approached the island, were the prisoners permitted to stare mesmerised onto the ocean. These savoured days inspired a wave of maritime art, as they attempted to recapture the brief sense of freedom. You can listen to an interview with Erin Thompson on the BBC News website.

Djamel Ameziane, ‘Ship Sailing in a Stormy Sea’, 2010.

Djamel Ameziane, a detainee at Guantánamo from 2002 to 2013, also used the metaphor of the sea to describe his imprisonment, depicting his experiences over the years “as a boat out at sea, battered by successive storms during its trip towards an unknown destination, benefiting only from very short periods of respite between two storms.”

Other works on show focus on the drudgery of life in prison, where time seems to stand still. Despite Guantánamo’s association with torture and wrongful detention, the artworks paint a very different picture of life at the camp, one defined by silence, solitude and monotony. In still lifes and landscapes, the prisoners also paint snatched memories of their homelands and former lives, pining for the quiet comforts of tea, sunshine and open spaces. While the artists originated from Yemen, Kuwait, Algeria and Pakistan, the art is surprisingly universal in its design, with the choice of colours and figurative style often recalling European expressionism. Many of the paintings and drawings show an impressive talent for perspective and texture, while Moath al-Alwi’s intricate models of ships, made from discarded items found around the prison, display proficient craftsmanship.

Moath al-Alwi, ‘GIANT’, 2015.

Despite the obvious intrigue of the works on show, some have questioned whether such art should be put on public display, arguing that it is an insult to the victims of terrorism and portrays the detainees in a sympathetic light. Thompson’s defense has been that the setting for the exhibition is key. Scholars at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice study terrorism and the legal and ethical implications of detention. Thompson argues that the exhibition is not commenting on the guilt or innocence of the artists, but rather that “these works are invaluable windows into the souls of the men who made them”, questioning the effect of indefinite detention on both prisoners and their keepers. Moath al-Alwi, a Yemeni national still detained in the facility, explained to his lawyer that “when I start an artwork, I forget I am in prison. When I start an artwork, I forget myself. Despite being in prison, I try as much as I can to get my soul out of prison. I live a different life when I am making art”.

Abdualmalik Abud, ‘Yemen’, 2015.

The exhibition and subsequent media coverage appears to have taken the US Department of Defense by surprise. As so often, state-controlled propaganda depends on the total dehumanisation of the enemy, even while a lack of understanding might make its own citizens more vulnerable. The practice of allowing Guantánamo’s prisoners to hand over their artwork to lawyers – as gifts or for safekeeping – has now been halted. If any of the remaining 41 detainees are released, they have been told their art will be incinerated, destroying an irreplaceable record of life within an institution that has been at the centre of debate about America’s post-9/11 identity. A Pentagon spokesman recently confirmed to the New York Times that “items produced by detainees at Guantánamo Bay remain the property of the US government”. In response, Erin Thompson notes: “The idea of trying to dispirit someone by destroying what they’ve made, even if the subject is, on its surface, innocuous, is very common in warfare”.

Ameziane Tea

Djamel Ameziane, Tea on a Checkered Cloth, 2010.

If you are in New York and want to make up your own mind, Ode to the Sea continues at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice until 26 January 2018. The exhibition catalogue is also available to read online.

Saga of the Lucky Dragon and Ben Shahn’s Anti-Nuclear Art

Emboldened by the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II, the United States was keen to bolster its nuclear arsenal as it entered into an arms race with the Soviet Union. The remote reefs of Bikini Atoll in the Pacific Ocean, which had come under American occupation during the war, were identified as a suitable test site, and the 167 Bikinians were forced to relocate to other parts of the Marshall Islands. Between 1946 and 1958, 23 nuclear devices were detonated at Bikini Atoll, leaving the region contaminated and uninhabitable.

On 1 March 1954, the United States conducted an atmospheric test of a new hydrogen bomb, with the code name ‘Castle Bravo’. The most powerful nuclear device ever detonated by the United States, it produced a radioactive yield 3 times higher than scientists had predicted. Combined with strong winds, the nuclear fallout reached far across the Marshall Islands, causing radiation sickness among the inhabitants and leading to high levels of cancer and birth defects for years to come.

While the world had long turned a blind eye to the suffering of the Pacific islanders, the Castle Bravo incident caused international outrage due to the misfortune suffered by the Japanese crew of Lucky Dragon No.5 (Daigo Fukuryū Maru). Although this tuna fishing boat should have been at a safe distance from the explosion, 80 miles from Bikini Atoll and outside the danger zone set by American officials, the unexpected potency of the bomb led the fishermen to be deluged by radioactive ash, which they unwittingly cleaned from the ship’s deck with their bare hands. In the days that followed, the 23 crew members fell victim to acute radiation syndrome. Their recovery was hindered by the US government’s refusal to reveal the composition of the fallout, for reasons of national security, and, in a double tragedy, all were inadvertently infected with hepatitis C during treatment. However, amazingly, all but one would survive the experience.

The death of Lucky Dragon’s radio operator, Aikichi Kuboyama, fuelled the burgeoning anti-nuclear movement both in Japan and across the world. The fisherman’s final words, “I pray that I am the last victim of an atomic or hydrogen bomb”, touched a nerve at a time when America’s nuclear stockpile was proliferating rapidly. The country’s armoury of nuclear weapons would rise from 299 in 1950, to a high of over 31,000 devices in 1965 (the Soviet Union would reach a high of almost 40,000 nuclear weapons in 1980). American artist Ben Shahn was one of those alarmed by this acceleration and horrified to hear about the devastation caused in his country’s pursuit of military supremacy, and the incident at Bikini Atoll would continue to haunt his creative output for years to come.

In 1957, Shahn accepted a commission to illustrate a series of articles about the contamination of Lucky Dragon No.5, that were published in Harper’s Magazine in early 1958. The following year he travelled to Southeast Asia and the experience reinforced his enthusiasm for Chinese and Japanese art. Upon his return in 1960, Shahn began a series of paintings on the same theme, highlighting the injustice wrought on the burned and poisoned Japanese fishermen and powerfully advocating an end to nuclear testing. In the Lucky Dragon paintings, Shahn’s signature style is enhanced by design elements drawn from Japanese artistic traditions, while the heavy palette and scenes of lamentation provide a confrontational record of the nuclear anxiety that gripped people around the world.

Together with the writer Richard Hudson, Shahn later brought together some of his Lucky Dragon illustrations and paintings in the book Kuboyama and the Saga of the Lucky Dragon, published in 1965. While Shahn’s leftist principles and socially-directed art were viewed with suspicion by many in the United States, this series of work brought him great acclaim in Japan and across Southeast Asia. Part of Shahn and Hudson’s book is available to view online.

All images by Ben Shahn and tempera on wood. We Did Not Know What Happened to Us, c.1960, Smithsonian American Art MuseumThe Lucky Dragon, 1960, Private Collection; A Score of White Pigeons, 1960, Moderna Museet.

Sakiet Remembered: Painting the Algerian War of Independence

Twenty-one years after Picasso created his iconic contemporary history painting, Guernica – to memorialise the obliteration of the small Basque town by united Fascist forces during the Spanish Civil War – a similar event in the midst of the Algerian War of Independence inspired two French-born artists to express their outrage at their country’s actions.

The little town of Sakiet Sidi Youssef in northern Tunisia is situated just a few kilometres from the country’s border with Algeria. Since the start of the War of Independence in 1954, aimed at freeing the country from its French colonial masters, guerrilla fighters had been operating out of border towns including Sakiet. Even after France constructed a 2.5-metre high electric fence between the neighbouring countries, its generals still suspected that Sakiet was harbouring a large number of Algerian revolutionaries (who were at the time designated terrorists). On 8 February 1958, during a crowded market day, the French air force unleashed a sustained bombing campaign against Sakiet’s 3,300-strong population. The bombardment left over 148 civilians injured and some 70 dead, including a dozen children when a primary school was hit.

The event was a defining moment in the war, leading to international outcry and hastening Algerian independence. Yet though the bombing of Sakiet is jointly commemorated each year in Tunisia and Algeria, this “colonial Guernica” is now largely overlooked in the West. However, thanks to two heart-wrenching paintings held in London’s Tate Modern, the events in Sakiet have been immortalised.

Despite the establishment of the Cold War, the French artist André Fougeron remained a committed Communist and continued to create socialist realist paintings throughout the latter half of the 20th century. He often used his work to criticise Western imperialism and the injustices of capitalism, and the bombing of Sakiet inspired him to create one of his most well-known paintings. Massacre at Sakiet III (Massacre à Sakiet III) shows the piled corpses of men, women and children, swathed in dark blankets and appearing as disembodied heads. The pale blue ribbon in the hair of a little girl at the centre of the painting draws the eyes of the viewer and delivers a powerful shock with its simple message of childhood innocence, snatched away. The half-closed, clouded eyes of the man below her give a nauseating view of death, while the naked body of a young woman, with her dead child still clinging to her, heightens the sense of violation. In stark contrast, the row of army boots and rifle stocks that are glimpsed towering over the pitiful scene indicates where the viewer should direct their anger. When the painting went on public display in a Parisian salon just two months after the attack on Sakiet, Fougeron was criticised for clearly assigning blame to the French military, which had yet to accept responsibility for the bombardment of the Tunisian town.

The following year, Fougeron’s compatriot Peter de Francia, now living in London, used a very different artistic style to depict the despair and suffering in Sakiet. In contrast to Fougeron’s austere palette and sombre, reflective tone, The Bombing of Sakiet by de Francia mixes vibrant colours to give a sense of the noise that ripped through the bombed town, filled with the screams of survivors. While Fougeron’s painting is formed from soft curves and strong, clear lines, de Francia’s expressionist vision of the dead and the injured, thrown together among the twisted ruins of smashed buildings, uses sharp, jutting angles and colours bleeding into one another to convey the terror and confusion. At the centre of this sea of muddled limbs and detritus, three anguished survivors take in the catastrophic scene, seemingly oblivious to each other: while one surveys a lifeless body next to her, another weeps with eyes closed and a pained expression, and a third reaches out, perhaps searching for a missing friend or her stolen child.

 In 2005, the James Hyman Gallery in London chronicled the development of this epic painting in the exhibition Peter de Francia: After the Bombing. The large number of pencil and charcoal sketches and studies in oil show how the artist was absorbed with the subject and painstakingly created the monumental testament to a country torn apart by the aggression of a dying colonial power. De Francia’s painting is on long term loan to Tate from the Tunisian Embassy, ensuring that Sakiet will be remembered for many years to come.

Images: André Fougeron, Massacre à Sakiet III (Massacre at Sakiet III), 1958. Oil on canvas, 97 x 19.5 cm; Peter de Francia, The Bombing of Sakiet, 1959. Oil on canvas, 189.8 x 365.3 cm; courtesy Tate. Peter de Francia, Woman with Dead Child (study for the Bombing of Sakiet), c.1959. Charcoal on paper, 35.7 x 25.5 cm. Private Collection.

Raúl Martínez and the Ambiguous Art of Post-Revolutionary Cuba

The Cuban Revolution came to an end in January 1959, as the guerrilla revolt led by Fidel Castro swept from power the US-backed dictator, Fulgencio Batista. The subsequent transformation of the Caribbean island into a Communist state, aligned with the Soviet Union, would give rise to an uneasy relationship between Cuba and the United States that exists to this day, and which in the 1960s threatened to ignite World War III. The paintings of Raúl Martínez (1927–1995) are today celebrated as some of the most iconic images created in the decades following the Cuban Revolution. And yet, the artist had a complex relationship with a regime that at times rejected and persecuted him.

Before the revolution, Raúl Martínez had briefly lived in New York and studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. As with many young artists in the United States during the late 1940s, Martínez was inspired by Abstract Expressionists such as Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko. Once back home in Cuba, Martínez became one of eleven abstract artists known as ‘Los Once’, who showed their work together from 1953. Although the group disbanded after a couple of years, Los Once is still remembered as the first and most significant association of Cuban abstractionists. During these years, Martínez also began to hone his skills as a graphic designer, mirroring the career of Andy Warhol by likewise working in the advertising industry.

For Raúl Martínez, the Cuban Revolution brought hope and fear. From the mid-1960s, Martínez and his partner, the playwright and poet Abelardo Estorino, were victimised as part of a government-sanctioned campaign against homosexuals. During this period, Martínez was expelled from his position as professor of design at the University of Havana, going on to forge a career as a freelance designer. In his memoirs, Yo Publio: Confesiones de Raúl Martínez, the artist recalls that many of his friends were sent to “rehabilitation” camps, in reality harsh labour camps that held homosexuals as well as artists and intellectuals, political dissidents, and religious minorities.  This era of repression triggered an abrupt change in Martínez’s artistic style. While the influence of the Soviet Union simultaneously brought Socialist Realism to Cuba, Martínez instead took his cues once more from the art of the United States.

In 1964, Martínez began to experiment with collage, to produce works that reflected the visual culture of post-revolutionary Cuba. In parallel with his American contemporary, Robert Rauschenberg, Martínez combined photographs of famous faces, anonymous citizens and everyday objects, with the revolutionary slogans and graffiti style that had sprung up across the island in celebration of the revolution. Martínez subsequently returned to painting, combining elements of his collage work with contemporary street art and local folk traditions to produce a Cuban version of pop art.

While Martínez’s pop style had many of the hallmarks of American pop – strong colours, bold lines and repeated images – there were some marked differences which made the work distinctly Cuban. Rather than taking inspiration from the rampant consumerism in the United States, Martínez’s paintings reflected on the transformation of Cuban society and the prevalence of politics. Instead of media images of American film stars and celebrities, Martínez based his designs on unglamorised photographs of Cuban leaders displayed in state institutions. The national hero José Martí was a recurrent subject in Martínez’s pop works, while he also pictured national and global political figures including Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, Camilo Cienfuegos, Lenin, and Ho Chi Minh. In contrast to the vast sums paid for American pop art, the isolationist, anti-commercial policies in post-revolutionary Cuba prevented Martínez from selling much of his work. And while the pop art movement in the United States saw screen printing brought to the forefront of artistic production, Martínez remained committed to working in paint.

Martínez’s pop art gives the illusion of propaganda, with its apparently optimistic scenes celebrating the Communist leadership. And yet his work remains ambiguous. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Cuba’s anti-gay rules prevented Martínez from publicly displaying much of his work, and he was even ordered to cover his 1967 mural mourning the death of revolutionary hero Che Guevara. While Martínez’s paintings capture the widespread enthusiasm for change and the spirit of the Cuban people, the sombre palette and reflective mood of these works also suggest an artist struggling to reconcile his revolutionary convictions with his experience of being ostracised under the post-revolutionary regime.

Images: All Raúl Martínez. Untitled, 1962, mixed media on heavy paper, 15 x 20 inches; 26 de Julio [26 July], 1964, collage and oil on wood, 150 x 180 cm; Rosas y Estrellas [Roses and Stars], 1972, oil on canvas, 45.5 x 51 inches; Repeticiones Con Bandera [Repetitions with a Flag], 1966, oil on canvas, 127 x 147 cm.

Iran’s Hidden Art Collection

The inauguration of the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art (TMoCA) in 1977 would soon prove to be an untimely event. Less than a year later, the Iranian Revolution erupted on 7 January 1978, resulting the following spring in the overthrow of the monarchy and the establishment of the present Islamic Republic.

The plan to found a modern art museum in the Iranian capital was the brainchild of the last Empress of Iran, Farah Pahlavi. Her enthusiasm for the subject had been fostered while studying art in Paris, and was boosted by subsequent meetings with artists such as Andy Warhol, Marc Chagall, Henry Moore and Salvador Dalí. In the mid-1970s, the Empress brought together a team of international curators and released government funds to purchase works for the new museum, taking advantage of a current dip in the value of the art market. Alongside examples of modern and contemporary Iranian art by celebrated artists such as Behjat Sadr, Charles Hossein Zenderoudi, Parviz Tanavoli, Ghassem Hajizadeh and members of the Saqqa-khaneh School, the team amassed over 150 works of Western modernism. This collection, including pieces by Claude Monet, Vincent van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, Mark Rothko and Dalí, is now considered to be one of the finest of its kind outside Europe and North America. The works initially took pride of place in the museum’s new state-of-the-art building, blending traditional Persian architecture with a swirling staircase reminiscent of the Guggenheim Museum in New York. But the conservative government of new leader Ayatollah Khomeini, known for his hatred of Western influences, had other ideas. Not long after the revolution, the museum’s collection of European and American art was put into storage, remaining in the vault of the Tehran museum for the next two decades.

For some time, there were fears for the future of the collection. In addition to the new regime’s efforts to combat ‘Westoxification’, the sexual overtones of works such as Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s Gabrielle With Open Blouse and Francis Bacon’s Two Figures Lying on a Bed With Attendant, were deemed to be unsuitable for display in the Islamic Republic. However, the collection’s ever-increasing price tag – today estimated to be over 3 billion US dollars and no doubt accelerated by its tempestuous provenance and rarity of display – made the works too valuable to be destroyed. The museum’s painting Mural on Indian Red Ground by Jackson Pollock, one of the American abstractionist’s largest paintings, is alone valued at over $250 million. As a result, the collection remains largely intact. Only two works are known to have been lost – a Warhol portrait of Empress Farah that was slashed in the aftermath of the revolution, and Woman III by Willem de Kooning, which was deaccesioned in 1994. Considered to be particularly offensive for its representation of female nudity, the painting was traded to a US collector for a beautifully decorated 16th-century Persian manuscript. Afterwards, de Kooning’s portrait entered the private collection of US entertainment magnate David Geffen and was recently sold on to hedge fund billionaire Steven Cohen for 137.5 million US dollars, making it the fourth most expensive painting ever sold.

Since the 1990s, individual works from the collection have been loaned to international museums. However, the first post-revolutionary exhibition of Western art would not be held at TMoCA itself until 1999, when Pop Art works by Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, David Hockney and Robert Rauschenberg were put on display. A larger exhibition opened in 2005, on the eve of the election of President Ahmadinejad, causing crowds to flock to Tehran. More recently, TMoCA has reinvigorated its public programme, and in 2015 many Western art critics travelled to Tehran for the first time to see works from the permanent collection displayed alongside a retrospective of the recently deceased Iranian abstract painter, Farideh Lashai.

 The gradual thawing of diplomatic relations between Iran and the West has also seen the Iranian government dusting off the paintings and sculptures, with plans to send part of the collection overseas on a cultural diplomacy mission. However, the first of these exhibitions, planned to open at the Berlin National Gallery at the end of 2016, was sadly cancelled within the last few days, reportedly due to the Iranian president’s last-minute refusal to sign export permits. A larger exhibition, planned to open at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC later in 2017, now also looks to be in jeopardy, with the anti-Iranian rhetoric of the incoming administration unlikely to soothe President Rouhani’s jitters. In the meantime, most Western art lovers will have to be satisfied with reports on the collection from journalists who have been lucky enough to enter the TMoCA’s vaults (‘Picasso is Hiding in Iran‘, Los Angeles Times, 2007; ‘Iran Has Been Hiding One of the World’s Great Collections of Modern Art‘, Bloomberg, 2015).

Images: Jackson Pollock, Mural on Indian Red Ground, 1950. TMoCA; Willem de Kooning, Woman III, 1953. Private collection of Steven A. Cohen; Francis Bacon, middle panel of triptych Two Figures Lying on a Bed With Attendant, 1968. TMoCA.

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.