Marshall Mateer


by Marshall Mateer


In 1937 volunteers on their way to Spain through Paris were taken in groups to see the Spanish Pavilion at the International Exposition of Art and Technology of Modern Life.

The Mayoral Gallery (London and Barcelona) has brought together artwork and archive materials relating to the Spanish Pavilion: ‘an exhibition whose main protagonists are liberty and oppression, hope and despair’. Works by Miró, Picasso, Calder and González are in the entrance area as it was in 1937. Archive materials of the Republican programme for economic and social progress and of the on-going war effort are in a second gallery downstairs – it was upstairs in the original Pavilion. Mayoral is not attempting to restage the original exhibition but to ‘show and evoke the impact of the Spanish Pavilion … recreating part of the building … and allowing the viewer to feel immersed in the atmosphere of that period’.

Miró‘s mural ‘Le Faucheur’ (the reaper – Miró always titled his paintings in French) was painted directly onto the panels of the Pavilion itself and was lost after it was dismantled. For the Mayoral show, it has been recreated by digital printing in black, greys and white – there are no colour photographs existing – filling a space at the rear of the gallery space from floor to ceiling. On close inspection the lines of the panels and the screw heads fixing them to the Pavilion structure are quite visible, underlining that this was painted for a temporary exhibition, not as a gallery work of art.

In photographs, we see Miró, paintbrush in hand looking a little uncertain, standing high on a ladder – he described the act of painting as ‘direct and brutal’, with only ‘a few light sketches’ to guide him. In the finished painting we see the figure of a Catalan peasant standing, a giant being, against a starry sky – stars symbolise freedom in Miró’s iconography. On his great head – an expression of victimhood and protestation – is the ancient symbol of the Catalan identity – the barretina, a red cap. The supporting neck or body a trunk growing from the soil of his ancestors; he is literally rooted to the spot; he will stand his ground. The right arm is raised; there are five fingers – a clenched fist salute. The left arm is raised too holding a mighty sickle. It is clear from interviews by Miró and from study of his work that the barretina and sickle were not intended as symbols of ‘The Republic’ or ‘communism’, though some viewers must have construed their own meanings. About the sickle Miró said ‘it is the reaper’s symbol, the tool of his work, and, when his freedom is threatened his weapon’.

The ancient song ‘Els Segadors’ (the reapers), with new words written in 1899, though banned during the Franco regime, is now the anthem of Catalonia and proclaims ‘Bon cop de falç, defensors de la terra!’ (Strike with your sickle, you workers of the land!). In July and August 1936, during the early months of the militias, sickles were again raised just as they had been in 1640 when the Reapers’ Revolt rose against the impositions of Phillip IV of Spain. Miró would not allow his culture to die and said in 1936: ‘If the powers of backwardness known as Fascism continue to spread … that will be the end of all human dignity. … Retreat and isolation are no longer permissible.’

Though commissioned for the Paris Pavilion, ‘The Reaper’ is no one-off response against fascism for, like Picasso, Miró produced work that was visceral and anguished through the 30s as the threat of fascism grew: ‘I had that unconscious feeling of impending disaster. Like before it rains; a heavy feeling in the head, aching bones, and asphyxiating dampness. It was a physical rather than a moral sensation. I had a feeling a catastrophe was going to happen.’

Earlier in 1937 Miró used the Catalan peasant motif with a huge clenched fist salute and again wearing the barretina cap – a design now ubiquitous on t-shirts and posters – for that smallest of formats, the postage stamp. Under a print made from the design in Miró’s handwriting is written: ‘In this present battle, I see on the fascist side just the outdated forces, and on the other side, the people whose immense creative resources which will give Spain a power which will astonish the whole world.’ Miró achieves his universality by his adherence to the local – his Catalan identity.

Miró returned to Spain from France in 1940 and stayed through the years of Franco’s regime – rooted to the land of his identity – but resolutely refused to lend his name – he always used the Catalan ‘Joan’ – or his works to any Nationalist-sponsored exhibitions. Nor was he passive in his art production being stimulated in new directions at crucial times: for example, the great triptych ‘L’Espoir du condammé à mort’ (the hope of the condemned man), created through the period of the imprisonment of Salvador Puig Antich – whom Miró called ‘the young Catalan anti-Fascist’ – and completed days before Puig was executed in March 1974.

If Picasso and Miró made their stance with one foot firmly set in their cultural traditions it was the American Alexander Calder, a friend of Miró’s, who jumped into the future with both feet with an astounding sculptural piece that presages current art practice to a much greater extent than either ‘Guernica’ or ‘The Reaper’. Calder’s ‘Mercury Fountain’ is just that – an assemblage of steel shapes and rods rising over a pool of deadly, glistering mercury. The mercury flows from a pipe and rolls down a curved, metal shute into a circular pool, above which one red circle amongst the black shapes swings about; the word Almadén was ‘written’ in the wire. In keeping with fountain tradition some visitors dropped coins into the pool of mercury only to find that they didn’t sink but floated on the dense liquid. At the time the toxic effects of mercury were not common knowledge – the recreated version in Barcelona is safely encased behind glass. For the Mayoral show there are photographs of ‘Mercury Fountain’ in the Pavilion with ‘Guernica’ in the background, and a later Calder, ‘Crag with Yellow Boomerang and Red Eggplant’ (1974) set into a circular pool shape just as ‘Mercury Fountain’ was in the Pavilion.

‘Mercury Fountain’ was created for the people of Almadén in the mountains north of Córdoba, at that time under siege by Franco’s troops and being defended at one point, amongst others, by a group of Irish Brigaders led by Frank Ryan. Almadén was no ordinary town – it was a mining centre delivering 60 per cent of the world’s mercury, an essential ingredient in the production of munitions – for instance detonators for bombs – making it a great prize for the Republic but also a prime target for the Nationalists and of high interest to Germany and big business interests in the US. Upstairs in the Pavilion visitors saw a display of photographs and charts showing how the mercury was mined, processed, sold and how the mines were being modernised; it also showed, as one of its examples, a row of the stainless-steel bottles in which the mercury for Calder’s ‘Fountain’ had been safely delivered to Paris.

‘Guernica’, Picasso’s painting, now in Madrid, is of course not at the Mayoral gallery nor have they tried to recreate it. However, displayed on the back-wall downstairs are 64 small panels under the title ‘Guernica’. Arranged into four horizontal rows and seen from a distance the mechanical grid is enlivened by the black, grey and white shapes on each panel being different – like shadows of leaves on a tiled wall it has life. Move closer and the little panels are revealed as the pages of a booklet. The booklet, probably made in 1937, is anonymous and there is no publisher information printed anywhere on it. The pages reproduce photographs, documents, poetry, descriptions, statement, witness accounts – some Spanish text, some English – about the devastating bombing of the town of Guernica on 26 April 1937. In this de-constructed form, without beginning or end, it is endlessly engaging; the scale of each image or piece of writing very personal.

And Picasso’s Guernica? Perhaps it is right to let the 80th anniversary of the bombing by German and Italian planes pass to remember the people before again considering Picasso’s now iconic response to the attack on the ancient capital of the Basque Country. The chance to do so will occur, with the opening on 4 April of an 80th anniversary exhibition co-curated by TJ Clarke and Anne Wagner at the Reina Sofia in Madrid: ‘Pity and Terror in Picasso – the Path to Guernica’.

In recognition of its London location, Mayoral has included archive material of British artists’ responses to the events in Spain, such as the catalogue of the original Felicia Browne exhibition, publications by the Artists International Association and notices of the British tour of ‘Guernica’. Framed on the wall is a ‘broadsheet’ published for the 1937 Surrealist Exhibition in London in which both Miró and Picasso were exhibited. Visually the dense text is relieved by an abstract overprint in red designed by Henry Moore. The pamphlet marks the moment when pacifism was giving way to the inevitable consequences of European conflict. It cites the use of ‘the century-old Act on Foreign Enlistment’ against volunteers while allowing ‘free passage to Franco’s agents’ yet refusing to admit ‘representatives of THE SPANISH PEOPLE’; and the ‘gentleman’s agreement with Mussolini, an agreement which apparently includes a free hand for Fascism in Spain’. The pamphlet concludes that ‘far from being Non-Interventionists, [they] stand as the allies of fascism in International politics’. In its concluding paragraphs the pamphlet proclaims in heavy type: ‘If only in self-defence we must END ALL FORMS OF NON-INTERVENTION, INTERVENE IN THE FIELD OF POLITICS, INTERVENE IN THE FIELD OF IMAGINATION.’ Intervening in the field of imagination is a phrase that might well be applied to Miró.

In the present era of block-buster exhibitions Mayoral’s homage to the Spanish Pavilion of 1937 demonstrates the value of smaller, well-focussed, research-based exhibition/projects for the public and for their part in developing art and historical understanding. The Mayoral Gallery notes: ‘As Catalans, we are very conscious of the importance of the Spanish Civil War, of the fight for the ideals of freedom.’

I asked some of the Brigaders I have interviewed if they remembered visiting the Spanish Pavilion on their way to Spain in 1937. While they remembered the trip to the exhibition and in the blur of memory something of the photographs and displays upstairs, no-one I spoke to recalled noticing the now iconic image of ‘Guernica’ at the time; no-one mentioned ‘The Reaper’; other things filling their minds.

As I listen to the increasing blur of news today – rolling, fake or reflective – I’m glad, thanks to the Mayoral project, ‘The Reaper’ still stands his ground; I go on.

All images courtesy the Mayoral Gallery, London.

Posted on 11 February 2017