Surrealism and the Spanish Civil War

The Spanish Civil War began in 1936, and in 1937 General Francisco Franco led a military coup d’état against the democratically elected Popular Front government.  Thousands were killed in bloody purges, and when the war ended in 1939, a form of military dictatorship was established.  Salvador Dali, Pablo Picasso, and Joan Miró each responded to the events unfolding in their native country, and they employed Surrealist strategies to express the brutality and insanity of war.

Salvador Dali, Soft Construction with Boiled Beans (Premonition of Civil War), 1936
Philadelphia Museum

In this painting, a grotesque body tears itself apart in an act of self-mutilation that serves as a metaphor for a nation divided against itself:

“Set against a technicolor sky and the parched landscape of northern Spain, the mutating figure dominates its environment. This disjunction of scale indicates its symbolic function–despite its hysterical concreteness–as a representation of the physical and emotional self-conflict in which Spain was both the victim and the agressor. The little professor, wandering across the landscape at left, adds an odd counterpoint to the frenzied mass of flesh, as do the morsels of boiled beans that may refer to the ancient Catalan offering to appease the gods . . . Dalí’s own words, as singular as his pictorial language, best describe the mood of this overwrought picture: “a vast human body breaking out into monstrous excrescences of arms and legs tearing at one another in a delirium of autostrangulation.”
Philadelphia Museum of Art

Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, 1937
Reina Sofia, Madrid

In 1937 Picasso was asked by the Spanish Republican government-in-exile to create a picture for the Spanish Pavilion at the Paris International Exhibition.  The topic he chose was the Nazi air raid on Guernica, a small Spanish village in the Basque region that killed or wounded 7,000 innocent victims.  Painted on the scale of a mural, the picture was exhibited in the same year that Hitler held his infamous “Degenerate Art” exhibition in Munich.  As your textbook describes the subject matter:

“In the center, along the lower edge of the painting, lies a slain warrior clutching a broken and useless sword.  A gored horse tramples him and rears back in fright as it dies.  On the left, a shrieking anguished woman cradles her dead child.  On the far right, a woman on fire runs screaming from a burning building, while another woman flees mindlessly.  In the upper right corner, a woman, represented only by a head, emerges from a burning building, thrusting forth a light to illuminate the horror.  Overlooking the destruction is a bull, which, according to the artist, represents ‘brutality and darkness.’”
Gardner’s Art Through the Ages, p. 400 

Picasso used Cubist fragmentation to evoke the overall theme of dismemberment and mutilation, but Surrealist influence can be seen in his use of biomorphic shapes that lend a dream-like quality to the imagery.  Limiting his palette to black, white, and gray (evoking the news photographs that reported the tragedy to the world), Picasso’s work  remains one of the most powerful images of war every painted.

Picasso, Guernica (Smarthistory)

Joan Miró, Seated Woman II, 1939.  Guggenheim Museum
Joan Miró, Seated Woman II, 1939. Guggenheim Museum

Miró’s work also underwent a dramatic change during the Spanish Civil War.

“The expressionistic Seated Woman II can be seen as a final manifestation of Joan Miró’s peintures sauvages, works characterized by violence of execution and imagery. It was painted at a time when Miró, like Pablo Picasso . . .  was responding acutely to the events of the Spanish Civil War. “
Guggenheim Museum

Photograph of the artists exhibiting in the Artists in Exile show at the Pierre Matisse Gallery, New York, March, 1942. Surrealists include André Breton and Max Ernst

Surrealists in New York
After the Nazi occupation of Paris in 1940, a large number of Surrealists emigrated to New York City (André Breton, Max Ernst, André Masson, Matta, Kurt Seligman and Yves Tanguy).  Their presence in New York influenced the New York School’s interest in psychology, and their desire to turn inward for their source of imagery.

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