Surrealism and the Spanish Civil War.

Author:Mohahan, Laurie
Position:Book review
 
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New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006.

240 pp.; 30 color ills., 95 b/w. $60.00

Returning from Spain just prior to the fascist victory there, George Orwell, who fought with the republican forces, wryly noted, "There are occasions when it pays better to fight and be beaten than not to fight at all." (1) Knowing that failure was a possibility, but still uncertain of the outcome, those who fought for the Spanish Republic did so because it was "the good fight": the first stand taken against fascism. From an artistic perspective, this battle was engaged differently, but no less seriously than for those fighting with bullets. Pablo Picasso's Guernica inevitably comes to mind. But what of some of the other prominent artists of the period? What were their political positions and aesthetic strategies? How did they "fight the good fight" in support of Spain? Astonishingly, their struggles have never been thoroughly analyzed until now, with Robin Adele Greeley's excellent book.

Her study focuses on five artists who were particularly invested in Spain and in Surrealism: Joan Miro, Picasso, Salvador Dali, Jose Caballero, and Andre Masson. Inspired by the Surrealist idea that the processes that generate artistic production are as political as their outcomes, each of these artists presents what Greeley calls "the conditions of politics through the conditions of representation" (p. 3). Even more important than giving us, for the first time, an extensive study of artists addressing the struggles in republican Spain, Greeley proposes a new way to think about art and politics beyond the conventions of subject matter or political intention. In this sense, her contribution is relevant historically but is no less significant for our contemporary political and aesthetic situation.

The Surrealist commitment to art and politics serves as a framework for Greeley's analysis as well as a starting point for the artists discussed. Most of them had established a formal link to the Surrealist group at some point in their careers (Masson, Miro, and Dali--until he was expelled for his "fascist tendencies" in 1934). Picasso, while never a member, was certainly content to be associated with the group. (2) Greeley's decision to include Caballero, a prominent Spanish Surrealist, raises significant questions about form and process through the political differences between Spanish and French Surrealism. These artists had in common a shared conviction that Greeley identifies as the movement's unique achievement: "to insist on desire as a component of political behavior, and on the crucial role of representation in structuring desire" (p. 6). Finding a language of representation to articulate the tensions between psychic reality and the world also gave them common purpose, even though their visual approaches differed.

Surrealism and the Spanish Civil War is an ambitious and satisfying book, divided into seven chapters, all beautifully illustrated (although the photographs from the civil war would have been more effective had they been discussed in the text). After introducing the overarching concerns of the artists in chapter 1, Greeley devotes her second chapter to Miro's work, starting with his project for the 1937 Exposition International des Arts et Techniques in Paris. Invited to produce a mural for the Spanish Republic's pavilion, Miro chose to highlight his Catalan origins and political sympathies with the region. In Miro's mind, Catalan identity was inextricably linked to independence and heroism; as recently as 1934 the region protested conservative gains in the government, going so far as to declare its independence. In his monumental mural entitled The Reaper (1937; originally titled Catalan Peasant in Revolt), Miro drew on these associations, depicting a monumental figure--a Catalan peasant marked by the distinctive cap and sickle--that represents the republic fighting against the forces of fascism. The image was more overtly political than any Miro had yet painted. Not only did he create an image of Catalan struggle that meshed with the themes of justice and freedom against the fascist menace, but he also conceived a unifying image that completely overlooked the growing divisiveness within the republican ranks. Greeley points out that Miro's doubts and fears for the republic were essentially suppressed in this image. In this regard The. Reaper was too dependent on its nationalist subject matter, such that its representational means sought to secure the image and its political unity rather than disrupt it. Overlooking those divisions within the republic that ultimately led to its defeat, The Reaper failed to generate a visual "disturbance" capable of renewing the fight.

Miro's Woman in Revolt (1938) and Still Life with Old Shoe (1937) are presented as examples meant to counter the problems seen in The Reaper. Each attempts to speak to the artist's private anguish about the future of Spain. In both of these images, the Catalan landscape has been transformed into "a ravaged territory of terror, self-wounding, and despair, and the Catalan individual as a human (female) body forced by circumstances into obscene sexual reconfiguration as the only possible means of escape" (p. 16). Yet Greeley observes that the hybrid body in Woman in Revolt affords no real escape, as she is "pinned down" and "pushed to the edge" of the composition by her oversized phallic "leg" One wishes for a more extensive discussion of this erratic, gendered body, particularly because the image so clearly refers and responds to The Reaper. The arms and head essentially reproduce the features of the earlier image and its title clearly references Catalan Peasant in Revolt, Miro's original title for The Reaper. Greeley is right in claiming that in this image, Miro moves away from the politically heroic, evoking instead his helpless despair. The fact that it is the masculine appendage that keeps the female figure from fleeing seems worthy of more analysis, since this calls into question the role that masculinity plays in this moment of impending defeat.

The culminating image for Greeley and, she suggests, for Miro himself is The Old Shoe, in which he finds a...

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