The Visual Front: Posters of the Spanish Civil War from UCSD's Southworth Collection


Visual Index (Entire Poster Collection)


Chronology of the War


Lists of References

Afterword: Herbert R. Southworth Collection


Images of Revolution and War

by Alexander Vergara

"The war was a civil war and a revolution. It could not finish until the country had been transformed either into a Fascist or into a socialist state." -Arturo Barea

Propaganda posters constitute one of the most poignant documents that remain from the Spanish Civil War. As the remarks of numerous eyewitnesses demonstrate, the posters provided an essential part of the visual landscape in which individuals living the tragedy of the war went about their daily business of survival. The British writer Christopher Caudwell wrote home from Barcelona in December of 1936:"On almost every building there are party posters: posters against Fascism, posters about the defense of Madrid, posters appealing for recruits to the militia...and even posters for the emancipation of women and against venereal disease." Robert Merriman, an American volunteer fighting in Spain wrote from the same city in January of 1937: "Streets aflame with posters of all parties for all causes, some of them put out by combinations of parties." In Republican territory, when a house was destroyed by the enemy bombs, propaganda agencies would fix posters on the ruins in order to denounce the enemy, hoping to turn aggression into rage. In Madrid, the capital of the Republic, shop owners were exhorted to fill their store fronts with posters: "Every space must be used to incite the spirit in its fight against the enemy," stated an article in the newspaper ABC on October 30, 1936. In Seville, portraits of two of the leaders of the military rebellion that originated the war, Generals Queipo de Llano and Franco, were posted everywhere shortly after the city was taken. Further from the front, a different lifestyle was accompanied by the same backdrop of war posters. Arturo Barea, a patent officer who is the author of one of the most sensitive memoirs of the war, wrote about his experience in Valencia, where he had arrived from the front in Madrid: "I walked slowly through an outlandish world where the war existed only in the huge anti-fascist posters and in the uniforms of lounging militia men...a wealth of loose cash was spent in hectic gaiety. Legions of people had turned rich overnight, against the background of the giant posters which were calling for sacrifices in the name of Madrid."

As a result of their ability to conjure up the experiences of the war, the posters are vivid testimonies of the event. The sudden appearance of these images must have played a similar role to that of other symbolic changes that took place after the outbreak of the conflict, such as the renaming of streets, or the changes in speech (the word adios was replaced by salud in much of Republican Spain, and mi mujer -literally "my woman," which is employed in Spanish for "my wife"-was replaced by mi compañera, or my companion). For contemporaries, the presence of the posters on the walls of their cities was a conspicuous and inescapable reminder that a new reality was upon them.

All the posters from the Spanish Civil War in the Southworth Collection belong to the Republican side. The selection of forty-two posters presented here constitutes a representative sample of Republican propaganda. It includes images that deal with most of the themes that dominated the minds of contemporaries. Many of the posters were produced by some of the most important organizations and institutions active in the war, and they were designed by some of the leading artists of the era.

The Spanish Civil War began in July 17, 1936, when a group of right-wing officers staged a coup against the constitutional government of the Republic. In the preceding years, Spain had experienced a period of growing social disorder. Like in the rest of Europe, this was an intensely ideological era in Spain, which led to political radicalization. Even sensitive analysts could only see opposing views as unbridgeable threats to the survival of their ideals. In this context, the military coup of July 1936, immediately cast one half of Spain against the other. The rebellion against the Republic initially succeeded in approximately one third of the country, but was resisted in the rest, including most major cities such as Madrid, Barcelona and Valencia. The resistance was led by popular militias organized by radical trade-unions that were armed for the occasion. As a result of their role in holding back the rebellion, Communists and especially Anarchists and revolutionary socialist organizations became the de facto power in the main centers of Republican Spain. With comparatively few military professionals at their disposal, the Republic had to call on common folk to enlist in the militias in order to push back the rebellion. Together with the press and the radio, posters were one of their principal means of gaining support. In the midst of a barely controlled and often dangerous revolutionary euphoria, the trade-unions and political parties also embarked on competing campaigns of self-promotion, issuing numerous posters calling on citizens to join their ranks.

For an important sector of the newly empowered radical organizations, most notably the anarcho-syndicalists of the trade-union CNT (Confederación Nacional de Trabajo), the outbreak of the war provided the ideal opportunity to attain a long sought goal: an all-encompassing social revolution. An intense and often bloody conflict was fought with other factions on the Republican side, led by the Communists. Propaganda played an important part in this war within the war. Numerous anarchist posters in this collection call for complete takeover of private property and ask for volunteers to fight for the revolution--with no mention of the war. The Spanish Communist Party (PCE) answered with the slogan: "First the war, then the revolution."

By the summer of 1937, the state, led by the communists, managed to capture the revolution and to normalize power. At the front, the military rebels, known as the Nationalists, aided by Hitler and Mussolini, made slow but steady progress. For the Republic, the conflict was more often than not a defensive war. The propaganda of the government and supporting organizations reflects this fact: there are calls to build fortifications, and posters often refer to the exemplary defense of key positions such as Madrid. The extension of the initial coup into a long military conflict meant that the war encroached on all aspects of the life of all Spaniards. The economy was severely shaken, and the culture and daily life of people were profoundly affected. The majority of Spaniards from both sides, whether because of age or gender, did not fight in the war. For them, the experience of war was lived on the home front. However, there were frequent bombings of civilian centers, rigorous bouts of hunger, and a massive number of deaths among civilians. The non-combatant population was an important target for the propaganda war waged via the posters and through other means. Some posters (e.g. number 18) encouraged the population of areas near the front to evacuate, in order to avoid the overcrowding and ensuing problems of food distribution and disease caused by the incoming refugees. This advice was followed by thousands of families, but was resisted by others who preferred to weather the shortages. In cities far from the front, such as Valencia, the call was to receive the refugees, and to collect and send aid to those involved in the fight (e.g. poster number 39). Citizens were also encouraged to be frugal, saving food and other goods which had become scarce due to the economic chaos that followed the outset of the war. Factory workers and peasants were encouraged to increase productivity. Poster number twenty-four in this catalogue states: "Saving the harvest is like winning a battle against the enemy." Another poster, number twenty-seven, reproduces part of a speech by Juan Negrín, who was Prime Minister after May, 1937: "Comrade! Work more and better." In Republican cities, soldiers returning home were asked not to share information about the battle front, since members of the Fifth Column, as the clandestine supporters of the enemy were known, were involved in informal espionage. Poster number thirty-one, for example, exhorts militiamen not to speak about the situation in the front, "Not even to your comrades, not even to your siblings, not even to your girlfriends." Cities were also full of posters celebrating the Republican forces (number 40), or ridiculing the leadership of the enemy, especially General Franco (number 37).

By the end of 1938, it was clear that the advance of the Nationalists was inexorable. Barcelona fell on January 25, 1939. Immediately after entering the city, the Nationalist army washed away all the posters that were on the walls. Madrid fell on March 28, after resisting courageously at the edge of the front for over two years. Valencia, which had acted as the seat of the Republican government for most of the war, was taken on March 30. On April 1, 1939, General Franco proclaimed victory. During the next thirty-six years, until his death in 1975, he would use the first day in April to celebrate his victory as Spain's head of state.

Propaganda posters appeared on the walls of Spanish cities a few days after the war began. In the areas that remained loyal to the Republic, the spontaneous and popular nature of the resistance contributed to this frantic outburst of images. Because a large portion of the armed forces, especially among the officer corps, had sided with the enemy, propaganda was needed in order to rally ordinary citizens to the defense of the Republic. Also, in the midst of the confusion caused by the coup, the issuing of militant posters was a way for artists and organizations to declare their active engagement against the rebellion.

An artist who was closely involved in the design of posters during the war, Carles Fontseré, has left us an informative account of the process by which they came into existence. Fontseré is not represented in this collection of posters, but his personal experience exemplifies that of many others who reacted to the war by becoming involved in the propaganda effort. In July of 1936, the sudden breakdown of all institutional order that followed the successful resistance to the coup in parts of Spain, left citizens without their previous jobs and radically altered their lives from one day to the next. According to Fontseré, while there was still fighting in the streets of Barcelona, members of the leading union of draftsmen in Catalonia, the Sindicat de Dibuixants Professionals, met with some members of the popular militias. They decided to confiscate a palace that belonged to an aristocratic family--the family was evacuated, "without violence, but immediately and inexorably." During the next several weeks, that palace became the meeting-place for artists who converged there voluntarily to work on the production of propaganda against the military uprising. The posters were designed with no direction or interference from any organization. The images that were to appear on the posters were first drawn on large papers, in gouache or distemper. These large drawings were then taken to political parties and trade-unions, who added their initials and emblems. These organizations would then send them to the presses that had been collectivized by the workers at the outbreak of the war. They were then reproduced in a lithographic plate, and printed offset, generally using three or four colors. Occasionally, this method was excessively slow, and artists would draw directly on the plate. Other techniques such as photomontage were also used in some cases.

About 1,500 to 2,000 posters were designed during the war. The editions usually consisted of 3,000 to 5,000 posters, even though in exceptional cases they could be larger. The designs used in the posters were also frequently reproduced in the media. For example, poster number six in this catalogue was reproduced on the back page of the socialist newspaper Claridad on January 22, 1937. The posters were also sometimes used for large editions of postcards that were handed out to the soldiers in the front, and they were also publicized by other means. A photograph in the February 24, 1937 issue of the journal Mundo Gráfico shows that the poster Como ayudar a los hospitales de sangre! was reproduced on a giant billboard that was hung from the facade of a building in Valencia.

The production of posters was more intense during the first part of the war, because many young artists were called to the front as the war progressed. In the latter stages of the war, there were also problems with the materials. Paper became more scarce and was sometimes reused, and colors ran out, occasionally forcing the printers to change the colors that the artists had selected.

The ad hoc nature of the design and production of the posters described by Fontseré and other sources is typical of the first weeks of the war. Some of the posters in this collection, especially those that reflect the revolutionary fervor of the early days of the conflict (e.g. numbers 1-4), must have been made in this spontaneous fashion. The improvisation of this first phase was partially tempered by an increasing centralization as the war evolved. The first signs of this change can be seen as early as September 1936. On September 4, the government of Francisco Largo Caballero decided to reactivate the Ministry of Public Instruction. The communist Jesús Hernández was named as minister, and remained in the post until April of 1938. Hernández named another communist, the photomontage artist Josep Renau, as the head of the Fine Arts Section of his ministry. This office would play an important role in the production of propaganda posters during the next months (eight posters in the Southworth Collection bear the stamp of the Fine Arts Section, or Dirección General de Bellas Artes). According to Renau, the Dirección General, "edited and distributed without rest hundreds of thousands of pamphlets and propaganda posters."

The history of the organizations involved in the production of propaganda can assist in the dating of the posters. These dates are of some importance when studying images produced in a war that lasted nearly three years. They provide a chronological order for an important component of the visual environment of the conflict.

In the case of the Ministry of Public Instruction, most of its posters can probably be dated to Hernández's tenure, since the ministry was far more active under his leadership than under others. Moreover, since the responsibility for issuing posters was passed on to the Ministry of Propaganda after its creation on November 4, 1936, the posters issued by the Ministry of Public Instruction probably date before that time.

On November 6, only two days after it was created, the Ministry of Propaganda was moved from Madrid to Valencia together with the rest of the government. Until its closure on May 17, 1937, the Ministry remained in that city. The six posters in the Southworth Collection that were put out by this office must have been designed and issued there. They can be dated to the period when this Ministry was in existence.

Another agency that played an important role in the production of propaganda posters during the war and is represented in this collection is the Junta Delegada de Defensa de Madrid (Delegated Committee for the Defense of Madrid). When the central government left Madrid for Valencia on November 6, 1936, executive powers for the capital were conferred upon the Junta de Defensa de Madrid (Committee for the Defense of Madrid), which on November 31 was renamed Junta Delegada de Defensa de Madrid. This Junta Delegada was presided by General José Miaja, who was ordered to defend the city at all cost--a mission in which he succeeded for over two years. It was integrated by members of the Socialist and Communist parties and youth organizations, by Anarchists, and by members of the moderate Republican parties. The Junta Delegada included a section (the Consejería de Propaganda y Prensa) that was responsible for the production of a large number of posters (among them numbers 9, 16, 18, 19, 29, 37 and 41 in this catalogue). On the day when the Junta was constituted, numerous artists, primarily from the field of advertising, volunteered their work. Most of them were members of one of the leading artist's unions of the period in Madrid, the Sindicato de Profesionales de las Bellas Artes, UGT. Many had been working for the Popular Front government of the Republic from the outset of the war, and now simply shifted their services to the new governing body in the city. According to an account of the president of the union, Gustavo de Lafuente, the themes of the posters were suggested by either the artists or the Junta. When the theme had been chosen, the artists prepared sketches with their ideas, and those selected were then made into posters. The Junta Delegada de Defensa de Madrid ceased to exist on April 21, 1937.

As the method used by the Junta shows, the organizations that issued posters during the war were responsible, at least in part, for the messages conveyed in the propaganda. The actual images, on the other hand, were the responsibility of the artists, who formed a rather heterogeneous group. They came from different fields such as painting, sculpture or the advertising arts. In their work, they responded to different stimuli and had diverging political inclinations. Although many of the posters designed during the war are anonymous, others are the work of known artists. Some of these were important figures in the Spanish artistic scene before the start of the war. Among them are Rodríguez Luna, Juan Antonio Morales and Francisco Pérez Mateo, whose posters are present in this catalogue (numbers 23, 25, 28, 36). These were young artists, in their twenties and thirties, whose careers were suddenly truncated by the war. The designs of their posters reflect their interest in the avant-garde, and show traces of some of the leading pictorial languages of the time, from cubism to surrealism.

Many other posters made during the war were the work of amateur artists. In some cases these works have little artistic interest. However, as poster number twenty of this catalogue shows, a lack of technical ability in the draftsmanship and in the selection of images can yield an impression of innocence, and result in images of compelling immediacy.

There is yet another group of artists whose position in history is still largely defined by their activity during the war. Among them are two artists represented in this collection, José Bardasano and Josep Renau. Bardasano (1910-1979) was one of the most popular designers of war posters. In July of 1937, a public competition of posters was held in Madrid's main square, the Plaza Mayor. Ballot boxes were placed in front of each image so that the public could vote for their favorite work, and the competition was won by one of Bardasano's designs. In the revolutionary and anti-elitist atmosphere of the war, this was considered an appropriate way of judging artistic quality. In retrospect, however, Josep Renau (1906-1982) appears as a far more interesting artist. Slightly older than Bardasano, he is another representative of a generation that was forced by the war to take on high responsibilities at a young age. Renau was one of the first Spaniards to use the technique of photomontage. He was also a passionate supporter of the need for artists to become politically involved. This led him to become a member of the Spanish Communist party, and to join the government as Director General of Fine Arts. In that post, he played an instrumental role in the evacuations of the paintings from the Prado Museum in Madrid. He was also involved in the organization of the Spanish Pavilion in the International Exhibition held in Paris in 1937, a pavilion that included Picasso's Guernica, and works by Miró and Julio González among others. Renau designed some of the most engaging and spectacular propaganda posters produced during the war. After the conflict was over, he went into exile, first in Mexico and later in East Berlin. He continued to work as an artist, combining painted and photographic elements with furious and acerbic interpretations of modern life.

One of the most striking aspects of many posters from the Spanish Civil War is the impression of optimism that they produce at first sight. This results from the use of bright colors, the heroic characterization of many of the figures, and the encouraging nature of some of the written messages. One explanation for the optimistic tone of the images is the euphoria that was felt by many during the early part of the war, when the resistance to the uprising had been transformed into a social revolution. A text written to accompany the album of drawings Estampas de la Revolución Española, 19 de Julio de 1936 by the artist Sim (who is the author of poster number 22 in this catalogue) reflects this correlation between the mentality of the time and the positive aura of many of the images: "The Revolution also has colors. Not all is combat to death, war, blood, pain. There is also happiness, life, youth. Our Spanish revolution is built with joy and youthfulness. That is why it will triumph. That gaiety, the juvenile and enlivening enthusiasm, has been grasped by the serene retina of a great artist."

Another reason for the impression of energy and optimism caused by many posters is their very nature as images of propaganda. Their mission was to convey a message in a public space, and this is best achieved by using bright colors, high contrasts, and gigantic scales. Given that these posters intended to induce people to action in a war, they needed to be passionate in expounding their message. A number of them also needed to be optimistic in order to avoid defeatism.

There is still another factor that may account in part for the enduring capacity to energize and to convince that characterizes many posters from the Civil War: the historical environment in which they were produced. The Spanish Civil War belongs to one of the most ideological and extremist periods in Europe's recent history. The contending ideologies of the 1920s and 1930s all believed that they had the capability to change the world, and that it was their rightful duty to do so. By virtue of their messianic quality, extreme ideologies proved powerfully alluring, and in turn produced equally powerful and tempting images. It is this messianic quality of the ideologies that is responsible for the strong and often hopeful hold that these posters and other images of political propaganda still have on our imagination.

However true the feeling of optimism caused by the posters from the war may be, we can be sure that it does not correspond entirely to the reaction of contemporary viewers. When seen on the walls of a country engaged in conflict, their upbeat tone must have been countered by the crushing reality of the war. They formed part of a psychological landscape that included passionate ideology, but also privation and destruction, fear and death. The posters need to be considered in their original context in order to recover their true historical meaning--they are images of revolution and war.


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