Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 29, 2016
Miriam M. Basilio Visual Propaganda, Exhibitions, and the Spanish Civil War New York: Routledge, 2013. 340 pp.; 20 color ills.; 51 b/w ills. Cloth $130.05 (9781409464815)

Miriam M. Basilio’s excellent monograph, Visual Propaganda, Exhibitions, and the Spanish Civil War, provides an in-depth study of images that were in visual circulation both during and immediately after the conflict that tore Spain apart. That Basilio concludes her work with a broad look at how different artists have engaged with historical memory through the interrogation of museums, archives, and testimony shows how the Spanish Civil War continues to influence the collective imaginary and underlines the timeliness of an exhaustive study such as hers.

The argument at the core of the book is that the visual-propaganda campaigns and exhibitions carried out by the assorted political actors on both sides of the civil war were driven by questions of national identity and historical memory. Basilio clearly shows how various authorities used print media such as posters and magazines to create sophisticated techniques of persuasion. Although it is impossible to say to what extent these campaigns were effective—a fact that Basilio readily acknowledges—one can discern the core beliefs of the time regarding what was seen initially as the transformative potential of visual media during the conflict and its aftermath. The book’s trajectory takes the reader through this dynamic on both sides of the fighting and also points to moments when doubts as to the efficacy of propaganda filtered through.

One of the really fascinating elements of the book is the way in which Basilio documents not only images and messages but also the very materiality of culture. For instance, her research on the politics and public relations “spinning” of the Republic’s expropriation of private art and religious artefacts under the aegis of protecting “cultural property” is enlightening. In doing so, she provides a new angle into the battle for international opinion during the war. Details such as this along with astute analyses of the uses of Francisco Goya’s works by both sides give the book various “a-ha!” moments that will invariably find their way into scholars’ lectures.

Visual Propaganda consists of five chapters. The first two deal with the Spanish Republic; the next pair with policies and practices in Nationalist (Franco-controlled) territory; and the final one considers the ways in which contemporary Spanish artists have used archival research to inform their own takes on memory, the subsequent understanding of traumatic events by latter generations (cf., Marianne Hirsch’s “postmemory” [The Generation of Postmemory: Writing and Visual Culture After the Holocaust, New York: Columbia University Press, 2012]), and what Basilio aptly calls the “afterlife of the propaganda images and museums today” (8). Each chapter is divided into clear subsections with a specific case or goal that furthers the overall argument of the book. When combined with Basilio’s superlative close readings, the result is a very focused text, albeit one that can sometimes overwhelm with its wealth of detail.

Chapter 1, “Figures of the Republic, the Nation, and the Spanish Art-historical Tradition,” offers an almost step-by-step history that serves to contextualize the visual innovations and strategies at play during the 1930s in Spain. By beginning in this manner, Basilio demonstrates how the strong connection between institutional intent and artistic product was constantly informed by the social and political situation within the Republic. By engaging with posters and political cartoons as her primary texts, she details the evolution of propaganda techniques and provides copious behind-the-scenes information regarding the internal debates that were occurring as various groups sought to make their voices heard and “seen” by a mass audience. The Catalan capital of Barcelona figures centrally in this chapter on account of both its status as a “bulwark of the Republic” and for having been a pre-war leader in advanced graphic arts and design infrastructure in Spain (50). Basilio’s analysis of her material is on point and informative. Her readings of Pere Català Pic’s famous “Aixafem el feixisme” [Crush Fascism] poster, which was the first to be issued by the Comissariat de Propaganda, and Jacint Bofarull Foraster’s Obrer! Camperol! Unitat per la victòria! [Industrial Worker! Farmworker! Unity for Victory!] are exemplary. Not only does she offer clear and concise readings of the images that explain both form and content, she also delves into aspects of production and distribution that add greatly to the overall texture of her study.

Chapter 2, “The Culture of Exhibitions: Propaganda, Painting, and Cultural Patrimony,” begins slowly with a discussion of Republican museum projects and the politics of requisitioning before dealing with the section’s main event: the staging of the Spanish Pavilion at the 1937 World’s Fair in Paris. Basilio’s work here serves as a powerful corrective to what has become a standard narrative about the original home to Pablo Picasso’s Guernica (1937). She coherently details the tensions in the artistic and political spheres surrounding the assembly of the pavilion and its contents with the result being a thoroughly researched section that shows for the first time the serious divisions within the Republican camp regarding propaganda and the place of modernist art. As Basilio points out: “The modernist works on view in the pavilion were an exception: the works shown in the building’s visual-arts section were figurative, more typical of the art produced within Republican Spain” (95). The chapter ends with an examination of the virtually unknown “Exposición trimestal de artes plásticas” that took place during the civil war in August 1938 and was one of the “ephemeral experiments” in the rather utopian quest to create a museum for the people that would foster “a new shared sense of democratic, secular, egalitarian, participatory, and progressive Republican citizenship” (114–15).

With two chapters on the Republican side under her belt, Basilio then turns her attention to the Nationalist forces, which ostensibly had the advantage of being more ideologically cohesive than their opponents. In “Genealogies for a New Spain: Nationalist Territory, 1936–40,” she first examines the sacralization process of the Caudillo, Francisco Franco, and then looks at propaganda aimed toward unifying the divided Spain. Once again, Basilio’s fine command of formal and contextual elements provides a clear and incisive reading of her primary source texts, such as Jalón Ángel’s photo portraits of both a caped and mounted Generalísimo. This chapter also points to the Nationalists’ competing use of Goya and the War of Independence in their strategies and observes that “the modern personality cults and mass propaganda in Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany” served as examples in Nationalist Spain (165).

As Basilio concisely states at the beginning of chapter 4, “Through exhibitions and other public events Francisco Franco’s government and supporters sought to foster a new collective identity for the Spanish people” (173). Very interesting to note here is that in addition to the Republican Pavilion, Franco’s Spain was also present at the fair in the form of Josep Maria Sert’s painting La intercesión de Santa Teresa en la Guerra Civil [The Intercession of Saint Teresa in the Civil War] (1937). Basilio astutely shows how “appeals to Catholic devotion and references to aspects of Spain’s art-historical tradition elided differences amongst Franco’s supporters” (174). What makes the situation in Paris even more intriguing is that the painter was the uncle of the architect of the Republican Pavilion (Josep Lluis Sert). Even at the level of representation, family members were pitted against each other. Chapter 4 also discusses exhibitions held during the war in which the Franco regime sought to create both military museums and sites of memory—with the Alcázar of Toledo serving as the prime destination for Nationalist pilgrimages. Basilio’s recounting of the siege and the subsequent packaging of it is extremely compelling and one of the must-read sections of the book.

Visual Propaganda ends by bringing the archives to the twenty-first century. Given the intense focus on “historical memory” in Spain during the last fifteen years, the space in “Recuperating Historical Memory: Contemporary Art and Museums” dedicated to contemporary artists’ engagement with the civil war is very welcome. Basilio discusses works by Francesc Abad, Fernando Bryce, Francesc Torres, Fernando Sánchez Castillo, and Milagros de la Torre as well as attempts to exhibit memory in Madrid, Toledo, and Barcelona.

While the issues raised in the final chapter of the book are important and bring together strands touched on earlier, one is still left wanting a more formal conclusion—even a brief one—in which the major ideas of the book could be revisited in light of the material presented. One also wonders about the role of the Valle de los Caídos [Valley of the Fallen] in the debate on memory and commemoration that Basilio broaches, but these are but the slightest of criticisms. This book is a success. Rigorously researched and argued, Visual Propaganda, Exhibitions, and the Spanish Civil War deserves to be read by scholars across the board. It is accessible and lucid and will broaden the knowledge of specialists and non-experts alike.

Robert Davidson
Associate Professor, Department of Spanish and Portuguese, University of Toronto

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