Christabel Howdon-Bancroft

Review: Conscience and Conflict: British Artists and the Spanish Civil War

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Image by: Mark Smiles via Wikimedia Commons

Image by: Mark Smiles via Wikimedia Commons

The Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle recently opened its newest exhibition focusing on British artists and their reactions to the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) over the past decades.

Strangely it is not just British artist0s, despite the title of the exhibition, it also features iconic paintings from Pablo Picasso and Joan Míro. The works are spread out over two of the Laing galleries upstairs rooms with a strong feel of liberalism, surrealism and empathy throughout.

If you’re taking the artwork at face value then the exhibition is fantastic – a strong collection of British and international painters and their reactions to the war and Britain’s part in it. Many of the pieces depict versions of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain as he refused to intervene in the war before eventually helping refugees from Spain. What lacks is a steady flow between the art in the two rooms.

The first room is a mismatch of propaganda posters on one side and surrealist paintings and sculptures on the other, with a few drawings of people who died during the war in the centre of the room.

The second, housing Picasso’s work, again, has random pieces of artistic posters among giant, detailed paintings that really should be the focus of the exhibition.

Picasso’s Weeping Woman is without doubt the highlight of the entire collection, the infamous piece features a woman, believed to be influenced by Picasso’s lover Dora Maar, crying over the bombing of the town of Guernica (Picasso’s other famous work which is housed in Madrid now due to its fragile state). The eyes of the painting have bombers painted in them showing the suffering that the people of Spain had to witness and endure during the war.

Other pieces on display worth seeing include Edward Burra’s ‘Medusa’ which is a particularly harrowing painting of Medusa watching over the death of the people in the war. In the second room, Walter Nessler’s Premonition is indeed a depiction of the war in Spain, with monuments of London painted into the background,  it would later come to show the state of war in Britain during the Second World War.

The Laing’s attempt at a historical timeline between each section works in some parts but ends on a distinctive low. The final part is inspirations artists have taken from the earlier work created, but it is slightly disappointing compared to the other pieces featured throughout. One of the final pieces on display, which is one of the best, is a series of photographs by Edith Tudor-Hart, the photographs show life for refugee children from Spain in English schools playing cricket and holding up their fists as a sign of the anti-fascist movement.

Conscience and Conflict: British Artists and the Spanish Civil War runs until June 7 2015. The Laing Art Gallery charge £6 for adults, £5.40 for senior citizens and £4.80 for concessions. More information can be found on the Laing’s website.

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