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There was good art under Franco

A review of Jeremy Treglown’s Franco’s ‘Crypt: Spanish Culture and Memory Since 1936’. A lot of the great art and film made under Franco’s regime has been unfairly tainted by association

12 April 2014

9:00 AM

12 April 2014

9:00 AM

Franco’s Crypt: Spanish Culture and Memory Since 1936 Jeremy Treglown

Chatto and Windus, pp.320, £25

Everyone knows about the Spanish civil war, first battlefield in the struggle that broke out in 1936 and ended nine years later in the ruins of Berlin. It has been immortalised in the work of Hemingway, Orwell and Koestler and commemorated in the heroic deeds of the International Brigades. This is how it is remembered by Camilo José Cela, the conservative novelist and Nobel Prize winner:

To the conscripts of 1937, all of whom lost something: their life, their freedom, their dreams, their hope, their decency. And not to the adventurers from abroad, Fascists and Marxists, who had their fill of killing Spaniards like rabbits and whom no one had invited to take part in our funeral…

In my copy of the French translation of Cela’s San Camilo, that dedication does not appear. The French contingent in the International Brigade is estimated to have been 9,000, by some way the largest national contingent.

Franco’s excuse for his rebellion was the failure of the elected socialist government to protect its people — principally the clergy — from persecution. With the subsequent intervention of Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin, the civil war became an international gala of death, in which idealists of all sides could assign themselves walk-on parts and the complex Spanish reality could be forgotten. But, as Cela’s devastating comment reminds us, it was essentially a Spanish quarrel.

Jeremy Treglown describes the arrival of the rebellious General Franco at the head of the Army of Africa in Seville in July 1936 as ‘a colonial invasion in reverse’. Subsequently, he argues, in a forthright and original analysis, that Spanish culture and the memory of war have been steadily colonised and manipulated by the demands and pressure of international ideologies. He notes that in England, as recently as 1995, this distorting process was still at work, with the oversimplifications of ‘Ken Loach’s preposterous civil war film Land and Freedom’.

The conventional view of the Franco years is that they were a time of sterility, when artistic expression was censored and opponents of the regime were arrested, tortured and imprisoned. An illustration of this view is found in the career of the anarchist film director Luis Buñuel. Buñuel was driven out of Spain by the victory of Franco and eventually got a job at MoMA in New York — which he had to leave after being denounced as a communist by his old friend Salvador Dalí, who was still comfortably established in Spain. Buñuel’s most famous film, Viridiana, which concerns the sexual exploitation of a nun, won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1961. This award, with the help of a well-timed Vatican denunciation, made Viridiana into an international hit. But it was impossible to view this classic of Spanish cinema in Spain until after Franco’s death.


Treglown’s title refers to the Valle de los Caidos (the ‘Valley of the Fallen’), the ‘monstrous crypt’ erected outside Madrid with the forced labour of Republican prisoners, in which Franco is buried — still at the head of his troops. But he sees the Franco years from a Spanish rather than an ideological perspective and he has found far more in Franco’s crypt than the Generalissimo would have expected.

By painstaking inquiry he shows that the psychological wounds of the battlefield were in fact a powerful inspiration for writers, artists and film-makers, and that much of the work published or exhibited was a direct challenge to the values of Franco’s regime. He concludes that popular mythology has exaggerated the extent to which this work was ever subject to dictatorial control. In fact, anything creative that was produced in Spain was tainted by association. In Peru, in the 1950s, Mario Vargas Llosa has recalled that he read nothing produced in Spain because he assumed — wrongly — that ‘everything published “over there” reeked of fustiness, the sacristy and Francoism’.

And yet, ‘over there’ in Madrid, a Museum of Contemporary Art was opened in 1951, which was apolitical and contained pictures by such prominent opponents of the regime as Picasso, Miró and Diego Rivera. And as early as 1943, only four years after Franco’s victory, another brilliant innovation the Academia Breve, held its first exhibition. This was formed by a group of 11 friends interested in the visual arts, each of whom had the right to nominate a work of art for an annual exhibition. Its members included political partisans from both sides. The sponsor of each work had to justify his or her choice. The exhibitions were never subject to any form of official control, and were additionally free from the invisible control of cliques and cronyism that bedevil the worlds of official art and poetry in London and Paris today.

Some of this creative freedom seems to have been the consequence of the dictator’s personal indifference. Taken to see a Spanish biennale in Madrid, he came to a halt in front of some paintings by the surrealist artist Tapiès but was reassured when told that he was in ‘the room of revolutionary art’. ‘So long as this is how they carry out their revolution,’ he replied. Franco himself wrote a novel, with the aid of ghost writers, justifying the rebellion. This was later filmed. He would watch the film, sometimes in tears, in his private cinema, where he also watched other films such as Casablanca that had been banned from general distribution by his censors. Treglown does not mention whether or not he watched Viridiana.

One of the many pleasures of Franco’s Crypt is that it draws our attention to a long list of Franco-era writers and film-makers whose work is unfamiliar or forgotten but who deserve to be translated or re-screened today. They include Ramón Sender (author of The War in Spain and Requiem for a Spanish Peasant), Rafael Sánchez Ferlosio (The River) and Max Aub (The True Story of the Death of Francisco Franco — published in Spain in 1960, 15 years before the event).

The author’s own interest in Spain was awakened when he was researching his biography of V.S. Pritchett. Pritchett knew Spain before the civil war and described it as ‘the most foreign of European countries’. Revisiting the country 50 years later he thought that ‘the Spanish temper’ had changed very little. Treglown quotes a passage from Sender which reinforces Pritchett’s view.  The narrator in The War in Spain is describing the execution of his apolitical wife by a Nationalist firing squad, because she had asked for permission to take her children to France.

Terrorism terrorises those who have practised it, more than any others… [Our] children, thus left derelict for the time, were at last recovered by persons whose hearts had not been contaminated…The crime binds me more closely in an unchanging and eternal way to my people…

You probably have to be Spanish to entirely understand the last phrase.

Today, Treglown notes, the civil war can be refought in Spain, this time as a video game. If this is a sign that the country is at last feeling its way towards closure, Franco’s Crypt enables us to understand how this process started. Perhaps a new generation will grow up who will not hate their neighbours for being the great-grandchildren of ‘the other side’. They may even learn to agree — in the words of the comminist historian Manuel Tuñón de Lara — that ‘there were far more heroes than criminals in both camps’.


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