Of the thousands of propaganda posters produced during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), one stands out for Dr Anindya Raychaudhuri, a lecturer in the School of English, University of St Andrews.
This anonymous poster, which is signed R A and was produced for the dissident-Marxist, Trotskyite party, the POUM, features a woman holding what appears to be the body of her dead son. We can see the spectral outline of a bomb in the background, and across the top of the poster, is the word ‘Criminales’ – a denunciation of the invisible Francoist aggressors. Her face is drawn in minimalist lines; the only noticeable features are her eyes and the hollow oval of a mouth. The lines acquire more precise definition as the artist sketches the hands that clasp her dead child.
The identity of the woman is immaterial. It is her identity as a mother that is picked up as crucial, which is why her face is devoid of any identifying characteristics while her arms and hands become symbols of her mothering function, now tragically made redundant.
What makes this poster fascinating for me is that, even though the Spanish Republicans were generally fiercely anti-clerical, this artist in particular seems to have been clearly influenced by Michelangelo’s Pieta. The mother-and-son as victim is a very old, very conservative trope that, at first glance, does not seem to match the radical credentials of the Second Spanish Republic.
But even a cursory look through the cultural legacy of the Spanish Civil War shows a whole host of female victims – Maria in Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, practically the whole cast of Vicente Aranda’s Libertarias, Conchito in Guillermo del Toro’s El espinazo del Diablo, Ofelia and Carmen in El laberinto del fauno, by the same director, Carmela in Carlos Saura’s ¡Ay Carmela!, Carol and Aurora in El Viaje de Carol by Imanol Uribe, and on and on. All of these texts derive a large part of their emotional force from the shared cultural assumption that violence against a woman is qualitatively worse than violence against a man.
It is easy to see why this is such an effective trope, but it also brings with it certain problems. Female victimhood during times of war is so common that it requires little glossing – it is a convenient shorthand for authors and directors that ultimately relies on an unquestioned assumption that war is not an appropriate environment for women. It is also no coincidence that this list of texts comprises most of the cultural output of the Spanish Civil War that has been allowed general circulation outside Spain. The Spanish Civil War has become, in the Anglophone world at least, the ultimate symbol of loss, a loss which can most easily be described using the symbol of the female victim.
Over the eight decades since, the Spanish Civil War has become emblematic of defeat, and generations of artists and writers, not to mention critics and scholars, have seen as their role to construct elegies to the dead Republic. In many cases, they have done so using problematic gendered tropes. These texts first construct the woman as victim, and then appropriate her victimhood to represent the wider victimhood of the Second Spanish Republic. The Republic emerges from this narrative as always already defeated – in the way that women can be constructed as always already victims of war.
To cite just one example, in 2007, Eric Hobsbawm, Britain’s most distinguished Marxist historian, argued that the War ‘became and has remained something remembered by those who were young at the time like the heart-rending and indestructible memory of a first great and lost love’. Hobsbawm’s rhetoric is compelling, and his argument convincing, but he also represents a problematic trend in left-wing commemoration of the demise of the Second Spanish Republic.
The fact that the Spanish Civil War has gained the status of the last great cause of left-wing politics in general means that, by accident or by design, the apparent inevitability of the Republic’s defeat ends up being extended to left-wing politics in general; all similar movements will inevitably fail in the way the Republic did. The politically committed artists, writers, intellectuals and activists emerge from this narrative as innocent and naïve – we from our superior vantage position can see what they could not – that the Republic would always have failed.
There is an urgent need to challenge this argument. The defeat of the Second Spanish Republic was a tragedy, but it was not inevitable – there were specific historic reasons for its failure. In other words, the Republic might be dead, but that does not necessarily have to mean it needs to be buried safely away along with all notions of political commitment.
It is important, when representing the Second Spanish Republic and the Spanish Civil War, that we do not undermine its radical potential by rendering its tragic demise as inevitable. When depicting the Spanish Republic, it is important that we find new metaphors of loss that do not reinforce normative readings of gendered bodies. It is even more important that the tragic death of the Republic does not become a tool to foreclose all possible progressive political movements. Only then would the Second Spanish Republic be truly dead.
Dr Anindya Raychaudhuri is a lecturer in the School of English, University of St Andrews. His primary research interest is in the cultural representation and collective memory of war and conflict and he is currently working on two main projects: ‘Narrating partition: agency, memory, representation (monograph forthcoming in 2017 from OUP) and ‘Homemaking: postcolonial nostalgia and the construction of a South Asian diaspora’ (monograph forthcoming in 2017 from Rowman & Littlefield). He is the co-host of the weekly podcast, State of the Theory, and is one of the 2016 BBC/AHRC New Generation Thinkers. You can read more about Dr Raychaudhuri’s research, teaching and public engagement activities on his website.
To mark the 80th anniversary of the Spanish Civil War, the Institute of Modern Languages Research (IMLR), a member of the University of London’s School of Advanced Study (SAS), is holding a two-day symposium (11–12 July) entitled ‘The Spanish Civil War and world literatures’. It will critically examine the part literature played in the war, especially in the Spanish Republic’s fight against fascism. Details are available from Catherine.firstname.lastname@example.org.
Image: From ‘Al pie de cañón’ sobre la batalla de Belchite by Augusto Ferrer-Dalmau, own work/Wikimedia Commons [CC-BY-SA 3.0]