It was a brutal conflict that polarised communities far beyond its borders and left a complex legacy that has still not been fully resolved 70 years on.
Now a new exhibition by a Falkirk artist revisits the impact of the Spanish Civil War and asks why it remains such a sensitive subject in the country.
‘Spain: Still Cause’ opened on Saturday at the Park Gallery in Callendar House and runs until April 20. It showcases the work of Christine Jones, originally from Banknock, who was inspired to learn more about the conflict after discovering the work of Gerda Taro, the first female photographer to capture images from the front line of a war zone.
The exhibition contains a number of drawings by Jones of civil war survivors, historians and activists she met while undertaking research in Spain.
The resulting works pose awkward questions about our collective attitude to war and why those on the ‘losing side’ are often airbrushed from history.
“There’s a real disparity between the victors and the vanquished in Spain,” said Jones (39), a former St Modan’s High School pupil.
“There is a significant lack of public memorials in Spain to the defeated and the victims of dictatorship.”
The Spanish Civil War erupted in July 1936 when a group of generals rebelled against the democratically-elected government of the then Spanish Republic, which had been established five years earlier when King Alfonso XIII fled the country.
The Nationalist side, which received military assistance from Hitler’s Germany, was led by General Francisco Franco and its supporters included monarchists and religious conservatives. It faced a Republican movement made up of government supporters, trade unionists and anti-fascist volunteers from across Europe – including more than 500 from Scotland.
The writer George Orwell was famously one of those who travelled to volunteer for the Republicans, and his book ‘Homage to Catalonia’ details his time in the trenches.
Several men from the Falkirk district also joined the International Brigades, including Sam Hannah from Bo’ness, who died in 2002.
With the grudging acceptance of his parents, Hannah signed up onboard the SS Aitkenside, docked at Grangemouth, sailing first to France and then on to Bilbao in northern Spain – despite being aged just 16.
Franco’s forces won victory in 1939, and Spain would be ruled as a dictatorship for the next 36 years.
Following Franco’s death, democracy was restored and King Juan Carlos was returned to the throne abdicated by his father Alfonso.
An amnesty law passed in 1977 attempted to draw a line under the fascist era, and resulted in a culture of silence which still persists today.
“It’s difficult to even talk about it,” Jones admitted. “I’m constantly aware that everything regarding the civil war is contested.
“My interest began when I found a photograph by Gerda Taro online by accident one night,” continues Jones. “It was very striking. I had no prior interest in Spain or the civil war, I didn’t know anything about it really.
“I did a bit of research online and came across a talk by Irme Schaber (an expert on Taro who will speak at an event in Falkirk on Monday).
“I realised that Taro’s story was amazing and I wanted to do something on it. I started to think that I although I had been to Spain and visited its cities I had never come across anything about what happened in the civil war or any kind of memorials. I quickly realised it is still a very divisive subject.”
Jones, a Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art graduate, got in contact with members of the historical memory movement in Spain, which began in the early 2000s when Spaniards attempted to find the bodies of relatives killed in the war to give them proper burials.
“I got in touch and explained what I was doing, and they were very excited to hear that someone from outside of Spain was interested.”
After securing a grant from Forth Valley Visual Artist Awards, she travelled in 2011 to Barcelona, Valencia, Madrid, Brunete and Guadalajara to meet with various individuals and learn about their experiences.
“The drawings on display are the culmination of the first stage of my research. By realistic rendering, they are made with respect to their subjects,” she explained.
“This work aims to introduce and take part in existing dialogue on the subject of Spain’s historical memory, with the belief in art’s role as a force for change.”
In 2013, Christine created a brass plaque as a memorial to those killed in the war who have no memorial in Spain to remember them. Instead of being fixed to one place, it is being passed through the country so members of the public can pose for a picture while holding it.
The plaque is intended as part memorial and part protest, resisting the social and political ‘el pacto de olvido’ (pact of forgetting) that prevails in some sections of Spanish society.
‘Spain: Still Cause’ runs at the Park Gallery in Callendar House until April 20. Admission is free.