September 18, 2020

María Teresa León, the cultural guerrilla who saved the works of the Prado Museum in the Civil War


On November 16, 1936, German planes dropped nine bombs on the roof of the Prado Museum in Madrid and three on its gardens. The works were in obvious danger and the Government of the Republic ordered the building to be evacuated. María Teresa León, secretary and one of the founders of the Alliance of Antifascist Writers, received the instruction signed by Francisco Largo Caballero to protect and move the paintings to Valencia.

The bullets and howitzers were scary, but it was even more difficult to miss that mission. María Teresa, accompanied by her second husband, Rafael Alberti, José Bergamín and Serrano Plaja, had already carried out the same operation with the relevant paintings in the El Escorial palace. Now it was the turn of Las Meninas and The fool of Coriaof Velázquez or the Carlos V of Titian.

One of the great scares of his life was given to him by Coria de Velázquez, when he disappeared before his eyes covered in a layer of mold. The technical explanation was that the tiles get cold when the temperature changes and fungi can cover the surface, which is easy to fix. “A cleaning will suffice. I have never breathed so deeply,” says the writer.

This anecdote –or rather historical landmark– is one of the many that León collects in his book Memory of melancholy, written at the end of the 60s and now recovered by the Renacimiento publishing house with a foreword by Benjamín Prado. It is the second by the author to be reissued by the Sevillian company, which aims to create a collection dedicated to the writer. Last year the first book was released, The trip to Russia from 1934.

María Teresa León was born in Logroño in 1903, the daughter of a colonel named Ángel León and Oliva Goyri. From her childhood she was surrounded by intellectuals: Jimena, the older cousin whom she admired so much because she walked alone in Madrid and went to a school without nuns, was the daughter of María Goyri, the first woman to obtain a doctorate from the Faculty of Philosophy and Letters at the Spanish university, and Ramón Menéndez Pidal.

He also got used to living in different cities from a young age, although at that time he did not know that uprooting was going to be his main burden in adulthood. Due to their father’s profession, in addition to the capital, they lived in Barcelona and Burgos. Shortly before settling in that province of Castilla y León, the writer had been expelled from the Colegio del Sagrado Corazón in Leganitos: “because she insisted on doing high school, because she cried out of time, because she read prohibited books …”.

This rebellious character came from his mother’s family – his father, however, had followed Primo de Rivera in the dictatorship – with his ‘crazy uncle’ (and stalker) or his own mother, who first put on the mantilla to go to pray and then to vote for the Communist Party. He had trouble casting his ballot by his last name, although after doing so, he went to recite some prayers to ask God to win.

Life got more and more difficult as the years went by, as it often does. She married Gonzalo de Sebastián Alfaro very young and had two children, Gonzalo and Enrique. But the marriage was not happy and it broke up in a complicated way: “He reminded them that the separation did not come from the girl, who was walking on the arm of her colonel father through the streets of Barcelona, ​​it came from him, he, who was trembling in a corridor of the house asking for forgiveness “.

Then Rafael Alberti arrived, from whom he no longer disunited. They met in Madrid, where she had settled. She was already writing articles in the press that she signed with the pseudonym Isabel Inghirami and had published Stories to dream. “Now, when I see myself with Rafael, it makes me laugh to think that he entered me by oral tradition, in the form of a chorus, leaning on him without knowing him, without knowing that he had written Sailor ashore, and less than it was from Puerto de Santa María, and much, much less, than today thirty-seven years ago that our footsteps around the world are parallel “.

In his memoirs there is a constant trickle of crucial names from the history of Spanish culture. From León Felipe to Emilia Pardo Bazán –who gave him a book for his communion with a dedication “To the girl María Teresa León, wishing him to follow the path of letters” –Buñuel, Pablo Neruda, Alejandro Casona, Federico García Lorca, Miguel. de Unamuno, Ignacio Sánchez Mejías or Pedro Salinas.

And also politicians like Dolores Ibárruri or Stalin, with whom they met in Moscow: “He knew well who we were. They had told him that Rafael was a Spanish poet loved by his people, something like a Mayakovsky. I was a woman.” Her high school status alongside Alberti, despite being the author of a vast work and a recognized activist, had it assumed: “Now I am the tail of the comet. He is leading. Rafael has never lost his light.”

The way of exile

The establishment of the Republic caught them in Rota and the outbreak of the Civil War in Ibiza. Upon returning to their house on Calle Marqués de Urquijo, 45, they found it revolted and robbed, with a band that read: “Requisada para la Contraguerra.”

From that moment on, his activity became constant and frantic: he held a position in the Central Theater Council and brought the Theater Guerrillas to the fronts, he participated in the founding of the magazine The blue monkey (I had previously done it in Working world) and was the secretary of the Alliance of Anti-Fascist Writers. Furthermore, she wrote: The optimistic tragedy (theater), A red star; Help, Madrid (stories), General Chronicle of the Civil War (test).

When the Republican side lost the war, they undertook their exile journey around the world. Her anguish at having been expelled from her country, not being able to set foot on her land, accompanied her to all her destinations, which were France, Argentina and Italy. They worked as translators, they wrote (she, seven novels, eight storybooks, two film scripts, poems and even a book addressed to Argentine housewives entitled Our everyday home, in 1957), were journalists and organized political and literary meetings.

Benjamín Prado says in the prologue that she “always carried obligations that kept the fridge full and the bills paid.” She assumed that role as a worker, as a woman who maintains the house, perhaps as she did with her high school position alongside her husband. “Why are women always doing something? In our hands we do not see the years but the work (…) I look at our hands, I move them, I caress them a little to see the whiteness of their temperament, I look for them the knots that life left them, the scar of anxiety, despair, credulity, the bitterness of feeling betrayed … “.

Their daughter Aitana was born in that American country where they lived for more than 20 years, before moving to Rome, where they lived for another fourteen years. Their houses always had their doors open to the Spanish who came to see them, many intellectuals, friends and others who wanted to meet them out of admiration.

Like the group of young Catalans who told them that “Catalan is a weapon” for them. “We speak bravely Catalan and Valencian and Mallorcan and Ibizan. We speak loudly so that they can hear us and know that we are not happy with what is happening in Spain. We want to destroy the myth that wraps us in its milky cotton from Madrid,” they said. And many more came, the marriage was a kind of cultural ambassador for the losing side.

But in Rome, Maria Teresa felt more and more exile and worried about not recognizing that country that she had left to flee from a dictatorship and to which perhaps one day she could return. And she did it in 1977 with her husband, but already very affected by Alzheimer’s that had erased her memory. She died in 1988 in a residence in Madrid, the city in which she is buried. Her epitaph is a verse by Rafael Alberti: “This morning, love, we are twenty years old.”

María Teresa León began this book knowing that her mind was beginning to fail her. “I suffer from forgetting and when the sky clears me or the window is opened, I feel that they push me forward, towards sorrow, towards death. So I prefer to go towards what was and I speak, I speak with the little sense of memory, with the failures, the falls, the inevitable stumbling blocks of the mirror of memory “. The writer not only wanted to record what her own life was, but also the feeling of those who had to leave their land like her.

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