May 27, 2020

What happened to Spanish art in the postwar period?

LThe Spanish contest of 1936 was the first pulse that the totalitaries threw into the Western democracies. Spain became a test bench for weapons, strategies and various military units. But, also, the first place in Europe where institutions faced the challenge of safeguarding their artistic historical heritage and preventing its destruction.

The transfer of the Prado Museum, first to France and then to Geneva, to prevent the bombs (several shells fell on the roof of the Villanueva building), the looting and the general disorder of the wars ended up ruining what had survived centuries History, is still an example today that nobody forgets and that was a model for the rest of the European powers, which would adapt when the terrible events that World War II brought. The art gallery now celebrates the 80th anniversary of that event with the congress «Museum, war and postwar. Protection of heritage in military conflicts », which aims to highlight all that it achieved since in November 1936 the works were removed from its collection and, in a succession of stages it was achieved that in more than seventy trucks they reached the gala border under the Perpetual aviation attack of the national side.

Arturo Colorado Castellary, professor at the Complutense University and responsible for this meeting, is quite clear in one aspect. «Many, taking advantage of the context of insecurity that unleashed the confrontation, tried to take out some of the treasures we housed in our territory. Many of these attempts have left no testimonial traces, but we do know that some of the pieces that came out were later located in Paris. There is an example. A tray of Benvenuto Cellini. It came from Spain and was found in an antique dealer in Paris. The Gestapo discovered it and the German ambassador in that city later handed it over during a reception to the Spanish ambassador. Keep in mind that looting took place and there were groups of heartless people who tried to benefit from the situation. Another example happened with a tapestry from National Heritage that was also found in an antique shop. Things like that always happen. You just have to look at what happened recently in the Baghdad Museum, which, they say, was looted by the US troops themselves. Another case that counts is that of a nobleman who tried to sell a Goya in London by finding the opportunity offered by the conflict. On this occasion, the Fine Arts Department was attentive and managed to stop this operation in time.

Origin and membership

During the Spanish Civil War there were two positions regarding the protection of heritage. The Francoist side did not worry anything or almost nothing about him, while the Republican did everything he could to try to protect him from pillage, destruction or deterioration. During this operation, the Republicans packed hundreds of works from churches, institutions or private collections with the intention of not disappearing. They even went to a propaganda campaign to raise awareness among the militia and the volunteers and that they took into account the importance of the heritage, even if they had a religious significance. The problem is that, on many occasions, neither the origin nor the ownership of the pieces was recorded. When the national side reached the victory he found all this legacy that, for example in Madrid, left the Board of Seizure of Artistic Treasures. “Our research – says Arturo Colorado – shows a total of 26,000 saved works. The issue is trying to solve what happened next with them ». This is where a big question opens. It could be assumed that their owners were fully and legitimately restored, but that would be of enormous naivety due to the difficulties in establishing where they came from. «It is true that some were returned to their owners, but Franco also encountered many problems to do so in many cases. So many of them were left on deposit in museums, religious centers or public organizations. The worrying thing is those pieces of art that were derived to other hands because their origin was not known or because they belonged to Republicans, to whom this heritage was not returned, or to those Republicans who at that time were in exile. The question of whether their heirs or if their survivors could claim or demand these paintings is a matter that does not belong to historians but to jurists and politicians. Arturo Colorado points out that, due to this situation, "there are works in about thirty museums" that are linked to the word "usucapion" and that are rooted in the problem described.


Teresa Díaz Fraile, head of the documentation service of the Institute of Cultural Heritage of Spain, comments that during this period, the Madrid board “dedicated itself to protecting the private collections of the capital, documenting all this information and storing it in empty buildings , such as the Prado or the Archaeological Museum. The Board reflected everything well, but there was a percentage, about 20 percent, that was delivered by political or militia parties. The Board was unaware of the origin of these works ». This problem is multiplied by two at the end of the war, when you begin to locate these works in a lot of buildings. «From 1939 there are a lot of collections that must be returned. Republicans were not returned their works. For example, Pedro Rico, who was mayor of Madrid in 1936, who had a 19th-century collection of 23 paintings and two drawings. It was seized by the socialist group and the Board documented it correctly. These works were deposited in El Prado until the year 40. As the owner was in exile and died in France, they were not delivered and are now in different museums. Two of them are in El Prado ».

The other problem is why some of these objects ended up in private hands. It is unknown if it was with bad intention, to benefit someone or simply because there was no claim and they were delivered to certain people in deposit or to be guarded and thus free some stores. «We know that there are paintings that were left in the hands of individuals. José Sicardo, Republican infantry colonel. I was married. He had 29 paintings on wood and another 103 works from different eras and authors. National agents find everything in the Modern Museum. But unlike the Board, which documents the works, catalogs, labels and is easily identifiable, these objects are very complex to identify. The family said there were goyas and van Dyck, but how can we know? Some delivery records of the Museum of Modern Art preserves the provenance: Moreto Street, number 1. The address of these owners. But others, no, ”explains Teresa Díaz.

The claims chapter, as happened in the rest of Europe after the end of World War II, seems to be there. But the scarce documentation so that the supposed heirs can show that a painting or sculpture belongs to their family is difficult. Sometimes a photograph can help drive a claim, but it's not easy to own it either.

Without wood to protect the paintings

The granddaughter of the Macarrón brothers yesterday evoked the difficulty of packing the works of the Prado during their transfer in the Civil War. A process that is reflected in his letters where he says they are "distressed." For many weeks they worked from sun to sun. «Today we packed the Velázquez». One of the oils posed difficulties for its conservation, the "Family of Carlos IV", by Goya. Add to that the difficulty of obtaining wood, nails, screws, ropes or waterproof paper to protect the works of the art gallery.

Molotov cocktail of the destruction of works of art: poverty, lack of education and wars

Yesterday's wars have not stopped today's wars. The conflicts continue and with them, the destruction of the historical heritage that has been inherited from other centuries. To the destruction of Syria or Iraq, whose monuments have been wildly damaged or destroyed by bombs or groups of Islamist fans, we must now add countries that are being severely punished: Libya, Mali, Afghanistan and Yemen. According to Isber Sabrina, from the IMF and the CSIC, he comments on some of the current problems that can be found in those countries: «Europeans would have to work with those countries. Keep in mind that these populations are based on a lack of awareness, low education rates and extreme poverty: when the economic situation is bad and when people are hungry and have no food in sight they do not visit museums. Poverty and lack of education increases the risk to the heritage ».

Isber Sabrina provides the explanation to some of the recent events that have shaken Europe and the rest of the world: “When ISIS began to destroy heritage it did so because it feared that the ideology of those buildings and of that culture could be bad for which they try to implant them ». Another of the big problems that are being raised in these nations is the illegal traffic of works of art. For Isber Sabrina it is necessary that we become aware of what this practice entails. “European countries must help in conflicts, contribute their experience and control the traffic of antiques that Europe has as one of its destinations. We must all keep in mind that many of the great monuments have been destroyed, such as the great mosque of Aleppo or the market of this city. Palmira has also been damaged, just as many Roman temples exist in these countries. Spain, for example, can contribute thanks to what it has experienced in its own history. His experience can be very useful so that much of this heritage is preserved in the future ». One of the ways in which they are working are immigrants and refugees from the affected nations. "We are trying, showing them the pieces of their culture that we keep in our museums, instilling pride and self-esteem for what they still retain and for them to realize that the works and monuments that exist in their countries are of universal relevance."

. (tagsToTranslate) javier ors

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