Early Modernism: Spanish Civil War

The era that our coursework defines as “Early Modernism” is a tumultuous era, which includes the horrors of World War I, rejection of past traditions, disillusionment in reality itself, the desperation of the Great Depression and the conflicts that lead up to World War II. I had a difficult time settling on a theme for this assignment since there is so much to draw from, but felt that the artwork that was created in reaction to the Spanish Civil War is an influence of World War I and the rise of facism in Europe was a poignant topic in the context of art history.

The Spanish Civil War was a horrifying, bloody conflict that took place between 1936-1939. When the Spanish monarchy was overthrown in 1931, a republic government was established that held regular elections. General Francisco Franco opposed this new government with his nationalist political faction called the Falanges, which were largely aristocratic. General Franco, with the aid of Nazi Germany and Facist Italy, led a coup which began the Spanish Civil War. This coup left the Nationalists and Republicans fighting over control of Spain. The timeline, political ideologies and warfare tactics of the Spanish Civil War can be read in further detail here at

There are several pieces of artwork that are direct statements about the Spanish Civil War that I’ve selected for us to examine. My fondness for Spanish artists comes from my trip to Barcelona, Spain, which was a major site of the Republic of Spain’s resistance against the Nationalists.

I also feel strongly that these paintings give us an intense visual response to world events that hadn’t been seen before in art history, and stick with us because they shocked the world into confronting war in a visual way that wasn’t journalism. In the era following World War I, we deviate dramatically from the idealized and heroic history and Biblical paintings of the Renaissance, Neoclassical and Romantic eras. The works of Picasso, Dali and Miro bring us up close and uncomfortably personal with war being, simply, hell.


f05cd2c978ed5176b84661861f1dd7c351388370Guernica (1936), Picasso, Paris

Guernica is not just a painting: it is a cry of anguish and outrage of war crimes. Picasso, who was Spanish, was living in Paris at the time, was commissioned by the Republic government of Spain to contribute a painting for their pavilion in the 1937 World Fair. Although the theme of the fair was celebration of modern technology, Picasso’s painting was an overt political statement against the bombing of the Basque village of Guernica on April 27, 1937.

The village of Guernica was heavily bombed by Nazi German planes and fleeing civilians were gunned down by fighter pilots acting in concert with General Franco. Guernica held no strategic military value other than being the site of a training exercise for the horrifying weapons of modern warfare first seen in World War I.

Picasso was sympathetic to the Republican government and was distraught when the news of Guernica’s destruction reached Paris. He finished the painting (which is massive in size) in less than a month and delivered it to the Spanish Pavilion at the 1937 World Fair (Robinson). Attendees expected to see the usual celebration of technology, but instead were shocked into confronting the facist brutalities of the Spanish War by Picasso’s visual memorial of Guernica.

It is said that when Paris was occupied by Nazi Germany in the 1940’s, a Nazi officer questioned Picasso about a photograph of Guernica and asked him if he painted it. Picasso replied, “No, you did,” (Robinson). Picasso refused for Guernica to be returned to Spain until it had returned to full democratic liberty; the painting was finally returned to Picasso’s homeland in 1981.

This painting is enormous, chaotic and uncomfortable for me to look at. The incomplete forms of humans and animals in agony stand out against that dark background. Picasso forces you to deal with the subject at hand. While I don’t have a great appreciation of the aesthetics of Cubist art movement, I appreciate this painting as an extremely important part of art and human history. The overt anti-war and anti-facist messages are ones that I feel are (unfortunately) still relevant in 2017.


Soft Construction With Boiled Beans (Premonition of Civil War) (1936), Salvador Dali, Spain

Salvador Dali is one of the most well-known paintings of the Surrealist movement. Everyone is probably familiar with the melting clocks and drawer figures, but they may not be exactly familiar with Dali’s close connection with the Spanish Civil War.

Soft Construction With Boiled Beans is also called Premonition of Civil War because Dali painted it approximately six months before the Spanish Civil War began. Surrealist artwork often embraces the distortion and desecration of the human body, and this painting is grotesque, for lack of a better word. Gnarled hands and decaying feet look like they are held in rigor mortis, which contrasts the supple breast form or the limp phallic form (which is totally a nod to Sigmund Freud) (Philadelphia Museum of Art).

This grotesquely fascinating foray into the human mind was painted by Dali as he lived in Spain while tensions between the Nationalist and Republican governments were getting stronger and stronger. The figure in the painting represents Spain tearing itself apart as both the victim and the aggressor (Philadelphia Museum of Art). It is rigid, painful, powerful, disgusting and fascinating all at once.

In typical Salvador Dali fashion, the beans in this painting seem to be terribly out of place. It is speculated that the beans in this painting are included from an ancient Catalan custom of offering beans to the gods. Dali often titled his paintings with objects included in them that were difficult to find ( In this case, beans.

Soft Construction With Boiled Beans (Premonition of Civil War) is seen as an anti-war visual work near or at the same level as Pablo Picasso’s Guernica.

Still Life With Old Shoe (1937), Joan Miro, Paris

Joan Miro was another artist in the years between World War I and World War II that had a direct visual response to the horrors of war. Miro made frequent trips to Paris for several weeks at a time, but at the eruption of civil war in Spain, he realized that his stay in Paris would be an extended one. Nostalgic for home and exceedingly poor in a time of turmoil, he arranged an apple with a fork, a bottle of gin, a loaf of bread and an old shoe and set out to push painting to its limits while confronting his own reaction to the Spanish Civil War.

“We are living through a terrible drama, everything in Spain is terrifying in a way that you could never imagine,” Miro wrote before beginning on the painting (Daniel). Living in exile, Miro completed this painting of juxtapositions: bright neon colors that are enveloped and marred by ugly spots of black that seem heavy and even a little frightening. Through this painting, Miro said that this piece was, “Realism that is far from photographic… Profound and fascinating reality” (Daniel).

Miro actively sided with the Republicans, and contributed artwork to the 1937 World Fair. His mural, The Reaper, was shown in the same pavilion that Picasso’s Guernica and Alexander Calder’s Mercury Fountain were. Later in life, Miro considered Still Life With Old Boot to be his Guernica.

Works Cited
Robinson, L. (no date) Khan academy. Available at: (Accessed: 17 February 2017).
Art, Philadelphia Museum of (no date) Explore the collections. Available at: (Accessed: 17 February 2017)
Spanish masterworks: Salvador Dalí: Construcción blanda con judías hervidas (1936) (2011) Available at: (Accessed: 17 February 2017).
Daniel, M. (2011) Miró and the catastrophe of the Spanish civil war. Available at: (Accessed: 17 February 2017).

2 thoughts on “Early Modernism: Spanish Civil War

  1. The first painting is very horrid and I see people and animal dying probably of hunger and screaming for help or as if they are trying to escape war. The second painting reminds me of people totally in war as if they were blown away by the bomb because the bodies are everywhere. The third painting is hard to tell but it reminds me of death as I can see skeleton looking people in the painting. The food looks as if it was just sitting on the table rotting and the shoe is left behind because enemies were coming in or the shoe owner died. I wouldn’t have these hanging on my wall or in the classroom.


  2. You did a fantastic analysis of the paintings as well as the events that occurred during the “Early Modernism” movement and Spanish Civil War. I like the paintings you chose as I really like Dali’s work as well as Picasso’s. In the first painting, I couldn’t understand what was going on in it until I read your analysis. I also would’ve never guessed that these paintings had a connection to the Spanish Civil War. Looking at the last painting, I really liked the colors which gives it a 80’s vibe.


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