Few people have managed to reveal the horrors of the Spanish Civil War in a more compelling way than Pablo Picasso, with his masterpiece Guernica. But when Spain participated at the 1937 Paris International Exhibition, the sentiment and outrage were shared by a number of its artists.
The Spanish Civil War (1936 – 1939) was fought and won by the Nationalists (conservatives led by General Franco) against the Republicans (left-leaning government loyalists), both sides being supported by outside forces. The Nationalists were backed by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, while Republicans received help from the Soviet communists. There were atrocities committed on both sides, although the numbers seem to suggest that the Nationalists were far more ruthless. The Republican government spread the myth that the civil war was equivalent to democracy vs. fascism, good vs. evil, in order to justify its own actions. The propaganda they resorted to included the artworks exhibited in 1937 at the Paris International Exhibition.
Among the artists who exhibited then was Spanish painter Horacio Ferrer (1894 – 1978), who chose to depict the bombing of Madrid through his realistic work Madrid 1937 (Black Airplanes). Three women and their three small children and an older woman are all fleeing their homes after an airstrike. There is smoke and debris in the background, a sign of the destruction that surrounds them. The woman in the center, probably caught in the middle of breastfeeding her infant, is looking up, raising her fist defiantly to the sky and pointing out to us the cause of destruction: the black airplanes up above. Although we can’t actually see them, their presence is felt all around.
There is a palpable sense of fear emanating from the fleeing Spaniards, each coping with this overwhelming emotion in different ways: the older woman is praying, while the little boy is crying, being dragged by his mother to seek shelter. Most reassuring is the woman to the left, protectively holding her baby to her chest in a soothing way. There is still hope for the next generation.