Spanish civil war: Opening the mexican suitcase

Recently discovered photos of the Spanish civil war

La Valise Mexicaine, Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judaïsme, Paris, Exhibition to 30 June

The Mexican Suitcase: the legendary Spanish civil war negatives of Robert Capa, Gerda Taro and David Seymour. Edited by Cynthia Young and David Balsells. Published by Steidl, 2010, £70

A photographic and political sensation is an entirely justified description of the major exhibition which started in New York in 2010/11, moved to Spain and is now running at the Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judaïsme in Paris until 30 June 2013. The exhibition, entitled The Mexican Suitcase, is the product of the recent discovery of 4,000 photographs of the Spanish civil war, taken by legendary photo-journalists Robert Capa, Gerda Taro and David Seymour (also known as Chim).

The title refers to two long-lost boxes of negatives that Capa’s brother, Cornell, and others had been searching for over several decades. They were finally discovered in Mexico City in 2007. There is also a two-volume book to accompany the exhibition and a new documentary film by Trisha Ziff (La Maleta Mexicana). The book is an outstanding and detailed photographic account of the civil war (though unfortunately expensive) and the film is well worth looking out for.

Robert Capa, Gerda Taro and Chim, along with Henri Cartier-Bresson, were true pioneers of photo-journalism and documentary photography in the 20th century. Their work was made possible by the development in the 1930s of new, high quality 35mm cameras with interchangeable lenses, essentially pocket cameras, and dominated by the German Leica and Zeiss Ikon Contax. These cameras revolutionised photography and opened up immense possibilities in terms of quick, good quality photographs, whether in the street or at the battle front.

Robert Capa soon appreciated the potential of this new technology. Exiled from his native Hungary for his leftist political activities and living in Berlin, his first photographs were of Leon Trotsky presenting a famous lecture in Copenhagen in 1932 to an audience of 2,000, on the 15th anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution. Capa later moved to Paris, where he met Gerda Taro. Taro was German and, like Capa, a Jew with Marxist sympathies that did not always adhere to the Stalinist party line.

Together, they immediately appreciated the political potential of the new photo-journalism, with the latter popularised by the pictorial newspapers of the time, like Life, Weekly Illustrated, Picture Post, London Illustrated News, the French publication, Vu, and pro-Communist Party pictorial publications, such as Regards and Arbeiter-Illustrierte Zeiting. Capa and Taro soon became comrades and lovers.

In July 1936, with fascism already established in Italy and Germany, General Franco launched a fascist rebellion against the popular front government in Spain. The Spanish civil war had begun. Capa, Taro and Chim soon arrived and lent their full support to the republic. They reported the war extensively through countless photographs published in a wide range of mainstream and Communist Party-promoted publications in Europe and North America. As the book to accompany the exhibition shows, they travelled widely within republican controlled territory and were often at the front, covering most of the main battles.

The many photographs by Capa, Taro and Chim of the civil war that have appeared in previous publications are mostly excluded from this exhibition, so as to concentrate on the recently found material. Exceptions include a well-known shot by Chim of a woman nursing a baby within a crowd of people, all looking upwards. It has previously been suggested that they were watching the approaching fascist planes coming to bomb the town. The exhibition, however, provides evidence that the crowd was looking towards speakers at a land-reform meeting. As a result, the image takes on a quite different and indeed revolutionary significance: an inspirational photograph rather than one of the inhumane fascist threat. The fact that the focus is primarily on a woman participating in the land agitation, while breast-feeding her baby, is also symbolic, not least in the context of women’s oppression within traditional, hierarchical Spanish society and the reactionary and pro-fascist role of the Catholic church during the civil war. Just like Hitler and Mussolini, Franco and the Catholic church wanted women to know their place as mothers and obedient wives, and nothing more.

Numerically, photographs attributed to Capa dominate this exhibition. Not only are there many previously unseen images of the front, a real sense of the repeated risks he took to get the photographs and of his fundamental political commitment, the exhibition also provides a fascinating insight into how Capa went about his work, and includes his notebooks. It is clear that Capa must have seen a great deal of the brutal realities of war by the time of the fascist victory in Spain which, in my view, makes his great photographic achievements in the second world war all the more impressive. His images of the bloody battles in Italy, of the D-Day landings and the allied armies’ subsequent advance are well known and greatly acclaimed, quite rightly. Regardless of whether or not Capa enjoyed the attention and worldwide fame he received as a result, there is no doubt about his commitment to the anti-fascist cause.

One of the most interesting and important aspects of the Mexican Suitcase is the light it sheds on the work of Gerda Taro. In addition to her own known photographs, there is evidence to show that some attributed to ‘Capa’ or ‘Capa and Taro’ were, in fact, also hers (see: Gerda Taro, by Irme Schaber and Richard Whelan, Steidl, 2009). When I was fortunate to see the exhibition in New York, one of the staff in the bookshop casually commented that a more female approach to the issues was evident in Taro’s photographs. But her work goes much further than that. My take would be that, through its vivid images of class struggle, Taro’s work competes with the best of the others on all terms, while at the same time producing some truly inspirational photographs of women and their evident determination to break their shackles.

One of her most inspiring photographs in the exhibition is that of three women standing on the side of the street and watching the funeral of the republican General Lukacs in June 1937. They stand with clenched fists in the revolutionary salute, strong, confident, angry, intimidated by no-one and in utter defiance of the fascist attacks. These are proud, working-class images. The fact that these women represent a doubly-oppressed section of capitalist society makes this photograph all the more inspiring.

Three other groups of photographs by Taro also stand out: firstly, the images comparing the military training of the republican forces prior to and after their reorganisation by the Communist Party into the New Peoples’ Army in spring/summer 1937. They clearly show not only the imposition of standard uniforms and tighter discipline but also the banning of women from the republican army under CP control. Here are some of the symptoms of the ruthless new Stalinist intervention on the republican side.

A second important group documents the aftermath of a fascist bombing raid. Here we see several very disturbing photographs of people queuing to enter the morgue, and then uncompromising images of bloodied, broken and severed bodies of adults and children – the atrocities of fascism. These are more horrific, probably, than any photographs Capa took of the civil war. Thirdly, there is the group of photographs of soldiers helping with the wheat harvest during a lull in the fighting. They are important political images that demonstrate the close relationship common in the Spanish republic between workers in uniform and the peasantry. They have an honesty and dignity to them that is absent in the ‘socialist realist’ photography so typical of Stalinism.

I believe that Taro demonstrates a technical ability and an approach to photographic composition that is possibly better than that of Capa at this stage in their work. However, it is in her selection of subject matter and of spotting what Cartier-Bresson called the ‘decisive moment’ that her photographs in this exhibition particularly stand out. They provide us with a broader and deeper understanding of what civil war and revolutionary politics is about, in all its complications, nuances, horrors, political will, emotions and inspiration in the face of dreadful adversity.

Gerda Taro was crushed to death by a tank in the hurried republican retreat at the battle of Brunete, 1937. Some suggest she was a deliberate victim of the Stalinist repression of the left in Spain. Robert Capa was killed by a landmine in Indochina in 1954. Chim died at Suez in 1956. Their photographs live on.

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April 2013