- Visual Propaganda, Exhibitions, and the Spanish Civil War by Miriam M. Basilio
In her first monograph (possibly a derivate from her doctoral dissertation from 2002), Professor Miriam M. Basilio from New York University positions her interdisciplinary research into three salient trajectories related to Spanish history: the visual culture and political propaganda; the politicized posters from the 1930s; and the memory of the 1936–39 civil war in Spain. These intertwined topics are not totally new if considered individually, but there are relatively few books in English that have centered these perspectives upon visual history in an effort to understand the dynamics and redefinitions of the nation in its transition into fascism. Incidentally, some portions of this substantial book have already appeared elsewhere, mainly in scholarly journals (cited on xvi, 276). Although this book primarily covers the years 1936–1940, especially in her last chapter Basilio also studies many recent retellings of the era. That time period marks the early days of modern propaganda, corresponding to the darkest strategies of public outreach practiced by Germany’s Nazi regime.
Basilio’s main point is to conceptualize the Spanish Civil War through contemporary theoretical approaches, centered on citizenship, national identity, memory studies, and the public sphere (in the Habermasian sense): “I argue that rival political factions within the Republican and nationalist camps placed questions of national identity and historical memory at the forefront of visual-propaganda campaigns and exhibitions” (1). Despite the complexity of this situation, her methodological approach is nuanced, considering the various trends and influences of this era: Catholicism, the heritage of Spanish colonialism, and the sentiment of national pride (208).
In her impressive corpus, Basilio has chosen a wide array of vintage images, posters, cartoons, and various advertisements, either pro or against the advent of a new republic in Spain. Most of these forgotten images are reproduced here in black and white, with a few exceptions in color. The author studies how various exhibitions of these images have been conceptualized, conceived, and perceived by audiences, as in the unforgettable Paris World Fair of 1937, for example, when “the Spanish republican government presented a remarkable modernist pavilion,” which included Pablo Picasso’s latest masterpiece Guernica (174).
The analysis is broadly conceptualized into several theoretical frameworks, for example in Basilio’s study of masculinity in some sketches of the Spanish military junta (29). The number of combatants involved was impressive then: as tangible proof of these vast propaganda efforts, “the junta issued approximately 40 posters, many reproduced as postcards in editions up to 50,000” (29).
This book comes into five chapters, highlighting the social construction of the imagined nation of Spain (Chapter 1); observing how art, museums, and world fairs were used as vehicles for propaganda (Chapter 2); analyzing how the new nation was redefined (Chapter 3); showing how roots and patrimony were recuperated (Chapter 4); and finally asking how the persistent memory of civil war can be revisited and represented in the twenty-first century (Chapter 5). As she attempts to address these complex questions, Basilio admits that she cannot provide answers to all of them: after so many decades, it is now almost impossible to know exactly how individual citizens really reacted to these propaganda campaigns and exhibitions—whether they adhered to or resisted them—in the early days of the Spanish Civil War (2).
As such, Visual Propaganda, Exhibitions, and the Spanish Civil War is not just a book about Catalan history. Chapter 5 concludes with questions about how these events are represented by contemporary Spanish artists in the twenty-first century and raises some issues related to memory [End Page 1049] (what we retain from the past), amnesia (what is forgotten or what remains undiscussed), and human rights (especially how citizens were manipulated by political propaganda and effectively forced into a dictatorship) in the context of images from artists such as Fernando Bryce (232–33). Recent images from Francesc Torres’s photography project, “Dark is the Room Where We Sleep,” such as a black-and-white photograph showing a hand...