MADRID — After the fall of the northern Spanish city of Gijón in 1937, the victorious armies of Franco’s Nationalists set about the task of rooting out and taking revenge upon leftist supporters. Among the leftist sympathizers arrested was Constantino Suárez, a professional photographer who had been embedded with the Republican army and used his craft to support their political cause. Meanwhile, some 15 miles away, another photojournalist may well have been celebrating Franco’s victory — Florentino López, or Floro, a fascist sympathizer who until recently had been living under siege from the Republicans in the town of Oviedo. Though in all likelihood they never met, the two photographers are now paired in an exhibition at Madrid’s Museo Nacional de Antropología that lays their bodies of work side by side on the 80th anniversary of the Spanish Civil War’s armistice.
Perhaps most famously captured in the dramatic images of Gerda Taro and Robert Capa, the Spanish Civil War saw the birth of modern professional conflict photography, with photojournalists documenting scenes of shelling, shooting, killing, and dying as it happened (rather than merely the quiet before a battle and the grimness thereafter, as with the American Civil War, the earliest war to be photographed). Instead of spotlighting these well-known foreign names, the Museo Nacional de Antropología’s show Frente a Frente highlights the work of Spanish photographers, seeking to offer a balanced account of the war and thereby suggesting a kind of spiritual rapprochement. In the process, however, the exhibition does more to reveal the fundamental ways in which, eight decades on, Spain still has yet to reckon with the conflict that once tore it apart.
Frente a frente is a pun — while the English translation of the wall text renders the show’s name as “face to face,” “frente” can also refer to the front of a war or a battle. The first of the exhibition’s subjects, the Republican Suárez, was a native of Asturias who had built his reputation as a studio portraitist and news photographer prior to the war. With the onset of fighting, he became a correspondent for socialist periodicals, making a name for himself with his slice-of-life city scenes and images from soldiers’ camps. Floro, by contrast, was a drug store owner who came to photography when he began documenting bodies at a nearby hospital so that the casualties of wartime shelling could be identified. A rightist, Floro would have his work featured in the pages of the fascist Falange-run newspaper Nueva España.
Of the two, Suárez is the more heavily represented. While Floro’s aesthetic tended to be more bluntly journalistic, Suárez’s photographic background shows through in his ability to inject style into scenes to give them visual interest beyond the content level. His frequent use of Dutch angles, for instance, adds drama to shots of serpentine military columns or soldiers eating at a long canteen table, and a number of his images in Frente a frente use objects to tell the stories of their owners: the improvised cloth galoshes of militiamen, rows of cups and plates lying expectant for their absent owners. Floro’s range was also more limited on a narrative level; he focused largely on post-bombardment street scenes such as a shop with the windows blown out or a cart driver prising the harness loose from his dead horse, while Suárez had access to barracks.
The exhibition’s central visual conceit is its pairing of photographs from opposite sides: twin images of queues at dairy depots, of bombed-out buildings, of soldiers in frontal poses. “What [the two photographers] found was something in common: the same destruction, the same pain, the same suffering, but also the same wish to have life go on despite it all,” the opening gallery text tell viewers. Although a poetic line, taken as a starting point it’s also an indication that the curators are less interested in examining the politics of the conflict and the images it generated — for example, how were these photographs used, and for what ends? — than in merely presenting the war as a sad and regrettable historical interlude. This kind of “both sidesism” removes any context from the events pictured (and none is provided in the wall text, as though out of a sense of squeamish self-censorship), offering an apolitical reading of a conflict that was fundamentally rooted in the clash of political ideologies. Frente a Frente depicts violence as a tragedy without contemplating the tragedies attendant upon the fascists’ victory.
While the war is generally spoken about as a two-sided confrontation between left and right, both the Republicans and the Nationalists were composite entities whose subgroups (most notably the anarchists and the communists) were sometimes riven by infighting. A subtler exploration of the theme of pairing the two sides might have encompassed the visual strategies artists in different camps used to push their particular ideological message. Frente a frente’s deliberate flattening of the differences between life on both fronts serves its rhetorical purposes, but it also means that little can be gleaned about the way that either civilian or military life would have differed from one side to the other.
In the wake of Franco’s death, Spain’s new leadership adopted a policy known as the “pact of forgetting,” meaning that the new government would, for the sake of national unity, decline to prosecute those who had been involved in the violence and suppression carried out by the fascist regime, even over the repeated objections of the United Nations. But in the last decade, there has been mounting pressure for change: the number of Franco monuments that have been removed from public spaces in the past 10 years after standing unchallenged since the dictator’s death is a testament to contemporary Spain’s increasing unwillingness to let sleeping dogs lie, as well as an awareness of the role that art and art spaces can play in the renegotiation of historical narratives. Spanish citizens seem to want more from public reflections on fascism than neutrality — and we will see how future exhibitions respond to this shift.
Frente a Frente continues at the Museo Nacional de Antropología (Calle de Alfonso XII 68, Madrid, Spain) through October 13.