Dora the weeping woman and Felicia one of the first to fall

Conscience and Conflict: British Artists and the Spanish Civil War at the Laing Gallery

Conscience and Conflict: British Artists and the Spanish Civil War at the Laing Gallery

The Weeping Woman

As you walk through the door of the second gallery of ‘Conscience and Conflict’ you can’t help but be stunned by the Picasso on the wall facing you. ‘The Weeping Woman’ or ‘Femme en Pleurs’ gives voice to the emotions the Spanish Civil War had on us then and now. The mute anger that is pent up inside that can only resolve itself in tears. The weeping eyes reflecting the cause of the horror and the handkerchief gnawed at by teeth held in a bone white jaw that seems to be stripped of flesh and the mouths sensuality. ‘The Weeping Woman’ is Dora Maar, Picasso’s then lover and a woman he had painted with so much beauty that same year in ‘Portrait of Dora Maar’.

In the eyes of ‘The Weeping Woman’ are reflected the same aircraft that bombed Guernica a Catalan town of no military importance that the Luftwaffe, at the behest of Franco, chose to use as a dry run for the Second World War. This act of aggression gave fresh impetus to the need for ‘Air Raid Protection’ or ARP in Britain and this concern shows itself in the work of at least one of the British artists in this exhibition.


Picasso’s response to the bombing was ‘Guernica’ a mural sized oil painting in black, white and grey which now hangs in Madrid following the death of Franco in 1975. It’s difficult to overestimate the impact that Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ had on the British artists work shown in this exhibition. The painting ‘Premonition’ by Walter Nessler which appears to the modern eye like a Pink Floyd dystopia drawn by Gerald Scarfe, shows London’s landmarks in a twisted landscape with an ARP gas mask swinging from one of its tallest buildings. It is a premonition of the air raids on London that would occur within a short number of years.

The impact of ‘Guernica’ on other works in the exhibition is also evident, particularly in ‘Spanish Head’ by F.E. McWilliam. ‘Spanish Head’ is a sculpture of an elongated head with pointed teeth in a wide open mouth. The head seems to be modelled on the fallen warrior at the bottom left of ‘Guernica’ who lies on his back, facing skywards, mouth wide open with teeth bared in a silent scream.

Clenched fist

F.E. McWilliam in the sculpture ‘The Long Arm’ gives us the clenched fist salute of the anti-fascist Republicans and this symbol of defiance is elsewhere in the exhibition. Joan Miro includes the clenched fist salute in his work ‘Aidez L’Espagne’ which was originally meant to be used as the design of a new one franc stamp which would be sold to benefit the republican cause. Joan Miro’s design is of a person painted in red and yellow with detail picked out in black on a blue background. The colours are the same as those used in the ‘Lone Star’ or ‘Estelada’ Catalan flag.

Hearts and minds

Winning the hearts and minds of the public was necessary if the Republicans were to win the civil war. This can be seen in the paintings of Clive Branson which document ‘Noreen and Rosa’ reading a book on Spain published by the Left Book Club, a ‘Demonstration in Battersea’, and ‘The Daily Worker’. The book which accompanies this exhibition tells us that an exhibition of works on the Spanish Civil War which included Guernica attracted more than 15,000 visitors in working class East London. From that it may be said that the daily worker was already won over to the cause of the Republicans.

To help with this effort, public posters were produced by designers working with some excellent photographers. Pere Catala Pic’s poster ‘Aixafem el Feixsme’ shows a ‘peasants’ foot wearing a Catalan sandal coming down on a broken swastika. While another shows a background of a sky filled with bombers with a foreground of a dead child with the words ‘If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next’ a harrowing image with a harrowing and instructive text. And yes it is the title of a Manic Street Preachers song.

Felicia Browne

While all of the work seems to come from artists who are trying to come to terms with the Spanish Civil War and ‘do their bit’ by filtering their emotion through their art, one artist seems to be more representative of the common man who just simply wants to do the right thing.

Felicia Browne’s work seems to be devoid of any message about the civil war. The drawings she did, while very well executed, seem to be just direct reportage of the facts without any politics or sentimentality. But Felicia Browne fought and died in the Spanish Civil War. Her role was to be one of the foot soldiers, one of the common people, who sadly lose their lives while doing the right thing against impossible odds.

Felicia Browne wrote of the boredom of war, the long periods when nothing much happens. But when it did and she was called on to join a group tasked with blowing up a munitions train she went. 

When fired upon by fascists a colleague fell and Felicia went to give first aid. The fascists turned their fire towards her and she fell dead with bullet wounds to the chest and back. The first British volunteer to die.

Maybe because of this – the sacrifice, the doing the right thing – Felicia Browne seems to stay longer in the memory than all of the very fine art around her in this very fine exhibition.

Find out more about Conscience and Conflict: British Artists and the Spanish Civil War.

About Stella MacQueen

Sheila and Stella sitting in a tree... K.I.S.S.I.N.G.
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