This post is inspired by the current news about the refugees trying to come into Europe after fleeing their war-torn countries. The news are awash with images of desperate human beings who are running away from almost certain death and who have lost everything in the conflict destroying their home countries: Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Lybia, South Sudan... The United Nations has described this exodus as the worst migration crisis since the Second World War, and European countries are reacting to the event in rather questionable ways such as the razor-wire fence across the Hungarian border or the tension building up in Greece, Macedonia or in the French and Italian ports. Humanitarian concern for the fate of these exiles is a moral duty, and the trafficking of human beings must be stopped before it is too late for its unfortunate victims.
Images of people dressed in western outifts, including European soccer t-shirts or multinational sport brands make it perhaps even easier to relate to their plight. The photographs of these refugees have been a powerful reminder for me of the archival images of the exiles from the Spanish Civil War who had to flee Spain in 1939.
Amongst those were my grandparents, who crossed the Pyrenees, and ended at an internment camp in France. They were lucky, and managed to return to Spain after a while, but the vast majority of the Spanish exiles (be it from the Republican Army or civilian sympathisers of the Second Republic) were not able to see their home country ever again. Just like the Spanish artist Francisco de Goya, many of these exiles died in France. Goya had witnessed the horrors of the War of Independence, and his troubled relationship with those in power in Spain resulted in his decision to leave in 1824. He died in Bordeaux in 1828 and his body was eventually brought to Madrid, where he now rests, one hopes, in peace, after his traumatic experiences of war and destruction. You simply cannot understand Goya's late artistic production without the War of Independence, and his paintings and etchings are discussed in our Goya in Madrid tour.
And just as this terrible war affected the artistic production of Goya, the Spanish Civil War had an enormous impact on the artists who witnessed it directly or followed its development from France such as Picasso or Miró, amongst others. Even now, almost 80 years after the beginning of the Spanish Civil War, the relevance of its consequences still inspires contemporary artists. Such is the case with Oxford-based Sonia Boue, whose family was forced to flee Barcelona and ended in England. I stumbled upon the work of Sonia Boue, an art historian and art therapist, and was inmediately taken with her personal vision and intimate understanding of the war. Sonia is carrying the emotional scars of the suffering, loss and survival in her family, and she reflects upon the trauma endured by the exiles in her art. I particularly liked her short film, Without You I Would Not Exist.
I was moved by her project and decided to contribute to what I see as a fitting tribute and a memorial to the forced exiles from the Spanish Civil War. I sent Sonia an original item from the period, which was of particular significance to both of us since it is a suitcase used by an unknown Spanish exile. Sonia found inspiration in this suitcase. It is perhaps not too coincidental that Sonia and I are both art historians and we share a common history of displacement in our family, and that we both work on restoring the memory of the exiles and the victims of this war. Sonia remembers them through her visual art, I do it through the narrative in my tour of the Spanish Civil War and my work as an activist.
The scars of the Spanish Civil War, which ended in 1939, are still here, and the emotional and psychological damage brought on by this conflict is still present, nearly 80 years on. This is why it is so urgent that action is taken now to help the current refugees, because their trauma will linger on for at least one generation, and they must be helped straight away. We cannot turn our backs on their plight. I am, like many others, the fortunate descendant of refugees who were fortunate to survive.
© Almudena Cros, August 2015. Please note that this article may be quoted in editorial contexts only, with source and author.
Across Madrid Blog
A reflection on War, Exile and Art