War photography was not invented in the Spanish Civil War, but it certainly took on a new meaning in the vicious conflict that raged on the Iberian peninsular between 1936 and 1939. And given that two of the most acclaimed photographers from the era originated from Central Europe – Robert Capa, born Endre Friedmann, in Budapest in 1913; and David ‘Chim’ Seymour, born David Szymin, in Warsaw in 1911 – any exhibition of their works on home soil commands attention. Throw in the mystery of how the material for this show lay hidden, presumed lost and destroyed for half a century, and you add an intriguing sub-narrative to an already compelling plot.
The “Mexican Suitcase” is a unique collection of photographs of the Spanish Civil War made by Chim, Capa and Gerda Taro, Capa's German-born lover and partner, all on public display in Budapest until February 21.
The black-and-white prints are from 126 rolls of negatives that had been considered lost since the beginning of World War II. In fact, the films had made their way by bicycle from Paris to Bordeaux, thence via mystery means to Mexico City, where they lay undisturbed for decades in a suitcase to be discovered in 1995. There then followed years of tortuous negotiations, before their final arrival, to the delight of the curators, at the International Center of Photography, New York in December 2007. Although shown in the US, Spain and France, this is their first showing in Central Europe.
From hope to hell
Displayed in the spacious hall of Budapest’s Open Society Archives, these silver halide images tell the anguished tale of a bitterly divided Spain, of lasting comradeship wrought from sacrifice and bravery, of mendacious leadership, misplaced trust, and above all of human suffering as the technically superior war machine of General Franco's nationalist forces – with aid from Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy – step by slow, tortuous step, crushed the disunited loyalist forces of the Spanish Republic.
The exhibition, however, starts with hope: scenes from Chim – who was in Spain before the outbreak of hostilities – show early efforts at land reforms designed to ease the burdens on peasants in the impoverished state of Extramadura in early 1936. But moving anti-clockwise around the room on a chronological journey, the images quickly turn to gritty working-class volunteers giving clenched-fist salutes and manning barricades in their desperate efforts to stem the early nationalist onslaught.
Then come the silhouettes of German bombers, the ruins of cities and the bewildered, displaced civilian victims. Pretty soon, Taro's name disappears from the credits: considered the first female war photographer to cover the front line, she too became a victim, crushed by a loyalist tank during the retreat from the Battle of Brunete in July 1937. She was six days short of her 27th birthday.
The loss meant Capa, once he had overcome Taro's death, appears to have worked the front lines more or less alone in this exposition, while Chim documented the activities of refugees and political leaders beyond immediate danger. The latter included the much-celebrated (and staunchly pro-Moscow) communist Dolores Ibarruri, aka La Pasionaria.
Yet Capa's final work here too is beyond the bombs and bullets, depicting the long lines of haggard, dispirited Republican refugees fleeing to exile in camps in France – although their suffering didn't end there: the feared Senegalese guards, appointed by the French authorities, made sure of that.
While keen to underline the photographic talents of the trio, this expo, thankfully, is no hagiographic tribute: it points out that all three were nothing less than partisan in their support for the Republic: Capa and Taro even took part in a staged reenactment of one victorious battle, presumably happy that their work would be published as the real thing – a deception that would bring shame on any photo-journalist today.
Along with the 120 enlarged photos and hundreds of smaller contact prints (also enlarged, but still too small to study with ease), the curators have assembled a wide selection of contemporary magazines – including French, American, German and Swiss publications – featuring the photographers’ work. One also displays an opinion piece entitled “Can America keep out of the war?” by a certain Winston Churchill, at the time a somewhat marginal figure in Great Britain.
Stirring deep emotions
Today, almost 80 years after the beginning of a conflict that ripped Spain apart, the subject of the civil war still stirs deeply buried emotions, as noted by José Luis Rodríguez de Colmenares, chargé d’affaires at the Embassy of Spain in Budapest, when opening the exhibition just before Christmas.
“As a Spaniard, I feel a direct connection to these photographs… They tell part of my story, the story of a people who 80 years ago failed to channel their disagreements through peaceful means and resorted to conflict instead, opening wounds of cataclysmic proportions that only now are fully healing,” he said.
But de Colmenares – whose own grandmother had protected priests and nuns (from Republican communists) and later communist militiamen (from Nationalist extermination groups) in different phases of the war – also pointed out that post-Franco Spain is an example of a successful political transition, and message of hope.
Modern Spain, emerging from the 40-year authoritarian regime which followed the war, is “testament to the successes of a people determined to leave the horrors of military conflict behind and intent on channeling differences through political means and, if needs be, even the judiciary,” he declared.
The diplomat's unspoken message to Hungary's present leadership was clearly conveyed by the exhibition: one visitor, who signed simply as 'Kelly', wrote in the guest book: “Very interesting and relevant to today's politics.”
“The Mexican Suitcase” is on show at the Vera and Donald Blinken Open Society Archives, 1051 Budapest, Arany János utca 32, until February 21. Opening hours 10.00 – 18.00.