The symbolism may not have been intentional when the photograph was taken almost 60 years ago. But today is unavoidable.
The recruits are just a few of the 40,000 international volunteers who came to defend the Spanish Republic against Francisco Franco and his fascist allies in the Spanish Civil War (1936-39). Their weaponry was often primitive, but their idealism gave them strength. And in the photograph they seem to carry the full weight of the Spanish earth on their shoulders.
The image is one of 130 that went on display here last month in the Puffin Room, a SoHo gallery, in Aura of the Cause: A Photo Album for North American Volunteers in the Spanish Civil War. A chronicle of the daily life of the international volunteers, the exhibit rarely rises to the level of fine art. But as journalism, it offers some riveting views of men caught up in a struggle that turned out to be a prologue for World War II.
Most of the photographs, taken by unknown photographers, havent been seen since the closing days of the Spanish Civil War, when they were shipped to the Soviet Union for safekeeping. Long presumed lost or destroyed, they didnt resurface until the early 1990s at the Center for the Documentation and Preservation of Recent History in Moscow. And it was only last December that Russian authorities let negatives be made of the photographs (there are about 2,000 in all), which had been haphazardly packed away in boxes of old military records.
Only 160 of the 2,800 Americans who served in Spain -- mostly in what is now known as the Abraham Lincoln Brigade -- are alive today. And of those, just a handful were able to attend the opening of The Aura of the Cause. But for Cary Nelson, the shows curator and a professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the photographs bear witness to the soldiers courage and extraordinary prescience.
Even now it is hard for us to grasp how much of our humanity was
at stake during the Second World War, he says. Yet somehow
this particular group of people saw ahead what the world faced and acted
upon it out of a sense of idealism and commitment. Clearly to me, this
is the first phase of the great worldwide struggle between fascism and
In another, a group of naked volunteers is scrubbing down in a portable field shower, set up on a hillside. Below them spreads the Ebro Valley and a panorama of olive groves and vineyards. In a few months, the fields and trees would be so ravaged by warfare that the area would be nick-named The Valley of Death. For the time being, though, the landscape has a gauzy, almost Edenic aura and the soldiers, vulnerable, toy-like creatures, are touchingly unaware of the future.
A surprising percentage of the photographs in the Moscow archives, Nelson
notes, turned out to be group shots. I was astonished, still am,
by all the different kinds, he says. There are groups of cooks,
groups of every possible nationality from French to Ukrainians, groups
representing different trade unions. Every time the volunteers had some
kind of group identity, they seemed to want to commemorate it. It was
how they saw themselves -- acting in alliance with one another.
A picture like that can push you back very quickly in time, he says. It was taken in an olive grove outside of the town of Azila in the Ebro region. Wed been there about a week. It moves me very deeply now because I was the only one of that group to survive the war.
Levenson discounts any notions of heroism, though. We were doing what lots of generations of Americans have done from the American Revolution on -- joining a struggle for good....I guess idealism has been a property of the human race for as long as it has existed.
Asked what those youthful experiences mean to him 60 years later, he allows a quiet chuckle. Thats complicated. It would take an awfully long time to explain, he notes. After a pause, he adds, The world is not as simple a place as we thought it was when we went there.
Still, Levenson found the exhibit extraordinarily impressive and says he hopes it will alert people to the kind of role we played.
The photographs were saved for that very reason. By the late fall of
1938 it was clear that Franco, greatly abetted by Mussolinis Black
Shirts and Hitlers Condor Legion, had gained the upper hand. In
Barcelona, a couple of volunteers whom Nelson dubs emergency historians
set out to put together an archive, documenting the contribution of the
international forces before it was too late. Even as the bombs were falling
on Barcelona, the material was sent to Moscow.
Nelson, 50, is a burly man with a flowing gray beard that gives him a
decided resemblance to Walt Whitman. He came to his passion for the Spanish
Civil War largely through the poet Edwin Rolfe, whose collected works
he has edited. Rolfe was the poet laureate of the Abraham Lincoln
Brigade and wrote some of the most evocative lyrical poems about the Spanish
Civil War, Nelson explains. He considered it the defining
experience of his life. In fact, his work changes totally thereafter.
That got me interested in other people of his generation and how the experience
Without question the most accomplished photographer to chronicle the Spanish Civil War was Robert Capa, whose shot of Falling Militiaman, hit by a bullet and suspended midair between life and death, remains widely known today. None of the images in The Aura of the Cause has that transcendent intensity. Indeed, many are defiantly pedestrian. But in their historical context they loom large.
Over and over again, Nelson says, Its the intimacy
of a particular shot in relationship to the enormity of the issues at
stake that gives the show its meaning. The negatives that we got from
Moscow are very small. When I first saw some of them, I thought they were
pictures of volunteers sleeping....it never occurred to me that they could
be anything else.
© 1997 The Washington Post Company