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SECRETS OF THE MEXICAN SUITCASE
by Michèle C. Cone
 
As individuals scrambled to leave France ahead of the German invasion at the onset of World War II, their most precious possessions -- stuff that would help them survive in the New World -- often disappeared in the chaos. Walter Benjamin’s final manuscript, which was supposed to be taken to New York by his travelling companions after the philosopher had been detained at the Spanish border, never made it here. It would take years before a second copy of the manuscript was discovered at the Paris Bibliotheque Nationale. Also lost in transit were the negatives of scores of photographs of the Spanish Civil War, which Robert Capa had asked a friend to send him in New York, where he was headed in 1939.

Apparently, those boxes found their way to Mexico via the Mexican diplomatic pouch (in French via la valise diplomatique, thus the notion of a “suitcase”), where they languished for years. Only in 1999 was Robert Capa’s brother Cornell Capa informed of their existence. After 11 years of sorting out, cataloguing and processing, the International Center of Photography has put on view a selection of thousands of previously unknown photographs and contact sheets taken between 1936 and 1939 by Robert Capa, his lover Gerda Taro and their friend Chim (David Seymour), all three of them young Jewish émigrés from Central Europe with sympathies for the Spanish loyalist cause.

The sad story of the Spanish Civil War, of a poorly organized civilian force that took up arms to defend the young Republic against Franco’s ruthless army, is well documented (notably by Ernest Hemingway and George Orwell, as well as more recent historians). The foreign correspondents who covered that war have recently received the attention they deserve in We Saw Spain Die, a book by Paul Preston, who is also a contributor to the catalogue of the current show. The backing that one side -- the liberal loyalists -- received from the Soviet Union, and the help that Hitler, Salazar and Mussolini gave Franco is no longer a secret.

Even in terms of images, the Spanish Civil War has already imprinted some of its emblematic images in the public memory. The possibly staged photograph by Robert Capa of a Republican militiaman dropping his weapon after being hit is probably the most famous example, but overall there has been no shortage of photographs to document the Spanish Civil War, by Capa and by other photographers who witnessed it. Hans Namuth and his friend Georg Reisner, who were sent by Vu magazine to photograph the Barcelona Olympics in 1936, turned their lens on some mighty gory images as they followed the war for seven months. In short, the materials in the Mexican Suitcase, as abundant as they are, needed to be presented in unfamiliar ways in order to make an impact.

Rather than select arbitrarily and subjectively a bunch of negatives, print them and display them like art on the gallery walls, the curators have chosen to work from the illustrated publications where the photographs by Capa, Taro and Chim originally appeared. Thus, the very contact sheets from which the editors made their choices and the prints they featured are on view together with the corresponding illustrated publications. 

The enlarged single prints raise issues of esthetics and photographic style in the three photographers approaches to their subject. Capa and Taro emphasize clarity and dramatic light contrasts, whereas Chim seems to opt for a more muted contrast. In the photographs by Capa, the emphasis is on capturing movement, gesture, action. Taro's picture-taking tends to be more narrative, she seems to like opening her lens to the physical context in which her story unfolds. Chim’s flattering close-up portraits of revolutionary figures may be inspired by Soviet-style Social Realism.

For their part, the contact sheets provide an intimate view of the photographer practicing his or her craft, repeating some shot over and over before moving on, turning the camera 90 degrees, finding a vantage for a particular downward or upward shot. The reality of the photographers’ life is heightened by the display of telegrams and letters to or from them, by the presence of the famous boxes in which the rolls of film were kept, and by other memorabilia culled in part from the Paris National Archives.

As for the illustrated publications where Chim’s, Taro’s and Capa’s photos first appeared, they not only structure the show and determine what’s on view, but they contextualize the images, and give them what Roland Barthes would call a “caption.”  From the outset, it is evident that Hemingway’s narration of an artisanal mode of guerrilla warfare, with its stealthy killings -- dynamite a bridge, kill a sentry, surround a small town at night, hit the barracks, finish the wounded -- is not what the Mexican Suitcase exhibition is about. Nor is the show about immortalizing the gory side of war, as does Pablo Picasso’s Guernica. Given that Chim, Taro and Capa worked on assignment, that they had to contend with censorship in the hosting zone and in the editing room, given that they had an ideological agenda of their own, certain subjects were avoided, or minimized, and that is the slant that needs to be explored and possibly explained.

Thus when Taro takes pictures of the aftermath of an air raid over Valencia, the featured photograph is of a small group of tearless though anxious-looking women civilians pressing against an iron gate while awaiting permission to enter the morgue. When she photographs inside the morgue, her focus is not on the accumulation of anonymous bodies, but on individual corpses, to whom she gives a certain dignity even in death.

When Chim photographs the dinamiteros, Asturian miners who sacrificed their life at Oviedo, he delves into their physiognomy. The same is true of his portraits of heroic Basque fishermen, which the curators have greatly enlarged for the show. His picture of the female leader of the loyalists, La Passionaria, is a close-up view of a handsome, ageless woman dressed in black like the peasant women for whom she was fighting. Although Chim did not content himself with portraiture, he was clearly a great portrait photographer. More so than his colleagues, Capa (sometimes with Taro) is the one who most often focuses his lens on trench warfare, soldiers hiding behind sandbags, slinging dynamite, moving forward in a cloud of smoke. But even in those photographs, few bodies are seen strewn on the battlefield.

The uncanny feeling of viewing the Spanish Civil War without the gory details is further demonstrated by the choice of thematic groupings. Several photographs by Chim document the theme “protecting artworks,” showing men and women carrying paintings and sculpture (including a Christ on the Cross) away from a museum to save them from destruction by the savage enemy (many art works from the Prado were sheltered in Switzerland during that time). Several of Chim’s photographs show a priest saying mass for Basque loyalist volunteers in a country setting. As the church generally sided with Franco, this sequence sent the message that the church and the Revolution were not necessarily enemies, and that country priests often were allied with the poor. Emphasizing the theme of solidarity with the oppressed, Taro took some beautiful photographs of loyalist soldiers in wheat fields helping the farmers harvest the crop. The sun hits hard on a dry plain, but the reapers plug along together and with apparent efficiency.

As for Capa, he treats the theme of German collaboration with the Fascist side not by showing German planes aloft dropping bombs but via images of a downed German aircraft, fallen into the center of a Barcelona square, so that it became a giant toy for local children. When the war is apparently lost, and the loyalists flee toward the French side of the Mediterranean coast, Capa does not show the panic, but documents a dignified exit. The image of a long line of refugees following a French Gendarme leading them God knows where -- their destination was in fact a parcel of beach surrounded by barbed wire where they had to build their own little huts -- sums up the end of the Spanish Civil War story, and anticipates future dramas.

To explain the slant of the show, the authors of the catalogue propose that throughout the war, the function of the photographers was to express solidarity with the loyalists, and to reinforce the legitimacy of the Republican government so “anything that indicated how the Republic was defended by ordinary Spaniards could be used to this end.” They refer to the photographs as symbols of everyday life under extraordinary conditions. This analysis makes sense, though it hardly explains the minimizing of gory details in the French illustrated periodical Regards, the one most frequently displayed in the show.

Regards -- a title that suggests keeping your eyes open -- was one of those French publications that went from pro-socialist to pro-communist after the socialist government of Leon Blum backed out of fully endorsing the young and weak Spanish Republic. The propaganda messages embedded in the pages of Regards were aimed at reversing the French government policy of non-intervention. It is easy to see why Capa, Taro and Chim, all three young Jewish left-wingers from Central Europe who left their country for Paris to escape Nazism, shared an agenda in favor of militant solidarity with the anti-fascists of Spain, and why their images would coincide with the agenda of Regards. (Even so, there is deep irony in the fact that a publication turned pro-communist should be defending democracy, albeit, Spanish democracy.)

The literature, art and photography concerned with the Spanish Civil War suggests that there was more than one way to give legitimacy to the fragile Republic and to show solidarity to the loyalist revolutionaries. The pacifists, Picasso among them at that time, emphasized the gory side of war, its horrors, what it did to civilians unwittingly caught in its midst. Capa, whose images of battles and trench warfare were seen in Life in 1938, may well have veered to that point of view. Taro, who died in combat in 1937, and Chim, like the French militants who ran Regards, tended to censor images of carnage. The themes that they addressed made explicit the Republican goal to preserve human dignity, culture, traditions, and even religion against Fascist destructive violence -- but not the means needed to achieve that goal, the sacrifice of life. The ICP exhibition reveals an ambiguity that endures to this day if one bothers to look at the publicity through which young men and women are encouraged to enlist in the armed forces now.

“The Mexican Suitcase: Rediscovered Spanish Civil War Negatives by Capa, Chim and Taro,” Sept. 24, 2010-Jan. 9, 2011, at the International Center of Photography, 1133 Avenue of the Americas at 43rd Street, New York, N.Y. 10036.


MICHÈLE C. CONE is a New York-based critic and historian. Her latest book is French Modernisms: Perspectives on Art before, during and after Vichy (Cambridge 2001).

Notes
(1) Sam Walter, Erwin Wolfe, Antonio Camparia, Agusti Centelles, the Mayo Brothers, Hans Namuth, Georg Resner are some of them.

(2) Other illustrated periodicals on view in the show include Vu, Ce Soir, the German AIZ, the American Life, and Time.

(3) The director of Regards was Leon Moussinac, a critic and theoretician of cinema. The names of eminent leftwing French literary figures dotted its pages. The design of the publication was by Edouard Pignon, then a young communist painter. It was the first periodical (before Life) to use photojournalism.




 



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