Sunday, October 14, 2007

In New York City, Photographs From the Spanish Civil War

The Spanish Civil War--whose heroism, destruction and wrenching political disputes were documented by some of the best photography of the twentieth century--still sparks strong feelings in New York City. Now, a fine quartet of exhibits at the International Center of Photography recalls photographers who figured prominently in the war (Gerda Taro and Robert Capa), visual media in the Republic, and the execution of Republican civilians. If you thought the war was part of the past, you will be awakened by works like the photo at left of an execution bullet, dug up from a mass grave of Spanish Republicans. (Francesc Torres, Dark is the Room Where We Sleep, 2007, copyright Francesc Torres.)

Gerda Taro, often remembered as Robert Capa's partner in love and business, here emerges as a photographer in her own right. Born Gerta Pohorylle in Germany, where she was a leftist activist, she fled to Paris to escape Nazi persecution. There, she became the business agent of a young Hungarian photographer and developed her own photography. Eventually, they took the names under which they would be better known: Gerda Taro and Robert Capa. The two went to Spain together.

The exhibit presents more than eighty of Taro's photographs, along with magazines that give visitors a valuable sense of how her pictures appeared in European publications. In this show, the first major exhibit of Taro's work, we get a good sense of the range of her work.

If her photos emphasizing the clenched-fist salute of the Popular Front look like cliches of socialist realism, the bulk of her work is more impressive. Her photographs of a war orphan eating soup, a man and woman of the Republican militia relaxing together, and a blood-stained stretcher memorably depict the interior emotions of the war. The intimacy of her best work, seventy years on, is still impressive. So is her courage. In July 1937, covering Republicans' retreat from Brunete, she jumped onto the running board of a car. She was killed when the car was sideswiped by a tank. In Paris, tens of thousand mourned her.

If the Taro exhibit introduces an under-appreciated photographer, Other Weapons: Photography and Print Culture During the Spanish Civil War explores the media culture of Republican Spain in wartime. Displaying posters, photographs and magazines, Other Weapons is a valuable integration of media history, political history and art history.

Equally strong is This is War! Robert Capa at Work, which takes Taro's partner through Spain, his work from China, and his coverage of United States forces in Europe during World War II. The exhibit devotes special attention to some of Capa's most famous works: the Falling Soldier of the Spanish Civil War, the D-day invasion, and the deaths of G.I.s in combat during the final days of the war in Germany.

Just as Other Weapons situates visual media in the larger context of the war, This is War shows how Capa's photos were reproduced in major magazines, such as LIFE. The result is an exhibit that lifts Capa's work out of the narrow realms of art--in which his photographs are presented simply on their own--and presents them in the context of the media and culture of their time.

If these three exhibits use images to recover the world of the Thirties and Forties, Dark is the Room Where We Sleep: A Project by Francesc Torres, introduces to Americans the grim echoes of the civil war in the Spanish present. In this installation, Torres, a Barcelona artist, depicts the excavation of an unmarked mass grave of 46 civilian supporters of the Republic killed by Franco's forces. The grave, outside the village of Villamayor de los Montes in northern Spain, is one of many that date from the war. It is one of the few, however, that has been uncovered and documented.

The photographs depict everything from the grave to surviving relatives to volunteers in the excavation. But perhaps most moving is the centerpiece of the final room in the show: an illuminated pedestal that displays a battered watch that belonged to one of the victims of the shooting. Its hands are missing, so it records no particular moment in time----and thereby it reminds us of how the crimes of the past echo into the present.

The exhibits will be up through January 6, 2008.

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