The Spanish Civil War: Through An Artist’s Eye


Felicia Browne, Self portrait. Not dated (taken from Christies website)

In this second posting Sonia Boué talks us through the foundations of the project.

Through An Artist’s Eye is the working title for an artistic collaboration about British artist Felicia Browne and her part in the Spanish Civil War.

Tragically Felicia was killed in action at the age of 32. Her story is unique because she was the first and only female British combatant in this war. She is a source of fascination as a woman of her time but also as a talented creative individual. For two of the creatives on board this project she also holds a personal draw – Felicia died in the conflict that bore us. Myself, Sonia Boué  (visual artist) and Jenny Rivarola (Poet) are daughters of Spanish Republican exiles to England and thus our histories are entwined. The war that took her spawned us and is in no small way embedded in our DNA. Hard to describe the kinship such a cradle engenders, but this is also the feeling which permeates this bloody civil war as grave. We are somehow bonded.

Gratitude to those who volunteered in Spain is etched within the psyche because it feels so personal. It is within the fabric of these emotional responses to conflict that we find the human, and that the scale of it telescopes inwards from vast to intimate. So that in my imagination it is as though Felicia volunteered to help my closest family members in their moment of direst need.

More generally, such extreme acts of altruism  as volunteering in a war zone serve to ameliorate the absolute depth of horror reflected in the human mirror that is war. In my research on this war I have also come to touch on the German holocaust and stared the beast that is the human capacity for mass atrocity in the eye. Spain has it’s own such spectres in any case.

For Professor Tom Buchanan, Felicia Browne has also exerted a lasting professional fascination in which painstaking research unearthed a cache of new material in the form of Felicia’s personal letters and drawings. Thanks to Tom’s diligence, these now form an archive at Tate Britain, which has been digitalised and made available to the public in this way. You can also make an appointment to view the archive in person.

Some of you may have visited the groundbreaking exhibition Conscience and Conflict: British Artists and the Spanish Civil War. Groundbreaking because it was the first ever survey of British artist’s responses to the Spanish conflict, and the fruit of three years research by curator and Artistic Director of Pallant House Gallery, Simon Martin.

It was also to be my first introduction to Felicia, whose striking self portrait I chose as one of my stand out pieces for the review of the show on my artist blog Barcelona in a Bag.

This show proved seminal to my thinking about my own work on the Spanish Civil War, and I began to recognise my place within a tradition of British artists responding to this conflict. Another link to Felicia, whose drawings from Spain act as a form of documentation if not reportage.

In July of 2015 I was approached by Tate Britain to be the third voice in a short film as part of a series commissioned to bring their digital archives to life. Filming took place in my studio and my work interrogated (in the best sense of the word). This gallery on my website shows the landscapes on show in my studio at the time. In this process the notion of intersecting journey’s took seed: Felicia’s decisive road trip from England to Spain in which she found herself propelled into war, and my father’s flight from Spain to England (eventually) as a young Republican reporter.

The marks and traces of his journey into exile were the subjects of my abstract landscapes with the battered vintage suitcases I collect providing a metaphor for the wounding – both psychological and physical – of war. Thus suitcases as bearer’s of wounds, as symbols of the self, their surfaces suggestive of skin, have been powerful inspiration for the surface appearance of my paintings. I work also with the notion of emotional geography and landscape as a reflection of the psyche. Felicia’s death appeared to me, during my day with Rebecca Sinker of the Tate Britain team, as a bloody reality. It was a profound awakening.

I am fascinated also by Felicia’s mark making – her drawings from Spain in particular as the traces of her journey. They will form the lynch-pin of my part in this collaborative project.

It is likely that both my father and Jenny’s travelled across the Pyrenees on foot, while Felicia travelled by car with her friend Edith (Ed) Bone. We must think of footsteps and tyre tracks it seems to me.

August 2016 marks the 80th anniversary of Felicia’s death while engaged in a mission to derail a fascist train near Tardienta in Aragon. Our mission is to create a fitting artistic tribute with a solid research base grounded in academic expertise. My question for today is, what would Felicia wish for in such an endeavour as an artist?

Both Jenny and I feel we must get to know Felicia. It is perhaps useful to carry a sense that she is watching us. It will be important to remain respectful and true.

By true I refer to emotional authenticity. As we know, truth itself is a moveable feast.





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