A considerably smaller but as evocative monument to the human cost of the Spanish civil war sits on the second floor of Madrid’s Reina Sofa Museum, not far from Picasso’s massive and ever-livid Guernica.
In the early winter of 1936, Robert Capa took a snapshot of No 10 Peironcely Street in the working-class Madrid district of Vallecas, which measures barely 29.4cm by 40.2cm. Three youngsters sit on the sidewalk in front of a home gnawed by shrapnel, laughing amid the wreckage wrought by the German bombers Hitler sent to assist Gen Franco’s coup.
While Picasso’s painting will always be more famous, Capa’s photograph, which is currently on permanent display at the Reina Sofa after a 10-year reorganization of the museum’s collection, has had a powerful afterlife.
It was first published in the French journal Regards 85 years ago today, and it drew the world’s attention to Spain and the aerial horrors that would become typical only a few years later during World War II.
It has also aided in the search for adequate housing for persons who had been living in tight and deplorable circumstances in the building Capa discovered after the bombing attack in the twenty-first century.
The 13 families who resided there were ultimately transferred into new apartments in March, after a protracted struggle led by a local and international platform sponsored by the trade union Fundación Anastasio de Gracia. The structure has been closed until it reopens as a museum – “the Robert Capa centre for the interpretation of the Madrid aerial bombing.”
Members of the Save Peironcely 10 campaign wrote to Manuel Borja-Villel, the director of Reina Sofa, in October, pleading with him to guarantee that a copy of the image presented to the museum in 1998 by Capa’s brother, Cornell, was given a permanent display place. However, it was unnecessary since the museum had already planned to display the photograph in a chamber titled Spain, Tragic Myth, among works by Le Corbusier, Joan Miró, and others.
Borja-Villel explains, “The photo was always going to be put on show again.” “I believe that works of art, poetry, and culture in general can help us see reality in new ways – and that this is performative, changing and affecting our lives.” That’s precisely what this little photograph has done for us.”
“I would have signed the letter myself because I am completely in agreement with it,” he says.
The reorganization – or “rereading” – of the Reina Sofa’s collection, according to Borja-Villel, is the product of a decade of labor to guarantee the Reina Sofa fulfills its obligations as a 21st-century cultural institution.
Around 70% of the 2,000 pieces on exhibit have never been seen before, enabling the museum to expand its research of topics like migration, colonialism, gender, and the environment, as well as feature more female artists and architectural aspects.
The reorganization, dubbed Communicating Vessels, 1881-2021, also serves as a reflection on society’s connection with art, as well as art’s relationship with museums. We need to think about information and how it reaches us in an age of online, false news, and raging cultural wars, says Borja-Villel.
“We seem to be stuck in a loop where the future is presented as a dystopia and the past is presented as an idealized past, with some pretty complicated or xenophobic biases like the desire for one’s own land,” Borja-Villel adds.
“In that context, I believe museums can help explain how we receive our ideas and perceptions of the world, because that reception is never neutral.”
The director also wants the museum to reflect current socioeconomic developments, particularly the 2008 financial crisis, which took Spain to the verge of bankruptcy and drastically transformed the country’s political environment.
“That neoliberal, selfish, individualistic, entrepreneurial system we’d had since the 1970s suddenly fell apart and failed spectacularly,” he adds. “And we saw the emergence of other alternatives all over the world, such as the indignados movement here,” says the author.
Photographs of the disastrous Prestige oil leak in 2002 succinctly document humanity’s influence on the environment, while the overwhelming number of pieces by Latin American artists raises concerns about colonialism, migration, exile, and cultural imperialism.
Borja-Villel explains, “We’ve always seen things – and museums – as being bound up with territory.” “However, we must decolonize our thinking and recognize that Europe and the West are simply world provinces.” We must recognize that colonialism has a systemic element of violence.”
While the newly reorganized collection concludes with pieces by three female artists – Victoria Gil, Joan Jonas, and Carmen Laffón – the director also points out that much more has to be done to recognize and recover the accomplishments of decades of creative women.
“They were always there,” he continues, “but we didn’t always know how to see them properly.” “We need to change the way we think about things and include female artists,” says the author. It’s simple in the present, but it’s more difficult historically, since women have traditionally been pushed to the limit.”
Despite the fact that it is still early, Borja-Villel believes the reorganization is being favorably received by the public.
On Friday afternoon, when a delegation from the Save Peironcely group, led by former Unesco chief Federico Mayor Zaragoza and Irish Hispanist and writer Ian Gibson, arrives to see the Capa painting in situ on the 85th anniversary of its publication, the museum’s attendance figures will soar even higher.
“All the stories behind the photographs are being recognized,” says José Mara Ura Fernández of the Fundación Anastasio de Gracia.
“The image, which has become a global symbol of horror, is now right where it belongs – right next to Guernica.” It’s incredible how a single negative can create a tsunami that has influenced the lives of so many others so many years later.”