A season of war

IssueNovember 2008
Feature by Milan Rai

As I made my way around the upper floor of London’s Barbican Art Gallery, I gradually realised that I’d come with a preconception, an assumption which had turned out to be wildly wrong. I’d presumed naïvely that an art exhibition entitled “This Is War!” would be basically an anti-war exhibition.

The Robert Capa-Gerda Taro photography exhibition (focussed on the Spanish Civil War) on the top floor is actually a pro-war exhibition, though no less fascinating for all that. It demonstrates the power of art in the service of a cause – the cause of Republican Spain in its struggle with Franco’s fascist revolt.

Several reviewers have commented that the value of the exhibition lies in the space it gives to the work of Gerda Taro (born Gerta Pohorylle in Stuttgart) who went to Spain with her fiancé Robert Capa as a photojournalist.

Capa (born Andrei Friedmann in Budapest) once advised his friend Henri Cartier-Bresson: “If you call yourself an artist, you won’t get anything published. Call yourself a photojournalist, and then you can do whatever you want.”

Taro, who died in Spain in July 1937 when her vehicle was struck by a tank, epitomised as much as her lover the Capa motto of war photography: “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.”

There is a moving image of Taro hiding behind a rock (just behind a soldier who seems on the front line), looking up as if to judge the level of danger, the direction of threat. She seems utterly devoid of fear, perhaps even joyful in the midst of danger.

Capa himself, after covering the war in China, the D-Day landings, and the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, was blown up by a mine in Indochina towards the end of the French war there, in May 1954. His China and Second World War photos receive one room each – Taro receives two rooms in total.

Taro and Capa went to Spain to support the Republican – or “Loyalist” – cause. Their photographs of Republican militiawomen (Taro has an extraordinary picture of a woman in heels practising her pistolry) and men, and of refugees fleeing fascist assaults, were designed to rally support, not merely to document a painful reality.

Capa’s most famous photo – entitled Death of a Loyalist Soldier – is displayed along with all the other photos he is known to have taken at that location on that day, for the viewer to judge its authenticity. To my surprise, I was unconvinced – a second photo shows another soldier falling, apparently shot dead at the very same location at almost the same moment.

Taro dedicated her art, and lost her life, to the cause of Spain. With Capa, she helped to transform photography. We are in their debt.