The ‘orphan’ art of the Civil War

Everything happened in the midst of chaos and in the context of an extremely virulent political-social upheaval. After the military coup and the outbreak of the Civil War, the republican Generalitat tried to preserve the artistic heritage from the threat of bombs and the uncontrolled destruction of the revolutionaries, collecting and confiscating the main collections of the country and transferring them to safe places. Once the war was over, it was the Francoist victors who assumed their property and took charge of returning them to their owners through the National Artistic Heritage Defense Service (Sdpan). But not all the works returned to their owners.

Catalan museums guard a significant number of those orphan works that no one claimed and that only now, almost ninety years later, are beginning to be the object of study. “At all times, society does what it is mentally prepared for,” says the historian Gemma Domènech, who from the Catalan Heritage Research Institute (Icrpc), of which she is director, promotes the project Iguemus a program in which some twenty researchers participate and whose objective is precisely to find out what happened and where the saved cultural assets are.

“For years, everything related to the destruction of heritage by anti-fascist committees and the reaction of protection and safeguarding that it aroused has been studied. [tanto en personas que actuaron por iniciativa propia como la acción orquestada por la Generalitat]. All of this we know well. The question now is what happened next? What was returned and what was not? And if they were not returned, for what reason?

As data on the confiscated works become known, restitution processes could be initiated

“Surely all possible circumstances exist. It could be that the owner had died, that he was in exile or was simply afraid of reprisals”, points out Francesc Miralpeix, curator of Expedient 2619, an exhibition that opened its doors this week at Ca l’Arenas in the Museu de Mataró, one of the most favored by the distribution, where in 1944 two deposits ended up, almost 1,000 pieces, which marked a before and after in the configuration of the museum. “It is a very necessary first exercise of justice and transparency, although much remains to be done,” acknowledges Miralpeix.

“Initially it was a task of safeguarding public collections and some private ones, for which they provided custody work, but later the Generalitat already called for the seizure of the works of bourgeois families, because it wanted to create a great Museum of the Town. What would have happened if they had won? We don’t know, but it can be deduced that there was no intention to return”, considers Miralpeix.

Endless unclaimed works

Endless looted works that no one has claimed

LV / Alex Garcia

In any case, the monuments men Catalans carried out rigorous inventories that facilitated the task of the Francoist Sdpan at the time of return. The works, most of them packed, protected, documented, photographed and classified, were deposited in the Palace of the Caja de Pensiones de Montjuïc (now the Institut Cartogràfic), the Pedralbes Monastery and the Ducal Solferino Palace. So that their owners could recognize and claim them. Until there, as happened in many other parts of Spain, many leaders of the regime and profiteers of all kinds went.

According to the historian Arturo Colorado, who has recently published a report on the paintings in the Prado Museum that come from those seizures (70), in many cases the works were treated as authentic “spoils of war”, handing them over to strangers who were not their legitimate owners or looking the other way when they detected a hoax. Many were volatilized. A looting comparable, he says, to that of the Jewish collections by the Nazis.

Works considered as spoils of war

Works considered as spoils of war

LV / Alex Garcia

In the Catalan case, there is a consensus among historians that mistakes could have been made, that there must have been pressure and even a certain lack of control, but that things were done reasonably well. “But we are at the beginning of the road”, insists Domènech, for whom the discovery of the documentation in the Arxiu de la Corona d’Aragó, now available for consultation, will shed light on an episode about which very little is still known. And perhaps start restitution processes, like the ones that many other international institutions are launching. The children of the Republican mayor Pedro Rico have already requested two works that are in the Prado.

The MNAC, which preserves 121 works deposited by the Sdpan, including Cascalls’ Head of Christ, has also commissioned Mireia Capdevila and Francesc Vilanova to study the works deposited during the Franco regime. But reaching their owners is sometimes an impossible task. In the case of Mataró, Miralpeix has managed to trace the journey of the works until their arrival at the museum, but only in very few works has he found the name of their owners. This is the case of the Marques de Mellán, from Madrid, whose name appears, along with other labels (“Recovered from the enemy”), on the back of a Coffermans descent. Or of two Dalí drawings that possibly belonged to the politician Josep Puig Pujades and whose dedication was erased.

Could they be the subject of a claim? “It could happen,” admits the museum’s director, Anna Capella, but it’s a state depository, we’re just custodians. There is no regulation yet. In any case, apart from the material restitution, there is a moral restitution, which begins by being able to say ‘this painting belonged to So-and-so’”.

Source: Portada by

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