George Orwell was onto something when he said, “All art is propaganda.” I would like to take this opportunity to shed some light on the use of art and culture as propaganda in Spain during the Spanish Civil War. Since there were large segments of the Catalan population fighting bravely and tirelessly against the rebel forces, Barcelona—with its copious numbers of artists and graphic designers—quickly became the hub for anti-nationalist propaganda. Activities in the Catalan propaganda campaign included the distribution of posters and postcards, the publishing of pamphlets, graphic albums and books, and the organisation of musical concerts and exhibitions. The success of this propaganda effort is attributed to the fact that it appealed to a specific Catalan identity: a majority of posters were published in Catalan and Catalan books and theatrical performances were used to boost morale at the rear and to address troops at the front.
Whilst Catalan art and propaganda played a significant role within Catalonia, its influence and intent were also felt further afield. A key example of this influence can be seen through the works of Salvador Dalí. In the Soft Construction with Boiled Beans (Premonition of Civil War), Dalí presents a disturbing vision of civil warfare and personifies the broken Spanish state as grasping upwards towards something higher, all the while pinning itself underfoot in self-inflicted agony.
One cannot talk about propaganda during the Spanish Civil War without making a reference to Pablo Picasso´s Guernica. The painting depicts the devastation caused by the first large-scale bombing in history to target a civilian population; it was a warning of the nightmare that would come if the fascists continued their march through Spain. Guernica has had such an impact that it has become one of the most recognized paintings of the 20th century and has been replicated several times, including a tapestry of the painting that sits outside the United Nations Security Council as a permanent reminder of the atrocities of war.
The Spanish example, alongside many others, demonstrates the role that art and culture can play in educating and uniting people—on the well-worn borders of that old dirty word: propaganda.