Lost photos from Spanish civil war reveal daily life behind anti-fascist lines
Photographs by two Jewish female photographers who worked behind anti-fascist lines during the Spanish civil war have gone on display in Madrid after 80 years. For decades the negatives and prints, many of which have never been published, were believed to be lost or destroyed. They are now on show in the capital for the first time.
As the Spanish civil war neared a conclusion in 1939, anarchists of the Confederación Nacional del Trabajo and Federación Anarquista Ibérica (CNT-FAI) fighting in Barcelona took steps to preserve records of their struggle and achievements. Apprehensive of the war’s outcome, they sealed documents and 2,300 photographs, 5,000 negatives and almost 300 photographic plates in 48 wooden crates, which they smuggled out of the city away from the fascist bombardment, destined for the safe haven of the International Institute of Social History (IISH) in Amsterdam.
Years later, having travelled via Paris, Harrogate and Oxford, the crates, known as the Amsterdam boxes, duly arrived. They remained sealed while the anarchists pursued undercover lives during the decades of the Franco regime. When they were finally opened in the 1980s the records and documents inside were inventoried but the photographic material was overlooked.
Now, thanks to the detective work of the art historian and curator Almudena Rubio, who has been researching the IISH archive since 2015, it has become possible to identify the output of two foreign photographers, both Jewish women, who travelled to Spain to take sides in the war: Margaret Michaelis, of Polish-Austrian descent, and Kati Horna, from Hungary and a friend of the photojournalist Robert Capa, a compatriot.
Michaelis had studied photography in Vienna in the 1920s and went on to work in Berlin until she and her husband, a prominent anarchist, were arrested on separate occasions by the Nazis.
After his release, the couple moved to Barcelona in 1933, where she established her own studio and worked as a portraitist and advertising and architecture photographer.
After the outbreak of the civil war Michaelis worked for the foreign propaganda office of the anarchists and contributed pictures to the newly established propaganda commissariat of Catalunya, which sought to maintain morale while encouraging anti-fascist action.
Among Michaelis’s newly published pictures, all shot with a Leica, are scenes of street actions in Barcelona by anarchist militants; views of daily life in Albalate de Cinca and Valencia; reportage from a visit to L’Alcora, a village that had abolished the use of money; rare photographs of the veteran anarchist Emma Goldman (memorably branded by J Edgar Hoover “the most dangerous woman in America”); and the arrival of the British Red Cross in Portbou.
As Michaelis left Spain, Horna arrived in January 1937. She, too, was a trained photographer, and had left Germany in 1933. On arrival in Spain after four years in Paris, she committed herself to the social revolution, working for the foreign propaganda office of the anarchists.
She soon established herself as the official photographer of the SPA, an anarchist photo agency, and her pictures were published in such anarchist titles as Umbral, Mujeres Libres and Tierra y libertad.
Horna’s work, like Michaelis’s, was designed to support the social revolution and counteract Francoist propaganda that attempted to discredit the anti-fascist movement. Rolleiflex in hand, she visited a camp set up to look after children removed from the war zone; she recorded humane and sanitary conditions in a prison in Modelo; she pictured a collectivised church in Aragón converted into a carpentry workshop; she saw villagers having free haircuts at a collectivised barbershop; she scrambled through a trench on the Aragón front.
Rubio, whose painstaking research has unearthed the photographs, has no doubts about their importance. “The legacy of the work of Michaelis and Horna is unique, precisely because it shows us the rearguard revolutionary experience, neglected by official historiography, that was instigated by the anarchists of the CNT-FAI. At the same time, it allows us to reconstruct in more detail the life of the two photographers during the civil war, and better to appreciate their work in antifascist Spain.”
Both photographers believed their work had been lost or destroyed in the ruins of Franco’s bombs. Now, for the first time, the pictures are seeing the light of day.
The Amsterdam Boxes: Kati Horna and Margaret Michaelis in the Civil War is at the Calcografía Nacional in Madrid as part of PhotoEspaña until 27 July. The exhibition will travel to Huesca (Aragón) and Barcelona