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Exhibition of Spanish Civil War-era print culture is first of its kind

Melissa Mitchell, Arts Editor

Released 3/14/2007

Jordana Mendelson
Click photo to enlarge
Photo courtesy NCSA
Jordana Mendelson, a professor of art history, recently initiated and curated a major, multifaceted project aimed, in part, at making the art and print culture that emerged during the Spanish Civil War, more accessible to the public as well as to scholars worldwide.

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Armed with Internet access, soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan are blogging their war stories – and digital images – back home and beyond.

But, according to Jordana Mendelson, a professor of art history at the University of Illinois whose research focuses on the art and print culture that emerged during the Spanish Civil War, this is not the first time those on the front lines have used popular new forms of communications to promote their ideas and influence public opinion.

The mass medium du jour in Spain – and elsewhere throughout the world – during the 1930s, she said, was the illustrated magazine.

Until now, access to these magazines and other examples of Spanish Civil War-era print culture has been limited. That’s because extant copies of magazines and other ephemera, including posters, photographs, pamphlets, postcards and hand-made items, are – for the most part – tucked away, out of circulation in private and public archives spread across at least two continents. Many of the materials also are extremely fragile.

Mendelson recently initiated and curated a major, multifaceted project aimed, in part, at making these historical documents more accessible to the public as well as to scholars worldwide. The result of the first phase of the project is the exhibition “Magazines and War, 1936-39,” on view through April 30 at Madrid’s Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia.

Mendelson said the exhibition, which includes more than 300 Spanish Civil War and related posters, photographs and archival materials from 20-plus collections in Spain and the United States, is the first of its kind anywhere.

“There has been no other exhibition devoted to magazines of the Spanish Civil War, or the press as it relates to propaganda,” she said.

Aire. Revista de Aviación
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Aire. Revista de Aviación (Air: Aviation Magazine), Barcelona, September 1937, Cover: Salvador Ortiga. Courtesy of the Library of the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid.

And no other project or exhibition has emphasized the role of artists, designers and photographers – many of whom were well-known in Spain prior to the war, such as Mauricio Amster, José Bardasano and Josep Renau – in contributing to these campaigns.

“During the Spanish Civil War, artists were fundamental to giving meaning to the war,” Mendelson said. “Because it is the first exhibition to deal with magazines as artifacts, it allows us to learn about artists we don’t know much about.”

Among those contributing to the more than 1,500 magazines produced during this period were artists, writers, activists, and trade union and government propagandists from all sides – loyalists, insurgents, Republicans, "nationalists," anarchists and Communists. Publications ranged in nature from limited-edition, hand-made volumes produced on the front lines to slickly designed magazines featuring striking graphics, mass-produced in Barcelona, Madrid and other urban centers.

“Many of these magazines are beautiful and violent objects,” she noted in the catalog (published in Spanish and in English) that accompanies the exhibition. “They display in their manufacture practiced ideas about design and literary culture, even when they were created on the front by self-taught and soldier-artists.”

In addition to displays of original print materials, the exhibition includes interactive, bilingual kiosks that allow museum-goers to explore hundreds of high-resolution pages of these fragile materials virtually.

“At the kiosks, museum visitors can graphically flip through and browse 30 individual issues of magazines distributed over 18 titles of magazines,” Mendelson said.

La Ametralladora. Semanario de los Soldados
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La Ametralladora. Semanario de los Soldados (The Machine Gun: Soldier's Weekly), San Sebastián, Aug. 8, 1937, Cover: Tono. Courtesy of Monreal-Cabrelles Civil War Collection.

The digitized magazines included in the kiosks are from the collections of the U. of I. Rare Book and Manuscript Library and the library at the Reina Sofia museum.

Beginning March 15, an interactive Web site based on the kiosks will be available online in English and Spanish at and In addition to the digitized magazines, the site includes a description of the exhibition, multiple indices to the magazines and links to research resources.

The digital kiosks and Web site are the result of many hours of collaborative research and work involving a cadre of researchers, designers, and computational and library and information science professionals from across the U. of I. campus. In addition to working with staff and resources at the Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Mendelson enlisted support from the School of Art and Design and its Intermedialab; the Graduate School of Library and Information Science; National Center for Supercomputing Applications and Center for Computing in Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences.

Others making significant contributions to the effort have been Mendelson’s graduate assistant, Carmen Ripolles; and the designers of the Web site, U. of I. School of Art and Design alumnus Mason Kessinger and Phillip Zelnar, both of the multidisciplinary collaborative POCCUO.

Mendelson, who traveled to Madrid to participate in the exhibition opening and a related symposium in January, said the exhibition was greeted with widespread public and media attention in Spain. In part, she attributes the attention to citizen’s heightened awareness of the period as the country marks the 70th anniversary of the war.

“The exhibition was of interest to all – from children to older people,” she said. “That’s because it is part of their collective memory.”

Mendelson already is using the material in a course she is teaching this semester, and expects other instructional and research possibilities will evolve from the work.

Haz. Revista Nacional del SEU
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Haz. Revista Nacional del SEU (Bundle/Fasce: National Magazine of the SEU), Bilbao, Nov. 15, 1938. Courtesy of the Biblioteca Nacional, Madrid.

She ultimately envisions the project as a “cross-disciplinary dialogue on the creation and implementation of useful computing innovations for the arts and humanities, in research driven projects that necessarily feed into and enhance teaching and scholarship.”

Mendelson is hopeful that the project will prompt an exploration of “the ways in which the translation of early 20th-century print culture to the Web raises to the surface fundamental historical and contemporary questions about the creation of visual culture at historically specific moments of technological advancement.”

She also anticipates that other lines of inquiry will follow as well, including “a necessary discussion between researchers in the arts and humanities and the custodians of print culture in library collections.”

For example, she noted, “what I and other historians ask of the archive and of those who maintain its contents may be at odds with the needs of librarians and archivists to preserve holdings and catalog digitized collections according to standards and practices developed within the discipline of library and information science.”

The exhibition will travel to the Museu Valencia de la Il.lustracio i la Modernitat (MuVIM) in Valencia, Spain, in July. A modified version of the exhibition will be presented at the International Center of Photography in New York City from August through January 2008. The kiosks, funded by an NCSA Faculty Fellowship, will be on view at each site.