A collaboration with Àlex Rebollo
A man resting his face on his right fist – wearing a scarf and holding an Italian newspaper under his armpit – appears to be singing while looking up. By what is shown, one might assume that he is looking at the sky. Who was him? Was he Italian and was the newspaper a copy of Il Legionario, one of the newspapers that Italian fighters edited in Spain? Who knows.
This picture – which became iconic – was taken in October 1938 by the notorious photographer and war reporter Endre Ern Friedmann, better known as Robert Capa. He himself cataloged it, as well as many other pictures from that time, under the title “Montblanch, near Barcelona”. Such a title caused much confusion among historians for years, this is because neither Montblanc is “near” Barcelona nor what is seen in the background resembles the capital of the Conca de Barberà. In fact, one of the main problems in locating the photos was that there were hardly any architectural or landscape elements that could help identify the precise location. Capa focused on close-up portraits, capturing the transcendence of the moment by drawing attention to what the faces expressed. He did so successfully because the photographs do in fact manage to convey the liveliness and emotion of the photographed while directly addressing the viewer, who empathizes with them.
In the early 2000s, researcher Nil Thraby succeeded in clarifying where the famous Capa pictures were taken. It was the farewell act of the International Brigades that took place on Tuesday, 25th of October 1938 in the Villa Engràcia de Les Masies spa hotel, in Espluga de Francolí. Which was transformed into a hostel of Xanascat, the youth hostel network of Catalonia.
In the autumn of 1936, a few months after the failed coup d’état against the democratic government of the Second Republic that resulted in the Spanish Civil War, the government of Largo Caballero gave the go-ahead to the creation of the International Brigades with the intention of grouping the volunteer combatants who had been arriving to Spain for weeks with the understanding that the Spanish struggle with fascism was also a worldwide struggle.. Although it is difficult to establish exact data on how many volunteers formed the International Brigades, most authors point to around 35,000 men and women from 54 different countries all throughout the time span between creation, in 1936, and dissolution, in October 1938. And, unfortunately, a large part of these volunteers lost their lives fighting for freedom.
Finally, on 21st of September 1938 – with the crucial Battle of the Ebro going on – the President of the Council of Ministers, Juan Negrín, announced the withdrawal of foreign fighters to the League of Nations, which was the beginning of the end of the International Brigades. The action sought for the other side to do the same and for the mutineers to stop receiving aid from Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and dictator Salazar’s Portugal, as well as to open the border with France to receive outside support. Neither thing happened.
However, in late October 1938, the International Brigades were withdrawn. Almost all the villages where there were brigadiers were given a farewell in a few days in which the goodbyes were plentiful until they held a massive homage on the 28th of October, in Barcelona. One of the most important acts, however, was the farewell of Les Masies on the 25th of October 1938.
At a distance of 800 meters from the Monastery of Poblet, this tourist center was created in the late 19th century around medicinal waters and a spectacular natural environment, to host families of the Catalan bourgeoisie who spent their holidays there. Also, it welcomed girls thanks to the field trips organized by the Barcelona City Council in the 1930s. Moreover, throughout the war, its constructions – which were expropriated from their owners – housed refugees, soldiers and even a blood hospital. At just over 30 kilometers from the front, in October 1938, there was one of the points where the Brigadiers were regrouping to embark on their way to Barcelona and go back home. Hundreds of brigadiers, such as those from Lincoln Battalion, arrived in the Espluga by train from Marçà on the morning of October 25th. With them, and hence the importance of the act of Les Masies, a large part of the staff of the Republican Army such as Vicente Rojo, Juan Modesto and Enrique Líster were also present; prominent leaders in the Brigades such as André Marty and Luigi Longo and members of the government such as the president, Juan Negrín. Not to mention journalists and photojournalists like Herbert Matthews from the New York Times, Pau-Lluís Torrents from the Generalitat’s propaganda commissionerate, the aforementioned Robert Capa, also who would later be his business partner, David Seymour, or even the Daily Telegraph correspondent, Henry Buckley. Thanks to them and their work, we now have visual proof of that day in which there were parliaments, music, dancing and raw emotions all over. As for speeches, Dr. Negrín’s must be brought to attention as he stated that, in recognition of the brigadiers’ hard work, he promised to grant them Spanish nationality after the war ended. A promise which was not fulfilled until 57 years later, when a Royal Decree passed in 1996 offered Spanish citizenship on condition that they renounce their own. A requirement that was removed in the Historical Memory Act of 2007 and in the current Democratic Memory of 2022.
Three days after the event, they were received with an ovation in the streets of Barcelona. However, it was not positive, they awaited many kilometers ahead and, unfortunately, a way back home that was not pleasant at all. Many brigadiers were seen in French prison camps as well as so many other Spanish refugees. And yet others, despite exhaustion, had to continue to fight fascism and barbarism in World War II.
We must therefore not forget these volunteers for freedom, and we must make sure that their sacrifice survives in the form of a photograph or on a wall in the form of a mural, but it must for sure survive in our memory and that of those who will come. We owe them.
Àlex Rebollo Sánchez is a historian and museologist. Currently, he survives precariousness by combining freelance work in the cultural sector with teaching at the University of Barcelona.
Timeline of the commemoration of the farewell
From the discovery of the International Brigades’ farewell location to the restoration of the historical memory.
In October 2003, Nil Thraby, a researcher on photographer Gerda Taro’s life –photographer Robert Capa’s companion– discovered the correct location of the International Brigades’ farewell:
“I recently stumbled, while investigating for a novel, with a series of photographs by famous war photographer Robert Capa (1913–1954) entitled “Montblanc, near Barcelona”. My surprise was greatest when I read in the excellent biography written by Richard Whelan, that Capa went to Montblanc on October 25, 1938, to photograph a farewell to the International Brigades. As I live in the aforementioned village ‘near Barcelona’, my interest was immediately aroused. Half a year later, and incidentally by a mere chance of life, I found the place where those pictures were taken. Along with the photos and the location, I discovered one of the last chapters of the Civil War.”
Taking this as a starter point, the No jubilem la memòria (Do not retire memory) association organized right there an event in commemoration of the 65th anniversary of the farewell of the Brigades in the Masies. The event featured, among others, Brigadier Milton Wolf, historians Paul Preston and Gabriel Jackson, as well as Oriol Grau, Dan Bessie and Andreu Mayayo. The exhibition “Els últims quinze dies de les Brigades Internacionals” (“The International Brigades Last 15 days”) opened with unpublished photographs, and the Museum of Rural Life remade the banners that were hanging in the courtyard in the original act.
That same month, the City Hall of l’Espluga de Francolí installed a methacrylate plaque in the yard of the lodge where the Brigadiers were housed.
In August 2005, the Museum of Rural Life presented the project: Permanent Commemorative Exhibition of the International Brigades’ Farewell in l’Espluga de Francolí; a project that, despite the good harmony between the different agents and entities that were to carry it out, was sidestepped. Finally, it was in November 2015 that the Permanent Commemorative exhibition of the International Brigades was inaugurated, created by Assumpta Benaiges, director of the Cistercian Monastery Learning Camp.
In October 2011, Terre de Fraternité, led by Mr. Guy Saurat, French, organized a visit to the lodge by former brigadiers, families, friends, scholars and entities from 8 different countries. After visiting the lodge, they visited the museum.
At the same time, during the 2012-2013 and 2013-2014 school years, the Learning Field designs and implements an educational activity on the topic.
In January 2018, Memorial Democràtic organized the 80th commemorative anniversary of the transfer of weapons and flags from the International Brigades to the Government of the Republic. The current Justice Minister Ester Capella presided over the event. Attended by, among others, representatives of the Italian Association Volontari Combattenti, the Catalan Association Expressos Polítics del Franquisme (Political Expresses of Francoism), Amical of the International Brigades. A memorial pedestal was installed at the entrance to the Alberg.
On 22 February 2021, the City Council received the first call for proposal of the Memorial Democràtic, to reactivate the spaces of the Network of Memory Spaces, with the CoP, the Open Communities of Democratic Memorial Practices. During the spring of that year, l’Espluga de Francolí’s City Council held a series of meetings to reactivate the memory space within the Memorial Democràtic network.
Two years later, in February 2023, artist Roc Blackblock executed a mural on the lodge’s facade, a remake of a photograph taken by photographer Robert Capa on the same day as the International Brigades’ farewell.
Tourism of the Espluga de Francolí
THE WORKING PROCESS
Since we had considered and had the opportunity to start working in the espluga with the project of making a mural in the current espluga lodge, our starting point was to make visible from the outside of the building what had happened indoors: the farewell of the brigades. The reason for that is that we had passed in front of it many times, and we could tell that this is an area with a very busy road; however, all the memory indicators (a rack, a plaque from the city hall…) can only be seen by pedestrians standing in front of it. That is why we felt it was important that this episode could be identified from a distance, as it was the way to make it actually visible. Therefore, when assessing which wall we felt was the most appropriate one to intervene, we chose the one that was most visible from the road that passes by the side.
When considering what image to illustrate and how to insert it into the wall, we also made it an indispensable requirement to be respectful of the building, to be aware that it would be a significant intervention, with a strong visual impact. Our idea was to integrate the image within the facade, being in concordance with it, and the way that we decided was most appropriate to do this was by using a range of colors that was already on the building. In this regard, we worked with a half-ink project: the original color of the wall is the middle tone of our chromatic palette. To complete the staircase, we chose a darker color, but of the same range; while all the lighter colors were created from the original color mix of the wall with the color of the frame of the windows and corners of the building, a color between cream and broken white, so the whole was harmonized and integrated with the facade, which allowed us to work with a monochromatic scale suitable for the building.
When we chose the image, we also encountered a number of issues: the first one was which of the images to choose. We had the generosity of having the photographic archive of Henry Bakley, ceded by his family. Images of invaluable and very interesting historical relevance, but photographically having very little resolution. So it seemed to us that, due to their complexity in composition, they would require the viewer to be placed at a very specific point in order to be able to grasp the ensemble. As we were also aware of Robert Capa’s famous stories and the beautiful anecdote of how his location was discovered, the current youth lodge, we began to work with the possibility of reproducing one of these images. Finally, after agreeing with all the agents who have been part of this process — the lodge, the City Hall, the Learning Camp — we took the determination to work with this photograph, which seemed to us to be one of the most iconic images of the Civil War taken by Capa. All of this fit perfectly with the essence of Murs de Bitàcola, to paint the images where they have occurred, and it therefore seemed to us to be a unique opportunity that would hardly ever be repeated. That’s why we assumed the price of owning the rights to reproduce this image, understanding that it was an investment worth making for the project. Even though it meant having to give up images showing the volume of brigadiers who participated in the act or others portraying architectural and landscape elements that allowed the location to be identified, we felt that the chosen image had great visual power and portrayed an emotive and suggestive scene, and this was a point in favor.
The execution of the work has been done with plastic paint, reproducing the photograph with the earthy chromatic range of the building itself. It has also been a challenge to find the optimal way to fit the image into the facade, since we had a whole series of windows that hid parts of the image, so we have had to decide how to place the image in order not to lose any significant elements, such as the faces of the brigadiers, interesting details like the newspaper under the brigadier’s arm, the raised fist… The result has been a design that we consider to be quite good for the intended function, because it does not go unnoticed by anyone passing through the street and clearly indicates that the lodge is a space directly related to the history of the International Brigades.
It has been a privilege to be able to work with such a large team of interesting agents for this project: the Lodges of Catalunya Network, the City Council and the Learning Camp; they have enabled us to finish this intervention.
English translation by Tonina Oliver Coll