La retirada exilis

Guerrero Medina

(Jaén, 1942 - )

The Exile According to Guerrero Medina


The fall of Barcelona in January 1939 produced a terrible diaspora; half a million refugees attempted to flee to France, taking advantage of the fact that then the head of the French government, Édouard Daladier of the radical party, had authorized the opening of the frontier at Irun, Jonquera and Portbou. This meant that Argelers, a town of some 23,000 inhabitants, saw 353,107 people arrive on foot; entire families with all the belongings they could carry and in a lamentable state after three years of war, had just crossed the Pyrenees on foot.

On 9 March 1939, the Valière Report commissioned by the French government estimated there were some 440,000 refugees, of whom 17,000 were women, children and old people; 200,000 soldiers and militia members; 40,000 invalids; and 10,000 wounded.

In March 1939 Robert Capa visited the enormous camp on the beach at Argelers with 800,000 Spanish Republicans held there. He wrote about them, “A hell on sand: the men there survive under tents of fortune and huts of straw offering only poor protection against wretched cold, sand and wind. To cap it all, there is no drinking water, only the brackish water extracted from holes dug in the sand.”

Guerrero Medina studied the history and viewed many photographs before taking up his pencils and brushes. And when he began to reflect on canvas or on paper, he seemed to have a single aim in mind; to not depict the misery, misfortune, or the breakdown of humanity in the most realistic way possible. To not elicit pity or share pain.

On the contrary, he set out to defy the appalling reality, to go beyond shame, grief and pain to manifest a sense of admiration for pure dignity: the gaunt faces of each of the men and women of the defeated army dressed in simple but clean and neat clothes, who walked upright with their heads held high as though they were, not the vanquished, but the true victors.

Maria Lluïsa Borràs.

José María Guerrero Medina or the Art of Remembrance

Our first encounter with the painting of José María Guerrero Medina took place in 2005 at the Museum of the History of Catalonia in Barcelona.  It was where you would least expect it; in the offices of the museum and not in the exhibition galleries open to the public.  Hence the surprise and the impact, both as great as the two paintings are huge, 4 m x 2.5 m, showing a retreat on a scale that had been gigantic: for example, a column of men winding across a vast landscape but also in a much smaller frame, some refugees on the platform of the Portbou train station and others, crowded together in front of the fort at Pertús.

These scenes, full of suffering, reminded us of many of the photos that we had seen.  J.M. Guerrero’s brush however transformed reality into beauty.  Not because the artist prettified it, but because his works abundantly revealed what, in the words of Manuel Vázquez Montalbán, he had internalized of the personal and collective drama of the exodus, to then incorporate it into his palette and later turn it into a new point of interest.

J.M. Guerrero is not an eye witness, he is a painter, which is why we hold him such regard. He raises the Republican exodus to the level of an epic journey and releases the “kept-back” document, as the philosopher Jacques Rancière put it, to the poor and the victims. He positions it as an event worthy of being seen and endows it with a measure of universality.

So, coming across these works by J.M. Guerrero at the Museum of the History of Catalonia not only excited us but set off an overwhelming urge to display them within the framework of our own calendar of events, Camins de la retirada. Exhibiting Guerrero’s La retirada on our walls was so fitting that the museum’s curator, Margarida Sala, and José María Guerrero instantly and generously offered their collaboration to FFREEE.  The inauguration took place in February 2005, in the presence of the artist who since then has honoured us with his friendship and his appreciation for the town of Argelers.

And so, when Cinémaginaire asked him to help with an exhibition, to mark the 70th anniversary of the retreat, he did not hesitate and rolled up his sleeves to present a magnificent offering, a brand-new piece featuring the event.  FFREEE, grateful, could not respond with its own contribution, alongside Cinémaginaire and Les Affaires Culturelles de Perpinyà, for the realization of this exhibition.


Serge Barba.

President of FFREEE. (Fils et Filles de Répiblicans Espagnols et Enfants de l’Exode)



Paths to France

In January and February 1939 half a million people crossed the frontier into France.  People from all over and of every class, reduced to a flow overcome by sadness, suddenly united by a common experience; an overwhelming feeling, present throughout the journey, during the slow march of flight, which came forth in full force during the emotionally charged moments preceding the crossing of the frontier: desperation. Only a few, those most intellectually involved with the changing circumstances of the Republic, managed to keep it in check with an uplifting thought; the belief that on the other side was the very thing which had disappeared behind them: freedom.  It was a momentary relief, weak and, in the face of everything, incapable of providing consolation, but still the only ray of light in otherwise dark days.

Behind them was an experience that had not just been limited to politics, to debates on public affairs, to being involved to a greater or lesser degree in events that should have changed the course of history. It was, above all, the opportunity for change and to live life differently that had been defeated on the battlefield.  Defeat had swept away a whole world. Dreams of a better life, energy, and desire had been wiped out, undone.  There was a general understanding that no one could take anything with them.  This made all the more tragic the portraits of those who clutched with their last remaining strength a battered suitcase or bundle of things that would soon be thrown aside.  The closer they got to the frontier, the more apparent it became that memories would have to be left behind because they too had been conquered.  It was bitterly cold, everyone took shelter as best they could, but it did not take much to see that, dispossessed of everything, no one had ever felt so naked.

The frenzy of battle echoed still.  And in the name of all battles, a photograph emerged summing up three years of war. Robert Capa captured the moment of death, rifle in hand, of a militiaman. José María Guerrero Medina has worked obsessively, repeatedly returning to, with slight variations in detail, the complexities of this vivid image. A bullet cut short the life and erased the generosity of a man who on a hill-side appeared to launch himself into an action that threw precaution to the wind.  With the boundless optimism that only an idealist can possess. Blind confidence, the thrill of the moment, and expressions of his depth of conviction were shattered in an instant. The solitude of the militiaman, the absence of other warlike elements, the severity of the landscape, his casual uniform despite being on the front, gave him a heroic air, while perfectly illustrating that chance plays a decisive role in tragedy.

Abruptly halted, like the young soldier – identified not so long ago as a Valencian lad who had enlisted voluntarily. For those who had lost everything and knew that the war would continue in the form of grinding repression, there was no other way but to trudge the paths to France.  They arrived en masse.  They are shown as a long line of tightly pressed bodies crowning the ridge.  They form a silent, compact file of disfigured faces. It seems that with their biographies truncated, they have lost their names and along with their names, their voices and speech.  And as they walk towards the other side of the line, their identity is on the point of dissolving with every step.  They are nothing like what they once were. They have stopped existing. Defeat means they are dispossessed.  Only one certainty keeps them going; their damaged identity, pain. Fire at the bottom of the soul that freezes their gaze and fights to get out as a primitive cry, a spine-chilling sound that no one appears ready to pick up.  There is too much fatigue, too much hunger, too much frailty. The sigh of death moves with energy, with too much force among these groups of crushed people for anyone to dare to hope anew. Behind, there is nothing. Nor anything ahead. March on, keep fleeing, unseeing.

On their faces it is hard to discern the man or woman they had once been. Guerrero draws the fading away, a void that finds expressivity in its lack of appearance. As if they were hiding from themselves, these faces refuse to say anything.  As if they do not want to give anyone away, or remember anything or insinuate with even a hint of grace a dream hiding a life story or an ancient hope, lost or battered over the previous three years. The faces pile up in a jumble reminiscent of the overflowing motifs on Romanesque capitals. In these faces, in their pallor, in their marble whiteness is an infinite tension wholly directed inwards. A type of shame, avoiding the gaze of strangers, comrades in misfortune or haughty gendarmes, who would only find there a lacerating sadness which being thus reflected would become even greater.   Eyes closed so as not to stare into the abyss.  Indifferent or terrified before a panorama untempered by pain, communicating nothing, their eyes closed to guard the heart against further aggressions.  Lips are half open however, intimating a terrified cry. These ageless faces have been plunged into old age. Only the children open their eyes unhesitatingly, without knowing, however, what it is exactly they are seeing.  They do not know that the hand they hold on to for guidance will soon drop and leave them on their own.

And yet these are faces full of dignity. Misfortune has laid them low, sickness has left its imprint, and desolation has erased their familiar character to such an extent that it appears that they can no longer recognise each other, but they are maintained during the unfolding of this catastrophe by extreme human dignity. Fragile, since that which feeds it, which is the possession of one’s self, the opportunity to create one’s own story, the control of the past, hands to provide a future, this, exactly this, is what has been snatched away.  Sometimes the tension is so great that it cancels out anxiety and among these faces stands out, like a shooting star, a figure full of compassion, possessing the kind of luminous serenity that is only to be found in carvings from the Andalusian Baroque.  Also here, in the unforgiving space that frames these figures, in this desert of mud and snow, strewn with debris, even here in the depths of pain, gestures evoke postures reminiscent of piety, interactions suggestive of a feeling that, due to the scope of its influence, seems to fall within the realm of the sacred.

The border is crossed, whereupon the new situation is made immediately apparent by intolerable brutality which symbolises the position of the exiled.  Exile means that one stops being the master of one’s destiny.  The instant after ascertaining that one would not lose one’s life, one has to learn that one’s new life is set by the direction the bayonet is pointing.  Newly found liberty leads to imprisonment.  A modern and proletarian form of mass detention that finds its expression in the concentration camp. Today the names are innocuous enough, conjuring up images of holidays and pleasure: Sant Cebrià, Argelers. But then they were baleful names, symbols of a lack of future, a further iteration of defeat, a new and different battlefield. The fight for survival had begun.

Like savage brambles, barbed-wire fences aggressively staked out the territory. The final fence was supplied by the sea, a compact and frozen wall.  The faces changed in intensity.  Desperation gave way to rebellion.  For some exile started with a great adventure, a continual flight that led to a world war. For others their stay in the concentration camps was, luckily, a relatively brief time of discomfort and illness, of vexations that piqued an enterprising spirit. Others lost everything there, exhausted and enfeebled they tired of enduring the savage conditions of those ever-damp sands.

From these journeys there remain the recollections of many who passed through there, all displaying a notable degree of evaluative and narrative coincidence.  Words give us, however, an impression of incidents relating to a highly personal account of an experience.  José María Guerrero did not want, I believe, to pay homage to those who were able write down an account of their dramatic journey. Guerrero wanted to portray the collective aspect of an experience which marked the destiny of thousands of men and women, all put on an equal footing by such a terrible fate. Where words are private, photography can describe what was shared.  The Republican exodus was captured by photographers who had the sensitivity to understand that their work was not simply journalistic, but who were fully aware that they were producing a document containing one of the most dramatic stories of the modern age.  Robert Capa, Agustí Centelles and so many others used their lenses to serve a narration which would make the whole world aware of the monstrous injustice.   A tragedy.  There is no doubt that their photographs contributed to producing a movement of support around the world.   And now, newly reprised by José María Guerrero, they have become the sketches, watercolours and oils shown here. It has been a long process, not without a certain amount of pain.  The perceptions of the pain of others, the consequences of defeat for every fibre of a condemned human, are relayed in all these works with such great intensity that they are felt with the same force.  It is impossible to remain unaffected.  Just as seventy years later it is impossible to not feel a strong jolt, an emotional sundering like that talked about by Pere Quart in one of his Songs of Exile.

In Catalonia I left

The day of my departure

Half a life half asleep,

The other half came with me

So as not to leave me without life


Antón Ma. Espadaler.

Professor of medieval literature at the Universitat de Barcelona.



The Retreat/ Exile

In 2000 Jaume Sobrequés, the director of the Museum of the History of Catalonia in Barcelona, came up with the idea of putting on an exhibition in the entrance halls of the museum.  A total of eight painters and sculptors were chosen: Alfons Alzamora, Manel Álvarez, Jaume García Antón, José María Guerrero Medina, Josep Guinovart, José Luis Pascual, Enric Pladevall, and Albert de Udaeta. The exhibition was called Batecs de la memòria: a 70 anys de la Segona República (Reverberations of Memory: 70 Years after the Second Republic). A sizeable catalogue was published with texts by Jaume Sobrequés i Callicó, Josep Fontana i Lázaro, Daniel Giralt-Miracle, and Manuel Vázquez Montalbán.

In my case, I approached the subject of the retreat into exile from the point of view of the real documents we have seen so often, but with the idea of giving them the feel of being first-hand emotional and eye-witness accounts.  This resulted in me producing eight pieces, two of them large format.  The first, measuring 250 x 400 cm, is a composition showing an empty, almost lunar, landscape with a line of humans stretching back into the distance walking towards an absent future.  Silence is a substantial part of the work.  The second picture is of another line of men and women, where a mix of civilians and soldiers loaded down with possessions are on a painful march, seen from the cabin of a lorry, while the other six are scenes of crowds concentrating at the frontier.   As a consequence of this exhibition, Serge Barba got in touch with me to ask for my collaboration, in fact my presence, since he asked the Museum of the History of Catalonia for the paintings, who had acquired them through the government of the Generalitat de Catalunya. The exhibition was held in Argelers, as part of the events organised for Chemins de la retirada. Images de la Catalogne at the Galerie Marianne.

After one of my exhibitions had finished in Germany in 2008 and I got back to the studio, I found a call from Serge Barba telling me the Association Cinémaginaire FFREEE in Argelers was proposing an exhibition on the subject of the exile as part of commemorations for the 70th anniversary of the Spanish Civil War.  I immediately had a mental picture of my previous works and decided I did not want to use them for the exhibition, but instead to continue the idea and spend time on a new series based on the retreat.

Going back to the subject, I picked up where I had left off and followed the same steps as before, basing everything on vital documents, visual as well as written, to nurture the emotional aspect I needed to transmit pictorially. New forms of expression came to the fore as the work developed, and I felt the need to resort to black and white, in this case Chinese ink on paper, but in a large 177 x 80 cm vertical format.  I did five pieces for the sequence on Capa’s dead militiaman, although there could have been many more.  Then I worked on the groups of women and children, masses of people united in the same suffering, until one day, when I had decided to finish the series, an image came to my mind which, like a zoom, got close up to one of those anonymous figures in a group to reclaim their individual dignity.  I produced a series of portraits, going over the profiles in dark black, each time losing the intensity of their faces until in the later ones the interior features were lost leaving only increasingly dark outlines.

I had the feeling that during the making of these works I had regressed to being able to provide an emotional testimony of a tragedy and the work spoke for itself, I only had to give myself over to it and let it transport me to become a witness to the passing of this gallery of characters.

The last work I did to close the circle of the series was brought about by a trip Pilar and I made to the beach at Argelers in the spring. It was a cold, sunless day and the beach was empty.  It seemed small to me.  I imagined a dark and freezing huddled mass of humans watched over by a single guard, who, like a column, confined all their pain, stopping anything from that tragedy escaping to a place where hope could free it.


José María Guerrero Medina.