Saturday, August 30, 2014

Chess Art en Guerre 2

POWs play chess: that's the thematic connection between this post and the recent series on chess in World War 1 here, here, and here. They played with improvised chess sets fashioned from whatever was to hand: which also makes this post a sequel to one from last summer, Chess Art en Guerrefeaturing a chess set, made from scavenged bone, crafted in an internment camp in the aftermath of another war: the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39.

This and all chess set pictures below
reproduced with kind permission of Fonds Stroppolo
The set was made by Giordano Giovanni Stroppolo (1906-1958) in the camp (variously called an "internment camp" and a "concentration camp") at Gurs in south west France. Since Chess Art en Guerre was published new information has come to light about the set.

To recap a little: Giordano Stroppolo was a Republican anti-fascist who had fought Franco and then sought refuge in France when the dictator's insurrection finally defeated the supporters of the democratically elected Popular Front Government.
Giordano Giovanni Stroppolo
From a photograph taken in Paris in 1936.
Reproduced with kind permission of Fonds Stroppolo 
Franco was aided and abetted by Hitler and Mussolini who supplied arms and aerial bombing to help defeat the Republicans and the international volunteers who had arrived to fight with them. The British and French governments did nothing. Absolutely nothing, or worse. As the Republic went down to defeat in the first winter months of 1939 (surrendering on April 1st) the French government grudgingly allowed refugees to cross the border where, combatants separated, they were interned in grim camps such as Gurs just over the Pyrenees. This story, in part, was told in Chess Art en Guerre.

The Stroppolo chess set is - as discussed in that earlier post - remarkable not only for the pieces on top, and for what is inscribed on the edge...

...but for what is underneath.

A few months back Giordano Stroppolo's son, Giordano Bruno Stroppolo, who had been enormously helpful with the original post, kindly sent over a copy of a fascinating document: the source of the AVENIR image. It comes from a collection of 27 political engravings, or prints, "Suffering and Struggle"  by the Spanish anarchist artist "Gumsay" published in 1937 by the anarchist Comité Regional de Juventudes Libertarias de Cataluña (see here and here).

Prints of Spain:  Suffering and Struggle (1937)
Gumsay, was also known (according to this source) as Gumersindo Sainz de Morales  - or even Gumersind (or Gumersindo) Sainz. He was born in 1900, and died 1976. According to the Introduction to Sufre y Lucha he had exhibited a couple of times: in 1935 (Barcelona) and 1936, but in rather uncomradely fashion it suggests that Gumsay spent more time looking for somewhere quiet to work than actually producing anything. It does however say that he needs no introduction - indicating that he was well known, to anarchists and Republicans, anyway.  

Here is Giordano Stroppollo's chess set image, made in the Gurs camp in 1939 alongside Gumsay's original, published in 1937.

In the main AVENIR is remarkably faithful to Gumsay's ¡PORVENIR! - the arrangement of, and some detail in, the figures for example - suggesting Gumsay's print was in front of Stroppollo as he did his design. But also it is so different in a few other places - the facial profiles, the disposition and detail of the building - suggesting that  these parts, anyway, were done from memory.

Significantly, the image chosen by Giordano Stroppolo for the chess set looked forward, with optimism, to the future, and didn't dwell on past miseries of the war which, noted the Comité Regional, gave Gumsay ample material for a stream of anguished tableaux, such as this depiction of aerial bombing on the left below, and the denunciation of the Guernica outrage on the right.

Left: Drought and neglect have made a wasteland of the fields of Castilla. But now it rains, the shrapnel is ploughed and the quartered bodies fertilise the earth.
Right: The sky is falling and the earth opens up. The fields around are flattened. Powerlessness and hatred. Such was Guernica! 
The Introduction - and it's timely to mention here that this post is indebted to ejh for the translations above and the explanations of the Spanish Introduction - suggests that Gumsay wasn't uninfluenced by other artists, and in view of the note that he had been to Paris (between the wars presumably) he might have been familiar with the excoriating anti-bourgeois, anti-fascist, satires of the George Grosz (of which the example below is, by his standards, rather tame).

Gumsay meets Grosz. 
If you want to expose the greed and self-interest of the class enemy contrasted with the impoverishment of the masses then such an image readily suggests itself. But the similarity in content suggests an influence that goes beyond coincidence. By the way, as you can see in these Gumsay examples, he was sometimes a bit wordy in his captions (unless they were imposed on him by his publisher). This last one goes something like: "Today, to call somebody 'Comrade' is just an insult in disguise. The class system is still with us, so God bless you, brothers."

Here is Gumsay "the painter of human depravity" (as the anarchist website quoted below puts it) in his own words (albeit French) - along with a more heroic, and colourful, image (btw the website has more striking posters by other artists).

Exhibitions are an absurdity. They are the antechamber of the museum, and the museum is the cemetery.  Gumsay
(Find out about Elisée Reclus here) 
Here is my free and broad (and I hope not too inaccurate) rendering of Gumsay's answers in the interview above: he would like his works to be politically effective, that is to say revolutionary. Even more: if they were to exercise a concrete moralistic function [as suggested by the interviewer - MS], such as is attributed to Literature, that would be without realising it [or without intending to], and by a different means: the function would be that of moving [or perhaps moulding] the emotions. Artists today (15 March 1938) aren't central to the situation in Spain, which at the present time is inflamed with overwhelming emotion and suffering. In Spain the people risk everything each and every day. But artists risk little with their work, save for some honorable exceptions, if they risk anything at all. Sad...!

Fair to say that Giordano Giovanni Stroppolo had risked much as an anti-Franco combatant - and through his modest art in miserable circumstances sought also to exercise "une fonction moraliste concrète" - and to offer hope to his comrades in Gurs.

Notes and Acknowledgments
Thanks again to Giordano Bruno Stropollo for generously sharing the Gumsay material, and apologies to him, and to you, for my mauvais French; and thanks again to Justin (and Mrs H) with their much better grasp of Spanish.

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1 comment:

ejh said...

Spanish Wikipedia reckon Morales is wrong as a surname (and Castilla is right) but gives no source. Curiously Gumsay does not seem to be one of the large proportion of the Spanish artistic and intellectual community who fled Spain when Franco won. (I draw no conclusions from this - it's just that I've seen so many potted biographies, you more or less expect to see that they wound up in Mexico!)