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The Mexican Suitcase

Rediscovered Spanish Civil War negatives by Capa, Chim and Taro.  On view at the International Center of Photography from September 24, 2010 through May 8, 2011



PHOTO: Robert Capa, Exiled Republicans being marched on the beach from one internment camp, Le Barcarés, France, March 1939.


Yes, it’s a great title for a show---something mysterious has come to us from Mexico. When I first saw the title, I thought of the paintings of Santiago Corral, a contemporary Mexican artist who has a hyper-realist suitcase series that I’ve coveted for years.

And the show is just as great as its title, even though, ironically, there is nothing of Mexico in the show, and nor are there any suitcases. But one doesn’t mind, because the show is packed with the recently-discovered work of three early photojournalists who may have forever changed the field: Robert Capa, Chim (David Seymour) and Gerda Taro.

The exhibit is made up of some 4,500 negatives documenting the Spanish Civil War, along with portraits of Capa and Taro by Fred Stein, and previously unknown portraits of Ernest Hemingway, Frederica Garcia Lorca, and Dolores Ibarrui, who was known as “La Pasionaria” for her tireless struggle against the Facist takeover of Spain.

The work of the three photographers, who met while Europe was seizing with the first convulsions of World War Two, shows with searing intimacy the unfolding of the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s. These photographers don’t shy away from the most painful moments of war, but they also illustrate the daily lives of ordinary people, the people who go on working in factories or harvesting on farms even as the fabric of their world is being ripped to shreds.

The “suitcase” of the show’s title is actually three small, unassuming cardboard boxes (on display in the exhibit) which were found in Mexico City in 2006, filled with rolls of negatives from the three photographers. For the exhibit, contact sheets were created from the negatives. In looking at these, one can see more than in the individual photographs printed from those negatives. In a series by Capa, one can see the motion of the refugees fleeing the conflict, the panic in their steps that changing from frame to frame.

While Capa concentrated on photographing battles and refugees, Chim turned his lens to the individuals outside battle, from formal portraits to shots of peasants and laborers: the continuing daily life. And yet, in his shots, even the rows of glass wine jugs, nestled into straw, seem endangered, ready to explode with the tension of the time.

For one of the photographers, Taro, the exhibit stands also as a memorial. Long before the “embedded” journalists of our own time, Taro, fearless, got as close as she could to the battles, getting shots that make the combat terrifyingly real, of soldiers scrambling over the stone walls of Spanish farmlands, ducking fire behind hay bales, and falling in the line of Fascist fire.

Perhaps the most disturbing images of Taro’s are those taken in the Valencia morgue in May 1937, where she turned her unflinching eye on the newly-dead, the mortally wounded, and the relatives gathered at the gates awaiting word.

But even more disturbing in their own way are the portraits of Taro taken by Stein: they show a young woman, glowing with her own intelligence and talent and courage, laughing with her friends, waiting to see what adventure will come to her next. She was killed in the battle of Brunete in 1937.

The Spanish Civil War is an important moment in history not only in terms of global politics---the rise and defeat of Fascism, in this case, against the backdrop of Nazism as it marched across Europe, but also in terms of art. The Mexican Suitcase is a exhaustive study of both war as a concept and of a particular war---one which captured the commitment and imagination of a generation of writers and artists from around the world, including Hemingway and Lorca, who both are shown in a few of the photographs.

The bombing of the town of Guernica, in April 26, 1937, by the German-backed Spanish Nationalists, was seen as particularly heinous as there was no military target in the small town, and the town at that time was populated mostly with women and children. This attack was one of the battles of the Spanish Civil War which moved the hearts of the international community, and moved Picasso to paint Guernica, his huge-scale visual protest of the senselessness of war.

Of Guernica, Picasso said at the time: “In the panel on which I am working, which I shall call Guernica, and in all my recent works of art, I clearly express my abhorrence of the military caste which has sunk Spain in an ocean of pain and death.”

It’s that “ocean of pain and death,” which is captured in film---still a relatively new medium at the time---by Capa, Chim, and Taro.

In The Mexican Suitcase, it’s startling to see the photographs by Chim taken in Guernica before its destruction; Chim had no way of knowing that Picasso’s painting would become a pre-eminent artisitic anti-fascist symbol, and this makes his portraits of the intact town all the more chilling.

While the exhibit will be of interest to anyone, it’s created with the visiting photographer in mind. The notebooks of Capa, Chim, and Taro are on display, as are contact prints and negatives, so that the organizational methods of the three photographers become apparent. And just as a writer is fascinated by seeing a fellow writer’s process laid bare in a hand-edited manuscript, so too will a photographer be fascinated by the traces of the editing process as evidenced, for example, by a piece of thread tied to the sprockets on a roll of film to indicate which shot would be printed.

Of note, ICP was founded by Cornell Capa, Robert Capa’s brother, in 1974, in “defense and conservation of the arts,” according to the museum.

If you’re in New York, you may want to pair a visit to The Mexican Suitcase with a stop at the Guggenheim Museum’s Chaos and Classicism: Art in France, Italy, and Germany, 1918-1936, which can contribute to the context of these photographers and their work.



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