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The lost images of anarchist Barcelona

Photo Exhibition

Wednesday 1 January 2020, by siawi3


The lost images of anarchist Barcelona

December 21, 2019

Anarchist militias in Barcelona. Photo: Antoni Campañà

Re-discovered after 80 years, the photographic legacy of the CNT which brings the libertarian revolution in Barcelona back to life, is now exhibited for the first time.

Author: ROAR Collective

This post was originally published by Text by Pol Pareja. Translation from Spanish by Andrew Hakes.

It was a Barcelona where taxis were prohibited, waiters and shoe shiners did not accept tips, hats were frowned upon, and the notes of The International rang out from every corner. A city where approximately 70 percent of the businesses were collectivized, with their offices occupied by workers and militiamen.

Anarchist Barcelona, a unique libertarian experiment in Europe which had its decisive moment between July 1936 and May 1937, has been the subject of various studies and textbooks. However, the studies and textbooks of this exceptional period have been lacking the graphic history which had been presumed lost.

Photo: Headquarters of the CNT-FAI regional committee, located on the current Via Laietana (then known as Via Durruti). Author unknown

Photo: Posterists of the CNT-FAI in Barcelona. Pérez de Rozas

The exposition Gràfíca anarquista, fotografia i revolució social (1936-1939) puts to rest this anomaly and offers an interesting testimonial to this period where Barcelona was transformed into the first large city where workers assumed total control of a good part of business and industry.

The exhibition offers a journey through the photographic collection of the Office of Information and Propaganda, created by the CNT-FAI in Barcelona during the Civil War with the intent of spreading revolutionary ideology in the face of fascism’s advance in Europe.

One can see in the exhibition dozens of images of well-known photographers, such as Katy Horna, Pérez de Rozas, Antoni Campañá and David Marco, among others. Also on display are anarchist publications of the era, postcards, credentials and CNT documents like the Militant Manual (Manual del militante).

Coming from a propaganda office, the images lend to a benevolent vision of the city during those months. In contrast to the wretched image that Francoism tried to establish of to the libertarian revolution — placing emphasis on the burning of churches, summary executions and the existence of gunman roaming the city at their leisure — the exposition shows a more favorable side of anarchism.

Photo: Anarchist militia in Barcelona. Antoni Campañà

There are photos of children playing in the Palace of Pedralbes’ pool, which was converted into a children’s school in 1936. There are also photos of the popular university established in the modernist Casa Golferichs and images of collectivized businesses functioning at full capacity. In many snapshots the primary focus is humble workers posing in the very same offices where only months ago their bosses sat. Portraits of militants and snapshots of bullet-ridden churches and church bells prepared for smelting round-out the exhibition.

“The exposition tries to dismantle the image of anarchism constructed by the bourgeoisie over the years,” says Andrés Antebi, one of the commissioners of the exposition. “The propaganda office of the CNT focused on dismantling the stigma of anarchism being roaming bandits and irrational violence.”

The exhibition, which can be seen in the Arxiu Fotográfic de Barcelona, also offers an interesting vision over the agrarian collectivizations outside of the Catalan capital, photographed by Carlos Pérez de Rozas and his son for the weekly periodical ¡¡Campo!!, demonstrating that the illustrious dynasty of photographers worked for all sides in spite of their conservative ideology.

Photo: Two militia reading the anarchist newspaper “Solidaridad Obrera.” Author unknown

The photos’ long journey through Europe

The delay in presenting such an exposition in Barcelona was created by — among various factors — the long journey the CNT’s photographic exposition took around Europe.

In January 1939, before the eminent arrival of Francoist troops in Barcelona, those in charge of the CNT-FIA’s propaganda placed their section’s graphics in 43 wood boxes designed to transport Mauser rifles. The revolutionaries had signed an accord with the International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam that had the Institute promise to preserve the memory of the union. The images were loaded onto a train and sent to the Dutch capital.

Photo:It is estimated that between 70 and 80 percent of the companies in Barcelona were collectivized. Pérez de Rozas

On the way to Amsterdam, the transport halted in Paris. With the threat of a German invasion looming over the Netherlands, the boxes changed course and finally arrived in the United Kingdom. They were first in London (where some archives were lost during the bombings) and later located in Oxford. When the conflict ended, they were finally transferred to Amsterdam.

When the collection arrived there, a legal battle erupted between the representatives of the now exiled-CNT and the International Institute of Social History, who did not acknowledge the anarchist union’s representatives outside of Spain.

Photo: The exhibition also shows agricultural collectivizations in other parts of Catalonia. Pérez de Rozas

After 80 years, an agreement was reached between the two parties which recognized the CNT as owners of the collection, with the exception that the collection stays in the Netherlands at the International Institute of Social History, given its great importance as the most important institute of workers’ history in the world. The process of cataloging and organizing a large part of the archives started without the lost office of propaganda’s photographic collection.

Thirty more years would have to pass before the photos were discovered in 2016. “Until this date they were sealed, they couldn’t be examined and virtually no one knew they existed,” the commissioner said. After a journey of more than 80 years, the photographs have returned to Barcelona.