The lost images of anarchist Barcelona

Anarchist militia in Barcelona. ANTONI CAMPAÑÀ

From the Roarmag Collective (21/12/2019)

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

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.

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.

Headquarters of the regional committee of the CNT-FAI, located on the present day Via Laietana (then known as the Via Durruti). UNKOWN AUTHOR
Poster artists 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.

Anarchist militia woman 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.

Two anarchist militia women reading the anarchist newspaper ‘Solidaridad Obrera’. AUTHOR UNKNOWN


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.

It is calculated that between 70 to 80 % of the businesses of 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.

The exhibition also shows images of the 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.

Anarchist militia man in the Catalan capital. ANTONI CAMPAÑÀ

From George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia …

This was in late December 1936, less than seven months ago as I write, and yet it is a period that has already receded into enormous distance. Later events have obliterated it much more completely than they have obliterated 1935, or 1905, for that matter. I had come to Spain with some notion of writing newspaper articles, but I had joined the militia almost immediately, because at that time and in that atmosphere it seemed the only conceivable thing to do. The Anarchists were still in virtual control of Catalonia and the revolution was still in full swing. To anyone who had been there since the beginning it probably seemed even in December or January that the revolutionary period was ending; but when one came straight from England the aspect of Barcelona was something startling and overwhelming. It was the first time that I had ever been in a town where the working class was in the saddle. Practically every building of any size had been seized by the workers and was draped with red flags or with the red and black flag of the Anarchists; every wall was scrawled with the hammer and sickle and with the initials of the revolutionary parties; almost every church had been gutted and its images burnt. Churches here and there were being systematically demolished by gangs of workmen. Every shop and cafe had an inscription saying that it had been collectivized; even the bootblacks had been collectivized and their boxes painted red and black. Waiters and shop-walkers looked you in the face and treated you as an equal. Servile and even ceremonial forms of speech had temporarily disappeared. Nobody said ‘Senior’ or ‘Don’ or even ‘Usted’; everyone called everyone else ‘Comrade’ and ‘Thou’, and said ‘Salud!’ instead of ‘Buenos dias’. Tipping was forbidden by law; almost my first experience was receiving a lecture from a hotel manager for trying to tip a lift-boy. There were no private motor-cars, they had all been commandeered, and all the trams and taxis and much of the other transport were painted red and black. The revolutionary posters were everywhere, flaming from the walls in clean reds and blues that made the few remaining advertisements look like daubs of mud. Down the Ramblas, the wide central artery of the town where crowds of people streamed constantly to and fro, the loudspeakers were bellowing revolutionary songs all day and far into the night. And it was the aspect of the crowds that was the queerest thing of all. In outward appearance it was a town in which the wealthy classes had practically ceased to exist. Except for a small number of women and foreigners there were no ‘well-dressed’ people at all. Practically everyone wore rough working-class clothes, or blue overalls, or some variant of the militia uniform. All this was queer and moving. There was much in it that I did not understand, in some ways I did not even like it, but I recognized it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for.

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