Modern Art Was Used As a Torture Technique in Prison Cells During the Spanish Civil War

We’ve all got those friends or fam­i­ly mem­bers who con­sid­er “mod­ern art” a form of tor­ture. Next time they com­plain about an exhi­bi­tion you bring them to, just tell them how relieved they should feel that they did­n’t fight in the Span­ish Civ­il War — not just for the obvi­ous rea­sons; they could have found them­selves sub­ject not just to actu­al tor­ture, but tor­ture direct­ly inspired by mod­ernist aes­thet­ic prin­ci­ples. “A Span­ish art his­to­ri­an has found evi­dence that sug­gests some Civ­il War jail cells were built like 3‑D mod­ern art paint­ings in order to tor­ture pris­on­ers,” reports BBC News. “The cells were built in 1938 for the repub­li­can forces fight­ing Gen­er­al Fran­co’s Fas­cist Nation­al­ist army, who even­tu­al­ly won pow­er.” The find­ing comes from his­to­ri­an Jose Milicua, who dis­cov­ered ref­er­ences to these mod­ern-art cells among court papers from “the 1939 tri­al of French anar­chist Alphonse Lau­ren­cic, a repub­li­can, by a Fran­co-ist mil­i­tary court.”

“Dur­ing the tri­al,” the BBC arti­cle con­tin­ues, “Lau­ren­cic revealed he was inspired by mod­ern artists, such as sur­re­al­ist Sal­vador Dali and Bauhaus artist Wass­i­ly Kandin­sky” to cre­ate the six-foot-by-four-foot cells placed secret­ly in Barcelona (see a re-cre­ation above), which fea­tured “slop­ing beds at a 20-degree angle that were almost impos­si­ble to sleep on,” “irreg­u­lar­ly shaped bricks on the floor that pre­vent­ed pris­on­ers from walk­ing back­wards or for­wards,” walls “cov­ered in sur­re­al­ist pat­terns designed to make pris­on­ers dis­tressed and con­fused,” and light­ing effects “to make the art­work even more dizzy­ing.” Evi­dence also indi­cates that, else­where in Spain, Nation­al­ist pris­on­ers “were forced to watch Sal­vador Dali and Luis Bunuel’s film Un Chien Andalou,” espe­cial­ly an end­less loop of its “graph­ic sequence of an eye­ball being cut open” (at the top of the post).


Iron­i­cal­ly, those impris­oned in such cells would have wound up there in the name of their fas­cist cause, which like the Fran­co-back­ing Nazi regime in Ger­many, con­sid­ered mod­ernism “degen­er­a­tive.” Pre­sum­ably, they did­n’t leave their impris­on­ment with any more sym­pa­thet­ic idea of mod­ern art than the one they’d gone in with. “A sub­cur­rent of shock and provo­ca­tion has always lurked with­in avant-garde art, which delib­er­ate­ly sets out to chal­lenge bour­geois con­ven­tion and to elic­it a strong response” writes the New York Times’ John Rock­well. “My own expe­ri­ence has been that oppo­nents of new art are much too quick to pre­sume provo­ca­tion, let alone provo­ca­tion intend­ed lit­er­al­ly to tor­ture. Still, there can be no doubt that out­rage was and is a goal of some artists, even if they rarely pushed it to the log­i­cal extreme that Lau­ren­cic took it.” You can learn more about this unusu­al­ly artis­tic form of war­fare in this All Things Con­sid­ered inter­view with art his­to­ri­an Vic­to­ria Com­balia. (Lis­ten below.) And do try to sup­press those fan­tasies of throw­ing your more Philis­tine acquain­tances in there for an hour or two.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Restored Ver­sion of Un Chien Andalou: Luis Buñuel & Sal­vador Dalí’s Sur­re­al Film (1929)

The Nazi’s Philis­tine Grudge Against Abstract Art and The “Degen­er­ate Art Exhi­bi­tion” of 1937

How the CIA Secret­ly Fund­ed Abstract Expres­sion­ism Dur­ing the Cold War

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture and writes essays on cities, lan­guage, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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