Mission: saving art in wartime (1936-2022)

Catalan and Ukrainian museum workers, more than 80 years apart, have safeguarded their cultural heritage

Mireia Capdevila and Francesc Vilanova
4 min
The first photograph is from the National Museum of Lviv Andrei Xeptytsky (Gettty Images). The second is the Stoning of Sant Esteve de Sant Joan de Boí in the second expedition that on March 9, 1937 left the church of Sant Esteve de Olot to travel to Paris and be exhibited at the Yace de Paume as part of the exhibition Catalan art takes Xème ave XVème siècle

BarcelonaDecades go by and, why not point it out, so do centuries, and wars keep coming, one after the other, inherited from generation to generation. There is no need to look centuries back; we only need the slightest memory of the 20th century (and now, unfortunately, also of the 21st century; we have learnt almost nothing about provoking and resolving conflicts), to be reminded of the images of wars, human destruction (the first and most important) and, thereafter, the destruction of world heritage: books, art, monuments, landscapes, cultural instruments. Everything that constitutes an organised and minimally civilized (culturised) society: people and their wealth, material and immaterial.

We have at hand the images of the Great War in Europe: Reims razed to the ground, burnt libraries, lost art. But then we would have to add the wars and violence in almost every continent. Have we taken stock of the destruction caused by European colonial wars? What was destroyed in the pre-World War II war in Asia, when Japan began to build its so-called Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere by ruthlessly conquering a large part of mainland China? We are quite familiar with the catalogue of World War II destruction, theft and looting in Europe. We would have to review and see the destruction of heritage in other parts of the world. There was a lot of it. Heritage, in whatever form, has become another instrument of punishment, a hostage in the hands of the enemy.

The first photograph is of the Andrei Sheptitski National Museum of Lviv (Getty Images). The second is the Palau de Pedralbes.

When workers of the Republican Generalitat, and the hundreds of volunteers who joined them, rushed to safeguard the country's heritage in the summer of 1936, they were doing so to protect it from the revolutionary violence that erupted from a military and civil uprising against the Republic. When this first fire was extinguished, the threat of the fascist war arrived: bombing of inhabited urban centres, with no other objective than to destroy the morale of the rearguard and, if necessary, human lives and heritage.

The exhibition The Museum in Danger! Safeguarding and organisation of Catalan art during the Civil War wanted to explain a part of this history, with images and works, and, above all, to make a reflection that is also valid for Ukraine these days: safeguarding lives and heritage is a state operation, which goes beyond protecting some works of art, some buildings, alongside citizens. It is a sign of a certain civility, of a minimum cultural and collective sensibility.

Seeing the images of the protection and evacuation of works of all kinds and conditions from Ukrainian museums transports us to Barcelona at the end of 1936; to the Louvre in the autumn of 1939; to the National Gallery in London in 1940, in the middle of the Blitz; to St. Petersburg, where the Hermitage was emptied, during the German army siege.

The safeguarding work did not prevent the loss of works and heritage. The war machine has always been able to impose itself on reason and civility. We have seen it everywhere: in Palmyra, in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in conflicts in the Caucasus, at the Sarajevo Library. And if the excuse of collateral damage could not be used as an excuse in an act of war, there is always the ideological motivation: the Nazis, Fascists and Francoists burning books (the Francoists were more practical; they did not burn books, or burnt few; instead, they made paper pulp); the radical Islamists destroying museum collections. And the list would be very long.

In Catalonia, between 1936 and 1939, the Generalitat invested an enormous amount of effort and resources to preserve the countnry's artistic heritage. It did so in various ways and with complementary strategies: from the creation of large deposits in safe places in the rearguard, to the two exhibitions of Catalan medieval art in Paris (Jeu de Paume and Maisons-Laffitte). It was safeguarded, organised, classified, registered, restored, explained and discovered. An entire policy of collective cultural heritage management of the highest order. The pioneering monuments men were in Barcelona, Lleida, Manresa, Tortosa, Vic, Tarragona, Girona or Castelló d'Empúries. Then, a few years later, the American monuments men arrived in France.

In Ukraine, especially in Kyiv, civil servants and citizens, academics and professionals, pack, keep and protect altarpieces and paintings, sculptures and gold and silver articles; they put books and carvings in boxes. The images that reach us transport us directly to Barcelona, Olot or Darnius. Their history and ours is the same.

When Franco's troops arrived at La Jonquera, on February 10, 1939, those in charge of the National Heritage Defence Service (José M. Muguruza, Luis Monreal, etc.) limited themselves to collecting all the heritage that the Generalitat had collected, organised and preserved. They did not have to do anything. Afterwards, people like Muguruza and Monreal would lie continuously about the fact that the reds had stolen, looted, destroyed, etc. It was the privilege of the victors. One must hope that the Ukrainians will not have to go through this bitter experience. That when they can unpack their works again and return them to their places in museums, they can do so with the satisfaction of not having lost the war, not even their personal freedom. The experience of 1939 in Catalonia cannot be repeated in Ukraine. It would be a return to the barbarism of European fascism of the 20th century. Because barbarism, destruction, political and ideological fanaticism are also part of what has been called European civilization.

* Mireia Capdevila and Francesc Vilanova were the curators of the exhibition The Museum in Danger! Safeguarding and organisation of Catalan Art during the Civil War at the MNAC (July 2021 - February 2022)

[Photographer Bernat Armangué has documented these days how the workers of the Museum of Lviv moved and protected the rich heritage it holds]