Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Mexican Suitcase: Rediscovered Negatives From
The Spanish Civil War at Museu Nacional
d'Art de Catalunya

Robert Capa, March 1939. Negative. © International Center of Photography / Magnum.

BARCELONA.- The Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya, in partnership with the International Center of Photography in New York, is presenting for the first time in Spain the photographs taken by Robert Capa, Gerda Taro and David 'Chim' Seymour during the Spanish Civil War, which had been lost without trace since 1939. These extraordinary images, many of them unpublished, make up what is known as the 'Mexican Suitcase' and are without any doubt the most important group of 20thcentury recovered negatives.

Robert Capa left Paris in 1939, before the Germans occupied the city. He left valuable material behind in his studio, amongst which were three boxes containing 126 rolls of film. On them were 4,500 photographs taken by him, Gerda Taro and David 'Chim' Seymour during the Spanish Civil War between May 1936 and March 1939, as well as a smaller number of photographs taken by Fred Stein in the French capital.

'Csiki' Weiss, another photographer who worked with Capa and 'Chim', travelled by bicycle from Bordeaux to Paris with the boxes of negatives in a rucksack. His aim was to find a boat so as to send them to Mexico. The material was given up for lost until it turned up again in Mexico in 1995. In 2007 the negatives arrived at the ICP in New York, where they were exhibited to the public from September 2010 to January 2011. The MNAC, which previously exhibited some of the documents from the Mexican Suitcase in the exhibitions This is War. Robert Capa in action and Gerda Taro, organised by the Museum in the summer of 2009, is now presenting for the first time in Spain the exhibition that puts the contents of the suitcase on show. Later, this exhibition will also travel to Bilbao and Madrid.

The Mexican Suitcase. Rediscovered Spanish Civil War negatives by Capa, 'Chim' and Taro presents some 70 photographs, of which 50 are vintage prints, as well as amplified modern contacts of some complete series, and documents that place the images in context and reveal the impact they had when they were published. The photographs and documents making up the exhibition are arranged in 33 sections and allow us to follow in the footsteps of the three photographers across wartime Spain.

The pictures in the Mexican Suitcase are of demonstrations and parades, air raids, the injured in hospitals and the bodies in the morgues waiting to be identified. Hundreds of human dramas, but also the ongoing life of war-torn cities and in the rearguard. They take in intimate moments as well as historical events like the 2nd International Congress for the Defence of Culture held in Valencia. Amongst the negatives that have surfaced are previously unknown portraits of people such as Federico García Lorca, Dolores Ibárruri (La Pasionaria), Rafael Álberti, André Malraux and Ernest Hemingway. There are also pictures of decisive battles like Teruel, Segre and Brunete, of the front in Catalonia and the resistance by Madrid.

These negatives let us see the complete series to which photographs belonged that were published at the time in leading magazines such as Life, Regards or Picture Post, where they filled pages and pages and were showered with praise, eventually becoming iconic images of the Spanish Civil War. Thanks to the negatives that have now appeared, they can be read in the order in which they were taken. All of this material provides interesting information about crucial moments of the conflict and about its protagonists, at the same time as it casts light on the working methods of the three photographers, who pioneered photojournalism. Studying these images has also made it possible to confirm or reassign authorship of some of the material.

Robert Capa, Gerda Taro and David 'Chim' Seymour laid the foundation for modern photojournalism through their fresh and committed way of looking and working and of immersing themselves in the action. For the three friends, who had met in Paris as exiles from their respective countries, Spain was to be their baptism of fire. For Gerda Taro, the beginning and the end. Taro, one of the first woman photojournalists in history, was crushed to death by a tank at Brunete. Robert Capa went on to cover a long string of conflicts until he met his death in Indochina in 1954, when he trod on a landmine. David 'Chim' Seymour, who at the end of the war was able to record the sea-trip to Mexico by a group of Spanish exiles, also met his death in battle, machine-gunned in Suez in November 1956.

The beginnings of photojournalism
These photographs by Robert Capa, Gerda Taro and 'Chim' were a reply to the demand of readers and publishers of publications which at that time were laying the foundation of the new photojournalism. The Spanish Civil War was the first conflict to be covered day by day by a number of professional journalists and photographers, whose work was published immediately in leading newspapers and illustrated magazines that were just beginning to use photography as an essential complement to their newspaper reports. From then on, publications like the French Vu, Regards, Match and Ce Soir, the English Picture Post and Weekly Illustrated and the American Life covered every armed confrontation and their respective editions gathered many of the photographs by Capa, Taro and David Seymour that have now reappeared in the Mexican Suitcase.

In exhibiting the material found in the Mexican Suitcase, the MNAC is completing the cycle devoted to the Spanish Civil War and in particular to the work of Robert Capa and Gerda Taro, two of the 20th century's greatest photographers, which began with major exhibitions of their work held at the Museum in 2009.