Madrid museum revamp brings Robert Capa photo to the fore

On the second floor of the Reina Sofía Museum in Madrid, not far from Picasso’s huge and ever-livid Guernica, hangs a much smaller but equally eloquent testament to the civilian cost of the Spanish civil war.

Robert Capa’s photograph of No 10 Peironcely Street in the working-class Madrid barrio of Vallecas in the early winter of 1936, measures just 29.4cm by 40.2cm. Three children sit on the pavement in front of a shrapnel-gnawed house, smiling amid the rubble left by the German bombers Hitler sent to support Gen Franco’s coup.

While Picasso’s picture will always be far better known, Capa’s image – now on permanent show at the Reina Sofía after an exhaustive, 10-year reorganisation of the museum’s collection – has enjoyed a potent afterlife.

First published exactly 85 years ago in the French magazine Regards, it dragged the world’s gaze towards Spain and the aerial atrocities that would become commonplace just a few years later during the second world war.

It has also helped in the 21st century to find decent accommodation for those who had been living in cramped and miserable conditions in the building Capa chanced upon after the bombing raid.

In March, after a long campaign by a local and international platform backed by the trade union Fundación Anastasio de Gracia, the 13 families who lived there were finally moved into new flats. The building itself has been shuttered until it enters a new phase as a museum – “the Robert Capa centre for the interpretation of the aerial bombing of Madrid”.

Members of the Save Peironcely 10 group had written to Reina Sofía’s director, Manuel Borja-Villel, in October urging him to ensure the copy of the photograph given to the museum in 1998 by Capa’s brother, Cornell, was granted a permanent exhibition space. But it proved unnecessary – the museum authorities had already decided to hang the photo alongside works by Le Corbusier, Joan Miró and others, in a room called Spain, Tragic Myth.

“The photo was always going to be put on show again,” Borja-Villel says. “I believe that works of art, or poetry, or cultural in general, can help us see reality differently – and that’s performative and changes and affects our lives. For us, that’s exactly what this little photo has done.”

In any case, he adds, “I would have signed the letter myself because I’m totally in agreement with it.”

Borja-Villel says the reorganisation – or “rereading” – of the museum’s collection is the result of a decade’s work to ensure the Reina Sofía lives up to its responsibilities as a 21st-century cultural institution.

About 70% of the 2,000 works now on display have never been shown before, allowing the museum to broaden its exploration of questions such as migration, colonialism, gender and the environment, to incorporate architectural elements, and to include more female artists.

The aim of the reorganisation – called Communicating Vessels, 1881-2021 – is also to reflect on society’s relationship with art, and on art’s relationship with museums. In an era of cyberspace, fake news and raging culture wars, says Borja-Villel, we need to think about information and how it reaches us.

“We seem to be living in a loop where the future is presented as a dystopia and the past as an idealised past, with some pretty complicated or xenophobic biases such as the idea of a land of one’s own,” says Borja-Villel.

“In that context, I think museums have an important role in explaining how we receive our ideas and our perceptions of the world – because that reception is never neutral.”

The director is also keen for the museum to encompass recent socioeconomic changes, not least the 2008 financial crisis that brought Spain to the brink and profoundly altered its political landscape.

“All of a sudden, that neoliberal, selfish, individual, entrepreneurial system we’d had since the 1970s fell apart and failed spectacularly,” he says. “And we saw the appearance of other alternatives right around the world, such as the indignados movement here.”

Humanity’s impact on the environment is pithily catalogued in photographs of the calamitous Prestige oil spill in 2002, while the large number of works by Latin American artists raises questions about colonialism, migration, exile and cultural imperialism.

“We’ve always seen things – and museums – as being bound up with territory,” says Borja-Villel. “But we need to decolonise our thinking and understand that Europe and the west are just provinces of the world. We need to understand there’s an element of structural violence in colonisation.”

The director also points out that while the newly rejigged collection ends with works by three female artists – Victoria Gil, Joan Jonas and Carmen Laffón – far more needs to be done to recognise and retrieve the achievements of generations of creative women.

“They were obviously always there, but we didn’t always know how to see them properly,” he says. “We need to change the way we look at things and incorporate female artists. It’s very easy in the contemporary part, but harder historically, because in the past, women were pushed to the edge.”

And, although it’s early days, Borja-Villel says visitor numbers suggest the reorganisation is going down very well with the public.

The museum’s attendance figures will swell a little further on Friday afternoon when a delegation from the Save Peironcely group, headed by the former Unesco chief Federico Mayor Zaragoza and the Irish Hispanist and writer Ian Gibson, arrives to see the Capa picture in situ on the 85th anniversary of its publication.

“We’re so happy and proud that all the stories behind the photographed are being recognised,” says José María Uría Fernández of the Fundación Anastasio de Gracia.

“The image, which became a global reference point for horror, is now where it should be – and very close to Guernica itself. It’s amazing how a tiny negative has managed to generate a wave that’s helped change the lives of so many people so many years later.”




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