Women and the art of war

“Train journeys in Spain are never dull”, so said Nina. She explained you could look at the landscape of if you found that dull, you could visit the restaurant car. You would surely find the restaurant car interesting – although you may not like the food which is full of surprises as it is elsewhere in Spain. Or, you could people watch as Nina did. On the train from Cordoba to Madrid, Nina shared her compartment with a married couple, “both shapelessly fat”. Nina thought the man looked fifty and the woman forty-five. Nina picks them as a middle-class couple as the man’s hands show no sign of labour and he wears his thumb nail at “Chinese length”. He, by all accounts busied himself with the paper, while she ate two big sugar buns her husband had bought for her. He rarely gives his wife the attention she seeks but Nina believes as husband and wife they are very contented.

This is the story that begins Nina’s chapter on the Women of Spain an anthropological insight into a woman’s place in 1934 Spain. They were allowed to vote, having received the right in 1931. However, women were the property of men. Either their husbands, their fathers or their brothers owned the woman. Nina says “she is still almost as much a prisoner as in the days when she saw the world only through the fretted screens of her window. Many women were not allowed out in the streets with being accompanied by their husband or an old servant. Nina recounts a story she was told by an American woman. A friend of hers, another American woman was married to a Spaniard. They went on holidays, his mistress was on the same train, in another carriage. She stayed in the same hotel on another floor. The man would meet friends and take his mistress with him, as his wife was too much of a lady to be with the men. The wife insisted if the mistress was not sent away, she would leave. The man said to his wife, if you leave, I will call the police and make you return. She left, the police picked her up on the train and took her back to the holiday hotel. The mistress stayed on.

Today’s modern woman of Spain would not tolerate this. Even though Spain is still, very much a man’s world (in the minds of men) Spain maintains a high rank globally in female representation in Parliament. It is number 14 in the world. For comparison’s sake, New Zealand is at number 18 and Australia? You’ll find it at number 50. Women in Spain are allowed to marry other women. There are no barriers to equality when it comes to love in Spain. Unlike Australia. The women in Spain are modern and chic. Like women everywhere, they juggle their lives, their loves, their families and their careers.

This morning, I visited the Queen Sofia National Centre for Art in Madrid. I had gone to see Guernica, the Pablo Picasso painting I love so much. Guernica is a town in the north of Spain, in the Basque region. It was one of the first aerial bombings by German and Italian air forces in support of Franco’s Civil War. Hundreds and hundreds of innocent civilians were killed in a three hour air raid. Picasso’s painting remembers the horrors of the bombing. The galleries sit in a fantastic art space in an old hospital down near the main train station. Each gallery moves through eras of Spain and Spanish history. I started my visit pleasantly enough going through the cubism and surrealism exhibitions and found that I like the work of Palencia. His painting reminded me of landscapes I had seen on the Camino and wished I could paint like him. On I moved through the galleries getting more excited about Guernica.  I did not think, I would get to stand before Guernica and look at it. Really look at it. I thought  I would be looking at it through the back of people’s heads and through others iPhones as they took photos of one of the world’s greatest paintings – but this was not the case. All of a sudden it was there in front of me. There were other people but not hoards of tourist. Respectful, art lovers, Spaniards, quietly taking in the horror the painting shows. When I had looked enough I walked into the next room. There were photos from the International Press Agency and many from Robert Capa showing the horrors of the Spanish Civil War. There were photos of women crying over dead children in front of bombed and shot out buildings, there were photos of women firing rifles from the Alcazar during the final fateful battle in Toledo, there were women making bombs, women and children sleeping on the streets. It was hard not to be moved by the images, the sadness in them. Most strikingly, there is a photomural by Josep Renau. One side is a  woman in a traditional bridal dress of Salamanca, the other side is a militia women, wearing trousers and looking confident. The message overlaid on the militia woman reads “The new woman of Spain has rid herself of the superstitions and misery of her past enslavement and is reborn and capable of taking part in the celebration of the future. I can only think to myself ‘what price, freedom?’. Nina would not have seen either Renau’s photo mural or Picasso’s Guernica, she did not know of the future horrors Spain would endure.

I continued my journey through propaganda posters for both sides of the Spanish Civil War, many with women as the image. I was very sad as I walked into the next gallery. It was full of Dali’s follies. I was not in the mood, so I left. As I walked into the bright sunlight I felt the need to visit Toledo again. I have been twice before but was not going to go this time as it would mean travelling backwards. Nina went but didn’t write about it which is quite frustrating for me. Why did she not write about Toledo it is such a magnificent town with so much history? When I first visited back in 1987, we went to the Alcazar. My companion wanted to see it as his grandmother took her young daughters, including his mother,  to the Alcazar for safety when war reached the doorstep of Toledo. My companion’s mother, just a young girl of six at the times, stayed down in the basement as the war raged around outside. I have always felt a personal connection to Toledo and the Alcazar because of this visit and my connection to the family. The need to visit again was now overwhelming. I started trying to plan in my head when I could go, how best to get there, when suddenly I saw a sign “Day Trip to Toledo”. There is my answer.


One thought on “Women and the art of war”

  1. Yep. I love Toledo. Same goes for all walled cities. (I might buy an apartment in a gated community.)
    Yep. Female representation in Parliament! Bring back strong women: Sophie Mirabella, Belinda Neal and Bronwyn Bishop.
    Where does Nina go next?


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