The posters in a new exhibition at the Helen Foresman Spencer Museum of Art can be appreciated on two levels: as historic political statements and as early modernist art styles.
"Shouts from the Wall: Posters and Photographs Brought Back from the Spanish Civil War by American Volunteers" contains 35 posters, lithographs and other illustrations that once "shouted" from the walls of Spanish towns and were carried or mailed home by Americans who helped defend the Spanish Republic from 1936 to 1939.
"If you were in Spain at this time, the city would be covered with these graphic and artistic images that were a call to arms," said Steve Goddard, senior curator at the Spencer Museum of Art. "American soldiers in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade brought these back, and now they are part of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives."
About 2,800 Americans including five from Kansas went to Spain to fight. About 500 Americans were killed.
The Spanish Civil War was the opening battle of World War II and represents the first saturated bombing of civilian targets.
"When the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936, people understood it to be a fundamental crisis in global affairs," said Peter Carroll, chairman of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., and co-curator of the exhibit. "It was a conflict involving Nazism in Germany and fascism in Italy. People understood they (Hitler and Mussolini) had ambitions and horrible policies that were heading in a genocidal direction.
"Most of the western powers, particularly Britain and France, hoped the war would run its course in Spain and didn't want to get involved. Meantime, the legally elected government (in Spain) had appealed for aid from anyone around the world."
Carroll said from 35,000 to 40,000 volunteers from 50 countries went to Spain.
"They were able to keep the Spanish Republic from collapsing immediately," he said. "At the end of the war, (Franklin) Roosevelt said that his policy of nonintervention (in Spain) was the worst mistake he made."
While volunteers were fighting in the infantry, manning medical posts and serving in other capacities, Spain's artists turned their brushes into weapons.
"I can't imagine the artists not literally putting their lives on the line as much as those who were fighting," Goddard said. "This was their way of contributing to the cause. People seem to want a visual statement and rallying image for their beliefs."
The colorful and disturbing posters reflect the artistic trends of the time: Art Deco, realism, surrealism and photo montage. Artists represented include Rey Vila, Jose Bardasano, Ramon Puyol and Josep Renau.
The exhibit also includes photographs, wartime letters, a copy of the only wall newspaper to survive the war intact and a Pablo Picasso portfolio, "The Dream and Lies of Franco," which the Spencer Museum recently acquired.
"This was one of Picasso's forays into politics and was meant to raise money for the cause," Goddard said.
Also of note among the exhibit items is a photo of Langston Hughes talking with volunteer fighters on the front lines of the Spanish Civil War. Carroll said Hughes, who grew up in Lawrence, was a correspondent for a number of black U.S. newspapers.
"He wrote poems about the volunteers for the International Brigade papers, and he did one radio broadcast defending the Republic," he said.
In an article called "Negroes in Spain," Hughes writes about the Moors of North Africa who were brought into Spain by Franco to fight and die for fascism.
"Thus the Moors die in Spain, men, women, and children, victims of Fascism, fighting not for freedom but against freedom under a banner that holds only terror and segregation for all the darker peoples of the earth," Hughes wrote.
"A great many Negroes know better. Someday the Moors will know better, too. All the Francos in the world cannot blow out the light of human freedom."