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War Viewed Through the Lens of Children's Art

Story by
Nancy Joseph

During the Spanish Civil War, 200,000 children were sent to Children’s Colonies for safety. They were encouraged to create art to express their feelings—about war, about loss, about being separated from their families. Now some of these artworks are part of a traveling exhibit co-curated by Anthony Geist, UW professor of Spanish and Portuguese studies and comparative literature, and Peter Carroll, chair of the Board of Governors of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives. 

Geist, who has studied the Spanish Civil War for many years, first viewed the artworks in 1998 while serving as a visiting professor at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD). “I went to tour the University’s wonderful archive of Spanish Civil War materials,” recalls Geist. “At one point, the librarian set a document case in front of me and it was these drawings. I was stunned. I was so moved by the immediacy and vibrancy of the drawings.” 

Geist recalls telling the librarian, “You should really do something with these,” to which she responded, “Here—you do it.” 

The result is an exhibit with 78 works from the UCSD collection, supplemented with 22 artworks from the Holocaust, Japanese American internment camps, Kosovo, Southeast Asia, Israel, and Palestinian camps. “I decided to intercut drawings from other conflicts to show connections,” says Geist. “I was interested in presenting this piece of Spanish Civil War history, but also in showing connections with today. Children are still the victims of suffering and violence. There is a very contemporary lesson for us.” 

Children drawing in one of the Children's Colonies during the Spanish Civil War.

Children drawing in one of the Children's Colonies during the Spanish Civil War. Media credit: Butler Library, Columbia University.

Most residents of the Children’s Colonies were sent there by their parents in the late 1930s, a tumultuous time in Spanish history. The King of Spain had abdicated in 1931, leading to the creation of the Spanish Republic. Then in 1936 a group of generals led by Francisco Franco, with the support of the wealthy and powerful, staged a coup. The coup failed and the Spanish Civil War began as the Spanish people took up arms and defended themselves and their government. 

The fighting lasted three years. About 600,000 refugees fled Franco’s tyranny, heading to the relative security of Republican controlled territory. More than 200,000 of them were children. “They were orphaned, separated from their families, or sent by their parents to safety,” says Geist. “Rather than entrust the care and education of the children to foster families already stretched by shortages, the government established hundreds of Colonias Infantiles—Children’s Colonies. They were oases in war-torn Spain, little utopias for frightened and bereaved children.”

The children were encouraged to express their feelings through art. Several international relief organizations gathered the children’s drawings and sent them abroad in an effort to raise international awareness of the plight of the children. A handful of exhibits resulted, including one in New York in 1938 with a catalogue penned by Aldous Huxley. 

“Then the artworks just disappeared,” says Geist. “They were sold to raise funds for children’s relief efforts in 1939.” Eventually some of the works found their way into public collections. The University of Washington Libraries has a few, donated by a faculty member. But UCSD’s collection is the largest, purchased from a book dealer in Argentina in 1991. None of the works has been on view since the late 1930s. 

Drawing from the Children's Colonies.

Drawing from the Children's Colonies.

Most of the artworks were signed. Geist decided to search for some of the artists, now in their 70s, and managed to locate ten of them. “They were quite moved and surprised when I contacted them,” he recalls. “So was I. It was very powerful.” Geist has interviewed three of the artists. They recall being evacuated from Madrid, the train ride to the colonies, arriving in the middle of the night, and watching bombing raids. 

All of these experiences are documented in the artworks, some of which depict the evacuation, bombs falling, or people being injured or killed. “None of the people I interviewed recognized their own drawings,” says Geist, “but they all remembered being encouraged to draw.” Geist believes this may be the first instance of art therapy for children suffering the trauma of war. 

The exhibit will be on display at UCSD through November 2002, and will travel to Lehigh University, Dartmouth University, Southern Illinois University, and University of Iowa. UCSD will then evaluate the condition of the fragile artworks and decide if they can be exhibited further.