WELLESLEY -- That the Spanish Civil War remains so vivid 70 years after its outbreak owes as much to art as politics. The plight of the Spanish Republic, beset by fascist insurrection, inspired Picasso's ``Guernica, " Hemingway's ``For Whom the Bell Tolls, " Auden's ``Spain, " Malraux's ``Man's Hope "-- as well as one of the most famous images in photographic history, Robert Capa's ``Falling Soldier. " None of the 21 pictures in ``History in a Shoebox: Photographs From the Spanish Civil War, Lleida 1936-39," which runs at Wellesley College's Jewett Art Center through Oct. 29, makes any claim to great artistry. Yet in their documentary matter-of-factness these images convey a real and moving power. They record a specific time and place even as they show something universal, the daily lives of ordinary people caught up in dire circumstances.
During the civil war, Ramon Rius, a baker and skilled amateur photographer, lived in Lleida, a city about 100 miles west of Barcelona. It was Loyalist territory. The Loyalists, who supported the republic, comprised a fratricidal set of parties on the left, along with the unions and Basque and Catalan separatists. Opposing them were Francisco Franco's Nationalists: the military, the church, the forces of reaction.
When the Nationalists triumphed, Rius put his negatives in a shoebox, where they remained for decades. ``Shopkeepers can't afford to take sides," he would say when asked whom he supported. It's plain, though, that these photographs weren't taken by a Nationalist. No supporter of Franco would casually portray a crowd giving the clenched-fist salute, a wall covered with leftist posters, a socialist youth march. Hiding his work was politically prudent.
Yet these are by no means political pictures. The eruption of history interested Rius only insofar as it erupted into, and found itself mingling with, the everyday. An ambulance turns out to be a renovated touring car. Figures loitering by the side of the road are like young men anywhere -- bored, playful, agreeably loutish -- except they're soldiers, wearing helmets and uniforms and carrying weapons. A military checkpoint would look imposing except for the large black-and-white dog that stares at the camera, dominating the foreground of the picture.
It's no surprise that the two most shocking images in the show step outside of any sense of the routine. They show a Nationalist officer, flanked by a squad of soldiers, reading the rebels' declaration of war against the republic. There's a staginess to the scene that's both phony and oppressive. The only people shown aren't so much flesh-and-blood individuals as play actors, right down to the props they bear: drums, bayoneted rifles, revolutionary decree.
One can almost feel Rius's shock and disgust. He doesn't shy away from indicating Republican outrages -- bullet holes peppering the wall of a church, worried family members inspecting lists of political prisoners -- but those images retain a sense of human context. These other two photos are about the suppression of any such context: artifice raised to the level of moral nullity.
Flanking the exhibition are wall displays with information on related topics: the presence on the Wellesley faculty of the distinguished Spanish emigre writers Jorge Guillen and Pedro Salinas ; George Orwell's hospital stay in Lleida (recorded in ``Homage to Catalonia"); a timeline; several civil war propaganda posters; and the like. Also on display, next door in the Davis Museum, are three examples from Picasso's 1937 print suite ``Dream and Lie of Franco. " The Davis is currently closed for roof repairs, but visitors can go to the museum's information desk Tuesdays through Fridays, between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., and be shown to the Picassos.
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.