One of my favorite things to do when creating lesson plans and homework assignments is to find visuals that evoke the same themes or feelings as the literary text. When teaching poetry for example, I have found that images work to make the complexities and ambiguities of the text less intimidating and frustrating. Or they sometimes cause students to “see” something in the poem that they had missed on their first read. These comparisons help my students arrive at analysis – HOW do the selection or order of words, the meter, or the use of devices like repetition or metaphor, create imagery or sensations that are similar to those conveyed by a visual? In the past when I taught film and theater set in post-war Spain (1940s-1950s), I had used surrealist paintings by Salvador Dalí, as well as Pablo Picasso’s Guernica – perhaps the most famous contemporary representation of the destruction and horrors of war – to introduce the magnitude of the war in its historical context. A few weeks ago I returned to Guernica to teach about the Spanish Civil War more generally in my literature class, and this time I paired it with with a 1937 poem by Vicente Aleixandre, “Oda a los niños de Madrid muertos por la metralla” (“Ode to the dead children of Madrid killed by shrapnel”). The analysis activity I used in my literature class worked well as a way of discussing literary and visual techniques, so I thought I would make a new “teaching” post to share this lesson.
In my previous post, “Painting the Spanish Civil War,” I wrote about the appearance of the Spanish Civil War and its effects in the artistic production of Salvador Dalí as a way of illustrating the extent to which the conflict impacted the country’s artists and intellectuals, especially those of the “Generation of 1927”. Born in 1898, Vicente Aleixandre is considered a member of this generation – a generation that produced many of Spain’s most celebrated modern poets, including Federico García Lorca, whose assassination at the hands of Nationalist forces in 1936 would serve as a symbol of the brutal violence and tragic loss of Spain’s intellectual and cultural life. After six month of civil war, and a mere five months after the murder of his friend and fellow poet Lorca, on January 18, 1937 Aleixandre published “Oda a los niños de Madrid muertos por la metralla” in the Republican periodical Ahora. Describing Aleixandre’s wartime ode, Fernandez Ferrer notes that, while the poet indeed strays from the surrealist style that characterized his verses in the late 1920s and early 1930s, he nevertheless manages to incorporate themes that were unique to his own poetic universe, such as the desolate landscape, the transcendental symbolism of childhood, the cosmic sentiment of death… (177-78). At the time of the poem’s publication in 1937, the bombing of Guernica (Gerika), a small Basque town in northern Spain, was still four months away. This aerial strike – still a relatively new tactic of 20th century warfare – is the event Picasso would immortalize later that same year; the attack on Guernica occurred on April 29, Picasso’s Guernica debuted in Paris in June. The brief Spanish video below presents information on the attack on Guernica, providing images of the destruction and commentary on the political aftermath (for example: Germany’s and Franco’s denial of involvement; and discrepancies in the death toll as reported by Nationalists (120) and Republicans (2,500+)).
Below I will discuss a few of the parallels my class observed in Guernica and “Oda a los niños…” and describe the group activity I used for comparing the imagery of the poem to the mural. My students had read the poem for homework prior to class, identifying poetic devices like anáfora, metáfora and apostrofe. Since they had already read the poem at home, the class was dedicated to sharing interpretations, learning about Guernica, and performing the comparative analysis task in pairs or small groups of three. I handed out copies of Guernica with enough space around the painting to write and identify similarities and differences. In the class activity (attached at the end of this post) we worked with the entire mural, but for this post it is easier to discuss the similarities and differences in fragments.
In the first image, the right portion of Picasso’s painting, my students noticed that the person with their arms raised appears to be screaming… and in Aleixandre’s poem, the verb “gritar” (to scream/yell) and the words “grito” (a scream) are used repeatedly – not only do the women scream, but the houses, the streets, and the windows. Aleixandre emphasizes the sounds of war, speaking of the “voz de las víctimas” (voice of the victims). Additionally, the poem uses haunting imagery, such as “espanto” and “fantasma” (terror and ghost), and Guernica presents a ghostly figure entering the window of the room. Observing this imagery in two different pieces of art – literary and visual – prompted my class to pay more attention to how the use of a word like “ghost” functions to communicate broader themes of death, memory, and loss, something they may have overlooked in their first reading the poem. In this way, images actually help students perform close-readings (often without their realizing it!).
In the next fragment, the central portion of the mural, the most obvious connection is the light at the top of the painting. In “Oda a los niños…”, the destruction and devastation occur “bajo la luz terrible” (“under the terrible light”). Here, we discussed what in fact “terrible” light would look like and if Picasso’s presentation of light corresponded with Aleixandre’s. Also in this portion we see a hand grasping a broken sword or knife, next to what appears to be another human limb (at the bottom); above and to the right is an abstract rendering of a human head. In the ode, Aleixandre presents this same imagery of fragmented, dismembered bodies: “un bracito” (a little arm); “Rostros pequeños, las mejillas, los pechos, / El inocente vientre que respira” (little faces, cheeks, chests or breasts / the innocent belly that breathes); “Pequeños corazones, pechos difuntos, caritas destrozadas” (little hearts, deceased chests, little destroyed faced). Whereas Picasso depicts individual suffering more generally, Aleixandre highlights the harm done to children by using diminutives (bracito, caritas) and adjectives like “pequeño” (small, tiny, little).
Finally, the third portion of Guernica below, the left side of the image, contains one of Picasso’s most recognizable images – the devastated mother holding her dead or dying child. Aleixandre’s poem begins with the image of women running in the streets – “pobres mujeres que corren en las calles” – and later he repeats, “Las mujeres corrieron” (the women ran). Women and children were common motifs in Civil War propaganda and, as Fernandez Ferrer observes in Aleixadre’s “Oda,” the presentation of infancy or childhood as victims of the conflict – much like in Picasso’s Guernica – symbolizes the most tragic consequences of the brutality born of wartime violence (177). Again, Picasso’s figures appear to be wailing in agony, just as the voices of Aleixandre’s figures are heard through the streets: “Su voz está sonando. / ¿No oís? Suena en lo oscuro. / Suena en la luz. Suena en las calles” (Their voice is ringing. Don’t you hear? It rings in the dark. / It rings in the light. It rings in the streets). When discussing these verses, my class noted the emphasis on the sounds of war and the use of the second-person verb (oís) that appears to involve the reader (spectator) in the action. Finally, one of the main points of contrast between the two pieces is the use of color. Picasso’s use of black, white, and greys is one of the most dramatic characteristic of Guernica. By contrast, Aleixandre focuses on red blood – the word (sangre) appears six times – evoking this color with descriptive verbs like “salpicar” (to splash/spray). Homes are splashed with blood (salpicadas de sangre); blood sprays through windows (salpicó la sangre); the light is bloodlike (la luz de sangre). This creates a very distinct, equally powerful vision of death, misery, and distress.
After working with the “Oda” and Guernica in class, one of my students chose to write about Aleixandre’s poem for his second course essay. As I have mentioned in other posts on writing assignments, I always require that students select an image for their essay. This prompts them to think about alternative ways in which they might communicate their ideas by forcing them to consider what themes are most important to their essay. By performing a brief Google-images search for certain key terms or titles, they are often surprised at what types of imagery or artwork they discover. The student who wrote about the victims of war in Aleixandre’s poem, for example, discovered that the 1937 fresco-style painting by Horacio Ferrer, Los aviones negros (The Black Planes) perfectly illustrated the themes of his essay. My students’ creative connections also help me as the professor – the images make the essays seem more “fun” to read, and they suggest new insights that often go beyond those found in students’ written analyses. In this case, I was was not familiar with Ferrer’s painting before, and I now plan to use it in the future when I teach Aleixandre’s poem, Guernica, and/or the Spanish Civil War.
According to the information provided by the Museo Reina Sofia, Aviones negros was created for display in the 1937 International Exposition in Paris – the same exposition for which Picasso created Guernica. The Pavilion representing Spain at the expo was dedicated to defending the legitimacy of the Republican government and decrying the atrocities occurring in the war-torn country. Consequently, many of the works of art displayed realist tendencies or “excessively propagandist elements”. Ferrer’s piece was notable for his exceptional use of the Italian fresco technique, an aesthetic which helps to balance the incendiary highlighting of Spain’s painful wartime atmosphere . Much like Guernica, “Oda a los niños…”, and both Republican and Nationalist poster propaganda during the war, Ferrer’s Aviones Negros features terrified and fearful women fleeing from the attacks while attempting to protect their innocent children. Below is an example of the types of posters created during this time.
What representations of the Spanish Civil War – either visual or literary – would be good resources for use in Spanish literature or culture classes?
“‘Oda a los niños…’ and Guernica.” PDF file of poem and painting for use in class: Guerra civil_Oda a los ninos muertos-guernica
(** I added vocabulary to this version of the poem because I later used it in my Spanish Culture and Civilization course, and my students read it during class rather than for homework. I provided definitions for the more unfamiliar words to facilitate comprehension).
Fernandez Ferrer, A. “Un poema olvidado de Vicente Aleixandre: ‘Oda a los niños de Madrid muertos por la metralla’. Bulletin Hispanique 83.1-2 (1981): 175-180. Link to PDF.