There is a certain capriciousness to most things and the success or failure of art exhibitions is one of them. The Nazis experienced this first hand when they simultaneously organized the Degenerate Art Exhibition and The Great German Art Exhibition. Germany may have been great in Goebbels’ mind, but the art of his exhibition certainly wasn’t. Except for the most ardent party card carrying member, the Great German was a difficult dish to savour; not many visited the one dedicated to the eternal genius of the Aryan race, whilst more than 20.000 people per day queued to see why Weimar artists were attempting an “Insolent mockery of the Divine under Centrist Rule”. If the Degenerate Art Exhibition was the success story, albeit unintended, of 1936, the Masterpieces of the Prado Exhibition in Geneva was the art event of 1939. Because of the actions of another war mongering, power hungry dictator, the hastily put together exhibition was effectively the transposition of one of the best art collections in the word to what was effectively a minor museum in a Swiss city, a free city.
On November 16 1936, Francisco Franco’s planes bombed Madrid. Nine of the incendiary bombs dropped on the centre of capital of Spain by the rebel general hit the Museo del Prado, which caught fire. This prompted the Republican Government to try to save the collection, the most important in the country and one of the most valuables in the world. The decision was made to move them further away from the frontline and the push for Madrid that the Nationalist were attempting. The paintings were loaded in 71 trucks and carried to Valencia, where in less than a month a propaganda exhibition was organized “as a testimony to the civilized world of the culture saved by the anti-fascist people”.
La carga de los mamelucos, Francisco de Goya, 1814
But, alas, neither propaganda nor bravery could stop the slow but unrelenting advance of the Nationalists. Although Valencia, the city where almost 1000 years earlier El Cid had died withstanding another invader, would go on uncaptured until the very last day of the war, the government decided that it would be prudent and safer to move the Prado once again, this time to Cataluña. Trucks were loaded and the long and dangerous convoy started to move north. Bombs fell, as they usually do in wars. Paintings were damaged. One of Goya’s, La Carga de los Mamelucos, severely so. Crossing the Ebro with such voluminous paintings, like Las Meninas, proved difficult, but the collection finally arrived, relatively unscathed, to its new destination: two castles and a talc mine where they were hidden for a while.
But the enemies continued their advance until the imminent fall of Cataluña made the evacuation out of Spain necessary. The French gave the paintings the same safe passage that were giving at that point to the sea of people crossing the Pyrenees, the one that they refused to the last remnants of the Republican army, trapped in Valencia and Alicante and that chose suicide rather than falling in the hands of the enemy. The paintings left Spain at the beginning of February 1939 and arrived in Geneva one week later. At that point the war was practically over and the Republic had fallen. By the time the exhibition opened, in June, there was a new government in Madrid, one that would stay in power for almost 35 years. The exhibition was a success: Van der Weyden, Velazquez, Goya were exhibited for the first time in Swiss soil but the government that had protected the national treasures was no more.
By then it was Franco who ripped the benefits: the exhibition, following Hitler’s example, but with the advantage of Art on his side, became a celebration of Spanish nationalism. The main gallery was named the Imperial Room. He managed with the help of the Gestapo to throw in jail some of those who for years had risked their lives to save the national patrimony. There is also a lack of justice to most things, but at least the paintings were not destroyed by the bombs of a war that should have never started. On September 2 1939, one day after another, longer deadlier war began in Europe, the exhibition closed and the paintings made their way back to Madrid, after three wandering years.