Mushroom clouds in burning skies, wandering skulls, and thousands of people confined in atomic shelters as insects: the final decade of the Cold War brought a global proliferation of visual expressions of the anxiety of nuclear annihilation. This is well known for the US and Western Europe, but rarely considered for Southern European countries. Spain, for instance, had just emerged in 1975 from almost forty years of Franco’s dictatorship and faced an intricate transition to democracy. In particular, anti-war and peace protests in Spain opposed entering and remaining in NATO during the 1980s.
Anti-war protest in Spain found an important outlet in mural paintings. During the last years of the dictatorship, the practice of the so-called pintadas (mural paintings and graffiti) had become an inseparable part of the cultural transition to a post-Francoist Spain. One mural painting from 1977 in Barcelona even declared: “Do not vote. Paint!”
In Spain, the mural was an alternative and collective form of communication. Even though ephemeral, it was spontaneous and easily accessible to everyone. During the late 1970s, murals were designed by local artists in collaboration with neighbourhood associations. These associations had multiplied throughout Spain in the last years of the dictatorship, with the aim of improving the living conditions in the urban periphery. In 1981, after an attempted military coup, the government led by the UCD (Union of Democratic Centre) decided to accelerate the process of entry into NATO. In response, the entire Spanish left began to take an interest in the issues of peace. Both the Spanish Communist Party and the extra-parliamentary Maoist and Trotskyist parties started to make abundant use of murals.
The visual language of the Spanish peace groups merged post-materialist values – namely the concern for the environment – with the traditional themes of class struggle and the anti-imperialist concerns of the post-1968 New Left. Two representative examples can illuminate the visual codes of these peace murals.
The first was painted by a local group of the Communist Party, Partido Comunista de España (PCE) (image 1). It evokes a key a detail of Michelangelo’s fresco Il Giudizio Universale (The Last Judgment), the “creation of Adam”. It illustrates that the greatest anxieties of the Spanish left were represented by the USA and its aggressive power politics in dealing with countries at the Southern European periphery. In the centre of the mural, flying through the clouds, there is a giant Uncle Sam who, in the original Michelangelo fresco, depicts God surrounded by angels. In this case, the representation of Uncle Sam is different. It is not the old man with a grim look who points his finger to recruit new young soldiers, but he is a good-natured gentleman with puffy cheeks.
In Spain, as in most of the European pacifist movements, the aesthetics of the anti-nuclear groups received transnational impulses from the evolution of countercultural groups of the 1960s. This happened despite the stumbling block of the Franco dictatorship.
In Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam God is enclosed by angels, but in this mural Uncle Sam moves through the sky surrounded by nuclear threats abounding from all directions, as in the posters of the World War II. Adam is represented by Leopoldo Calvo Sotelo, the President of the UCD Government. After the attempted coup in 1981, he had accelerated the process of Spain’s entry into NATO, thereby breaking the Transition pact to refrain from this delicate question. Moreover, Calvo Sotelo is depicted as the US superhero “Green Lantern”.
This mural encapsulates how the Cold War was framed by the Spanish peace movement, revealing both a popular angst toward officially entering into the Western bloc and the reactivation of the traditional anti-American clichés. The Soviet Union is almost absent from the Spanish wall paintings. This fear ultimately rested on the traditional isolation and diplomatic neutralism of Spain (ensimismamiento).
Another element stands out in the iconographic repertoire of Spanish activists, namely the continuous references to Spanish nationalism and pride. This overt display of Spanish pride is quite paradoxical, especially when we think of the accelerated growth of regionalist sentiments during the Spanish Transition. In one such mural in Vallecas (image 2), there is the depiction of Don Quixote—representative of one of the most important achievements of Spanish culture, and therefore an authentic icon of Spanish nationalism—fighting against NATO missiles. Don Quixote symbolised the perception of Spaniards being a heroic people, founded on faith and idealism, not on reason.
In Spain, the Euromissiles crisis of the 1980s became a kind of mirror image through which the Spanish people could reflect the many disenchantments of the transition to democracy. What the Spaniards most dreaded was not the atomic bomb itself, but rather the anxieties about an entry into a new kind of modernity, which the prospect of NATO membership stoked up.
Dr Giulia Quaggio is a Research Associate at the Department of History of the University of Sheffield. She collaborates in the project Protest as democratic practice: peace movements in southern Europe, 1975-1990, directed by Dr Eirini Karamouzi.