Updated: Nov 22, 2020
One of the most intriguing mysteries of the art world is the disappearance of a horde of oil paintings executed in Spain during the run-up to the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39. It was referred to as the ‘Ráfaga Collection’ after it’s principle subject, a young Andalusian gypsy woman living in Seville during in the early 1930s.
The missing collection consists mostly of nudes and a few less daring portraits whose fame is predicated on the extraordinary erotic appeal of its model, a kind of jazz age pornography of the highest order, rivaling in composition, colouration and technique the finest works of the Renaissance Old Masters. Some historians believe that they were products of the model’s teenage daughter, a gifted painter discretely trained in the ‘Costumbrista’ style at the studio of one of Seville’s best-known artists. Their provenance is buried in the destruction and atrocities of the civil war and the repressive dictatorship that followed.
The circumstances that led to the paintings’ disappearance are as historically convoluted and curious as the works themselves are provocative.
On the eighteenth day of July 1936, a group of army generals led by Gustavo Quiepo de Llano launched a golpe de estado against the Spanish Republic. The plotters’ first objective was Seville where they succeeded in massacring three thousand civilians, most of whom were hunted down and shot or their throats slit with knives after hostilities ceased in the city. The rebels suffered only thirteen soldiers and civilian collaborators killed.
Many of the murdered were dragged from their homes and executed along the ancient Roman walls of the Macarena and Pomarejo districts in reprisal for the city’s population having voted overwhelmingly in favour of democracy in 1932. The other most defiant and therefore most severely punished district was Triana, the old gypsy quarter located on the opposite bank of the Guadalquivir River, across the famous Isabel II Bridge designed and built by Gustave Eiffel in the mid-19th century. Numerous defensive efforts were planned to blow up the bridge but, fortunately for posterity, none succeeded.
As the disloyal soldiers poured from the local military barracks of Tablada bent on looting and raping, the flamboyant General Quiepo de Llano styled himself a hero, boasting that he’d captured the 'communist stronghold' of Seville almost single headedly. In fact, the coup itself was the brainchild of Tablada’s chief of staff, José Cuesta Moreneo. Officers who remained loyal to the Republic or took a neutral stance were arrested and shot by their rebel colleagues. The civil governor and chief of police were condemned to death. Curiously, the formal charge levied against the many thousands of civil administrators and military personnel who remained loyal to the elected government was ‘military insurrection against the State.’
The repression that began in Seville and spread across the entire Iberian Peninsula continued well into the 1970’s, long after Fascism was defeated throughout the rest of Europe and its villainous instigators brought to justice. The perpetrators and beneficiaries of this Spanish holocaust died peacefully of old age in their comfortable beds, surrounded by family and friends.
The cynicism and cruelty of the rebellion that led to a thirty-nine year tyrannical dictatorship in Spain was applauded by a Vatican that was restructuring the Roman Catholic Church along more authoritarian and absolutist lines wherein power ran from top to bottom while responsibility ran from bottom to top. This Mafia model inspired criminal regimes in Spain, Italy and Germany and led to World War II, the greatest mass slaughter in human history. With the military support of Hitler and Mussolini, the cold and plodding General Francisco Franco, 'El Caudillo' (The Leader), as he soon styled himself, emerged as supreme commander of the Fascist forces called the Falange, a pre-war political party built on the Italian template by Antonio Primo de Rivera, son of the old Caudillo (pre-republic Spanish dictator). Cleverly combining the Flangists with the fanatical Catholic Carlists and their Requete militia, the word ‘Franquismo’ was coined.
While Spain descended into civil war, the western democracies such as France, Britain and the United States stood idly aside and did nothing, hiding behind their so-called non-intervention policies. American president Franklin Delano Roosevelt was warned by his advisors that opposition to Fascism in Spain would rob him of the Catholic vote in the upcoming elections. Despite his government having embargoed sales of goods to the Republic, with El Caudillo it was business as usual. Texaco and other American and British companies and banks continued to supply Franco with all the fuel, war materiel and credit he needed while Hitler’s Luftwaffe bombed Spanish cities and towns to rubble in the ramp up to what Der Führer would later accomplish in the rest of Europe and the British Isles.
In the first days of the rebellion, trade unions in Seville declared a general strike as people barricaded themselves inside their homes and workplaces, expecting the worst. At the first onslaught, the people rose up valiantly in their own defence, dumping furniture and refrigerators on the incoming rebel troops from their rooftops and balconies, but they had few actual weapons against a force of over four thousand well trained and heavily armed troops that included a large contingent of Moslem mercenaries recruited in Morocco and Algiers. After shelling and bombing the working-class districts of Macarena, San Julian, Pomarejo, San Marco and Triana located across the Guadalquivir River, Quiepo de Llano’s men advanced against the people’s makeshift barricades, driving a human shield of kidnapped women and children ahead of them.
According to the General’s propaganda officer, Antonio Bahamonde, the Foreign Legion and Moroccans marched up and down the streets of the city’s working-class districts, tossing hand grenades into the windows of homes, randomly blowing up and killing women and children. The Moors took the opportunity to loot and rape at will without any restraint whatsoever from their officers. The triumphant Quiepo de Llano cynically announced to the public via Radio Seville that his troops were authorized and encouraged to rape women and he recounted with crude sarcasm brutal scenes of sexual violation and looting by the soldiers. Neither were priests and nuns loyal to the Republic spared the atrocities, yet not a single word of protest was heard from the Pope. Disgusted by the atrocities committed by Queipo de Llano’s forces in Seville, Bahamonde defected to the Republican side.
Having crushed Seville, Queipo de Llano sent his columns of Civil Guards, Falangists, Requetes and Moslem mercenaries, financed by the wealthy landowners who had much to gain and little to risk from the rebellion, to occupy the nearby impoverished communities of Santiponce, Salteras, Gerena, Aznalcollar, Dos Hermanas and many other sleepy towns and villages throughout the province. Thousands of prisoners were sent to the killing centre of Seville to be hastily condemned and executed along the ancient walls of the Macarena district, death being the indiscriminate and universal penalty for republican association. Many of the latifundistas, the large Andalusian landowners, led their own columns of militia on personal crusades of revenge against teachers and labour organizers and anyone to whom they owed money.
People took every opportunity to settle old scores. A jealous wife might easily rid herself of her husband’s lover by denouncing the other woman as a communist. Schoolteachers were murdered in reprisal for the Republic having removed education in the country from the exclusive control of the Church and allowing girls to attend classes.
Artists, writers, poets, intellectuals, all were proscribed and hunted. The generation’s greatest dramatist and poet, Federico García Lorca (1898-1936), was dragged from his bed and led away into the night, never to be seen or heard from again. Homosexuals were especially favoured for execution while the Moorish mercenaries raided cloisters for their ready supply of fresh young virgins to violate. Everywhere in the country was a vision of Hell.
Thousands of stories of these dark days and the so-called Años Negros, the Black Years of Francoism that followed, continue to circulate long after Fascism was replaced by a limited monarchy after the Caudillo’s death in the mid-1970’s.
Almost eighty years after the close of hostilities, a Gerena woman recalled to me the day her uncle was taken by agents of the local latifundista (landowner) from his home, a rope secured around his neck, and made to run behind a farm truck until he collapsed then was dragged to death over the cobblestones.
Another friend from Huelva recounted to me that after his uncle was arrested, his father, a well-known flamenco singer, was ordered to sing Saetas for the captors’ amusement. If he managed to sing all night long without stopping for breath, they promised, his brother would be spared. The man sang with failing. When dawn came, the brother was shot.
Like hundreds of other pueblos throughout the province, Gerena’s cemetery is the final resting place of dozens of murdered men, women and their innocent children, whole families of dead whose descendants continue to visit, scrubbing and polishing grave markers and leaving vases of fresh flowers. There are no other monuments to these victims, although many churches continue to venerate with statues and bronze plaques those Fascists who fell in battle or were assassinated during their crusade against the ‘Enemies of Christ’. Few in Spain talk openly about the Black Years, the fear of reprisal having been passed down through generations into the age of computers, mobile phones and globalization.
While some brave souls endeavour to locate and disinter the thousands of mass graves hidden in fields and forests and along lonely roadsides, the Spanish government does it’s best to discourage and block such initiatives, instead pointing to atrocities committed by the Republican side. The only truth to come out of the morass of bilateral apologist rhetoric is that, although horrors were indeed perpetrated by both sides in the conflict, the Fascist rebels with their African mercenaries were the only agency to make terrorism official policy in the zones they conquered and afterwards in the whole of the country, and to boast about it.
Like Hitler’s Nazis and Attila the Hun before him, El Caudillo’s men looted the public institutions and private homes of their adversaries. Inside the storeroom of an abandoned casa señorial in the Calle Archeros near the Puerta Carmona, in Sevilla’s Juderia, the ancient Jewish quarter of the city, their searches uncovered a horde of oil paintings depicting naked women in various postures. One naked woman, to be precise. And a naked girl.
“The Jewish race,” one Fascist apologist declared, “has produced the most subversive and pornographic writers and artists in human history, vendors and originators of pornographic postcards and obscenities. Like the Jew’s hunger for money, his idea of art is a force for Evil. They are a race of demographic agitators, wreckers of businesses, geniuses of stock market swindles, and founders of the Internationals. Quick of intelligence and adept at languages, this parasitic class has abused the hospitality of every country that has welcomed it, and in large numbers has worked for the disintegration of governments and institutions. These Jews of International Bolshevism are the enemies of the Spanish state."
Even in Britain, support for Fascism’s crusade against the so-called International Jewish Conspiracy was strong:
“On February 21, 1936, Lord Londonderry wrote Herr Von Ribbentrop a letter which confirms us in our views. Referring to conversations with Der Führer, Herr Von Ribbentrop and General Goering, he said: ….In relation to the Jews….It is possible to trace their participation in most of the international disturbances which have created so much havoc….” (Quoted in ‘The Spanish Arena’, by William Foss and Cecil Garahty, Northumberland Press, p.149).
On 26 April 1937, General Hermann Goering’s warplanes of the German Condor Legion terror bombed the village of Guernica located in the Basque country of northern Spain, a Republican stronghold that was bitterly defended by a coalition of communists, socialists and anarchists. The purpose of the destruction was to aid Franco’s return of the country to law, order, and traditional Catholic values. Artists awakened from their apolitical stupor after the atrocity inspired a well-known painting and one of the most powerful anti-war statements ever produced, Pablo Picasso’s ‘Guernica’.
For the next half century, the purloined Ráfaga Collection is said to have graced the walls of a secret chamber in the Palacio Real de El Pardo, El Caudillo’s palatial villa, a little known rincón del erotismo reserved as a special treat for visiting dignitaries over brandy and cigars after state dinners while their womenfolk oooh-ed and ahhh-ed over the fabulous collection of fashion accessories that Carmen Polo, the country’s First Lady had managed to ‘borrow’ from Madrid’s jewellery dealers and museum collections.
It is believed that Adolph Hitler himself too refuge for a time in the Palacio Real de El Pardo after faking his own suicide in Berlin. El Caudillo's chauffeur swore to the fact that he'd collected the fleeing Hitler from Barcelona where the fugitive had flown in his private aircraft via Prague in late May 1945. Various palace staff, naturally reticent and fearing for their lives, nonetheless hinted of their guest having spent much time in the Ráfaga Room in contemplation perhaps of his own truncated career as an artist (see www.francescorizzuto.com/post/nobody-took-him-serious-as-an-artist).
After the dictator’s death in 1975, it is speculated that the paintings were sold piecemeal both privately and through the auction markets in a thinly disguised attempt to hide their provenance, the proceeds of sale finding their way to the Swiss bank accounts of certain politicians.
If anyone knows of the actual whereabouts of any of these paintings, please leave a message on my contacts page at www.francescorizzuto.com/contact
For a fictionalized recounting of this story, please see the forthcoming novella "The Naked Girl,' based on the Spanish stage play 'Niña Desnuda.' For an advance copy, please leave a message on my contacts page. Thanks!