Record Banner
Vol.25, No. 19 Apr. 7, 2000

Seeing Her Own Past, and Preserving History, in Children’s War Drawings

By A. Dunlap-Smith

Angela Giral sets a gray cardboard archival box on the circular coffeetable of her basement-level office in Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library. The box holds a collection of 153 drawings done more than 60 years ago. It is a small collection and not especially valuable, but it's a precious one to her.

Giral's interest in the drawing collection is more than art historical; it is personal. In a way, the 7- to 14-year-old artists who created the drawings are her brothers and sisters; for she was, as they were, a victim of the 1936-1939 Spanish Civil War: a refugee, an exile, a displaced and, finally, dispossessed child of Spain. To Giral, the drawings are autobiographic shards of lives exploded by war; shards that have nettled her curiousity to know what became of the child-artists who left them.

"Some of these children never saw their parents again," Giral, Avery Library's director, writes in Spanish Children's Drawings, the Web site she is building for the collection in her spare time. "Others went back to Spain at the end of the war, some went into exile, like myself, and grew up in far away lands."

With the Web site, Giral hopes not only to reach the vast majority of people unaware of the drawings—drawings of planes on bombing runs over Madrid, of tanks clanking across the sunny Spanish countryside, of soldiers dying and civilians fleeing, of buses loaded with children leaving the war zone and their mothers and fathers behind, of sewing clothes and jumping rope and the regimented ordinariness of life in refugee camps—but she also hopes to reach the few who may already know the drawings, who may even have created them.

Appended to the site's introductory text is this plea: "If you are one of those children, or a relative that can provide some updated information on the life or whereabouts of any of them, I would greatly appreciate hearing from you."

Information garnered about the child-artists will be posted on the site (with the permission of the source),Giral explains, and collected for Avery's archives and the archive of the civil war presently being gathered in Spain.

Crayon Testimony to War

Giral opens the gray archival box and reaches into a sheaf of acid-free folders, plucking out No. 63. She slips the drawing from the folder, lays it on the table and studies it. The drawing is of billowy clouds in a broad, light-blue sky swarming with warplanes.

The artist drew the scene with an elementary-school child's crude tools: a pencil, a few watercolors, a thick pen and some india ink laid on a small sheet of coarse paper. But the planes are not crude; they are detailed enough to be identifiable by make and model. That they were drawn from memory is strong evidence of both the artist's skill and the searing impression the planes left on the artist's young mind.

Here, near the middle of the rectangular picture surface, are bombers: either Junkers 52s from Germany or Italian Savoia-Marchetti S.M. 81s. Supplied to General Francisco Franco's rightist forces, these bombers earned an infamous place in history for flying in the first attacks on a civilian population ever mounted from the air. One of them streaks directly at the viewer, the dark circles of its three whirring propellers like gun barrels aimed at the eyes.

Biplanes, British-made Hawkers of the Fury and Hart series, swoop right and left of the bomber. These fighters bear the red band markings of the Spanish Republic on their wings and fuselages.

"The child did this in a refugee camp called Bellús, in Spain's southeastern province of Valencia—the last to fall to the fascists—probably in late '37 or early '38, at the height of the civil war," Giral says, reading the information scrawled on the back of the drawing. "But this is one of the drawings without a name or age. This person is lost to us, one of the unknown."

This and hundreds of other works, Giral explains, were collected from the camps in eastern Spain and southern France where Spanish children had been sent to escape the war. The drawings were then exhibited in Europe and the United States to publicize the plight of the Spanish people, especially the children, and to muster support for the anti-fascist cause. The Quaker organization, the American Friends Service Committee, even published and sold a book entitled And they still draw pictures! with 60 drawings in it and a prologue written by the celebrated English author Aldous Huxley.

The Spanish children's drawings that reside in the Avery Library were a bequest from a man Giral calls "something of a mystery." That his name was Martin Vogel; that he was a lawyer; and that he has no apparent connection to Columbia but made several bequests to the school, including this one only months before he died in 1938 at the age of 59, is about all Giral knows of him.

As for Vogel's gift of the 153 drawings, Giral is sure they made up the lot that in February 1938 was exhibited at the midtown Manhattan department store Lord & Taylor. With Vogel's death not many months later, the drawings, now filed in the gray archival box, landed on a shelf in the art history department's slide library in Schermerhorn Hall. There they remained untouched for almost 40 years.

The slide librarian one afternoon in 1977 pointed the box out to George Collins, an art history professor, and asked him what she should do with it. He looked into it, saw the drawings and had them sent to Avery Library.

It was Collins himself, aware that Giral and her family fled Spain during the civil war, who told her the story of the drawings' journey from Spain to Morningside Heights during her interview for the director's job at the library in 1981. He also informed her that Harvard, where she was then chief librarian of the Graduate School of Design, had also received a small lot of 17 Spanish children's drawings from the civil war years. She returned to Cambridge and hunted them down. They, too, had been shelved and forgotten.

With her arrival at Columbia and Collins's subsequent retirement and death, Giral became the unofficial keeper of the Spanish children's drawings. The Web site she is creating for them is her way of fulfilling that responsibility, a way of ensuring that the drawings of the Spanish Civil War, and thereby the child-artists who witnessed it, are never shelved and forgotten again.