The East End of London and Guernica

The East End of London has a long history of political activism and public displays of art. In the local area art has been used to counter fascism from the display of Pablo Picosso’s Guernica in 1939 to the creation of the Battle of Cable Street Mural (1987). Eighty years on from the Battle of Cable Street art and activism still play an important part in the East End of London.

Art and Activism in the East End of London

On the 9th October 2016 people gathered at Altab Ali Park in the East End of London to mark the anniversary of the Battle of Cable Street. The Battle happened eighty years ago on the 4th October 1936 when the British Blackshirts led by Oswald Mosley attempted to march through the Jewish District in the East End of London. Throughout the Summer of 1936 the Jewish population in the East End had been under attack from Mosley’s fascists. The then home secretary John Simon was petitioned to stop the march but he refused and instead ordered 7,000 police officers to protect the Blackshirts passage. The march was stopped by the many East Enders who turned out on the day to stand up to Mosley’s Blackshirts and the police.

A mural was created to mark the 1936 Battle. It records the powerful solidarity of local people rallying together against Mosley’s fascists. The mural is located on the wall of the former St Georges Town Hall on Cable Street. The idea for the mural was formed in 1976 by the Tower Hamlets Arts Project. Whilst under construction the mural was attacked in 1982. It was being painted by Dave Binnington. The British National Party vandalised the mural writing in white 6ft high letters: “British Nationalism Not Communisim” and “Rights for Whites” and “Stop the Race War.” Shortly after this attack Binnington left the project and the mural was redesigned and created by Paul Butler, Desmond Rochfort and Ray Walker. The mural is populated by local people. Faces were copied from newspaper photographs of those in the 1936 Battle but also from those living in the East End in the 1970s. David Rosenbery writing about he Mural in the Guardian on the 21 September 2016 highlights: “the more ethnically diverse group behind a banner on the lower left represents Cable Street’s 1970s residents.” In the 1970s and 80s racist attacks were all to common in the East End of London. By the 1970s the majority of the Jewish population had moved away from the East End, the Irish remained and increasingly the area was populated by Bangladeshis. On the 4th May 1978 Altab Ali, a Bengali machinist was murdered on his way home by racists near Whitechapel Road. It was an election day and the National Front were standing for election in 43 council seats. This attack led to protests including on the day of Altab Ali’s funeral when 7,000 people protested through London calling for the government to stop the racist attacks in East London.

Kirsty Major writing in the Independent on the 4th October 2016 eighty years on from the battle of Cable Street reflects upon the presence of the far-right today in the mainstream. She states: “Where once calls for the protection of the British way of life were consigned to furtive meetings in the back rooms of pubs, it became the clarion call of the Conservative party – and long before Brexit mania took hold.” Major makes reference to Theresa May’s rhetoric established during her term as Home Secretary committed to creating  a “hostile environment” for illegal immigrants; the UK has seen an 80% increase in immigration raids over the past five years.  Now as Prime Minister controlling immigration is top of the agenda for leaving the EU. Theresa May stated earlier in 2016:  “We are not leaving the European Union only to give up control of immigration again.” Major reports on what she calls “our own modern day versions of the Battle of Cable Street” referring to the resistance against UK Border Force immigration raids. Major highlights the activity of London based activist group Anti-Raids Network that uses social media to alert local people to the raids so they can rally at the raid location. The day of the Cable Street 80th Anniversary rally there was a raid going on in East Street, South East London, it was the fifth raid that week. Major states in her article that todays battle is: “Not protesting against far-right groups and anti-fascists stalking their old hunting grounds in the East End. But by standing up to the UK Border Force and the communities they seek to break up.”

Activism and Guernica

Pablo Picasso’s Guernica was brought to the Whitechapel Art Gallery in the East End of London in 1939. Guernica was on tour to raise funds and awareness of the Spanish Republican’s fight against General Franco’s fascist military coup. Guernica in tapestry form returned to the Whitechapel between 2009 and 2010 as part of Goshka Macuga’s The Nature of the Beast exhibition.  In the exhibition Guernica also manifested as a year long art installation and an archive. The exhibition was used to contest the 2003 US led Iraq invasion and the Afghanistan conflict highlighting the moment when the Guernica tapestry on display at the UN Headquarters was covered up during the Weapons of Mass Destruction Speech that led to the 2003 Iraq War.

Guernica Remakings Videos

Courtesy of the artist and Whitechapel Gallery Archive. Photograph by Patrick Lears.
Archival material on display in Goshka Macuga’s The Nature of the Beast (2009-10). Courtesy of the artist and Whitechapel Gallery Archive. Photograph by Patrick Lears.

In the second of the research videos on Goshka Macuga’s The Nature of the Beast (2009-10), the manifestation of Guernica as a tapestry, a year long art installation and an archive are explored. Through the creation of the exhibition extensive archival research was carried out which led to previously unrelated archives being connected. For example it was discovered that the Norman King archive donated in the 1990s is implicitly linked to the exhibition of Picasso’s Guernica at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in the 1930s. For King was a photographer and activist involved in the committee that brought Picasso’s Guernica to the Whitechapel in 1939. King also ran political workshops in the 1930s in the East End of London including classes on how to make banners, design posters and create lettering supporting activism in the local area. Leaflets from these workshops were displayed in Macuga’s exhibition (see the image above). Throughout the duration of the exhibition from 2009 to 2010 the gallery space was open to the public to book for meetings. Documentation of these meetings is now part of the Whitechapel archive, which reflects the ongoing activism still present in the East End into the 21st century.

Documentation of Picasso’s Guernica

Documentation also played an important part in Picasso’s Guernica. Notably Picasso intended that Guernica be reproduced from very early on in its creation. The photographer Dora Maar came to Picasso’s Paris studio regularly throughout Guernica’s creation. Picasso began his preparatory sketches on the 1st May 1937 and Maar visited regularly from the 11th May until 4th June 1937 photographing Guernica throughout its creation.[1] Picasso was able to see how his very large canvas worked on a much smaller scale through the medium of photography, whilst also documenting the painting’s metamorphosis – a phenomenon Picasso was interested in.[2]

Ultimately the image of Guernica circulated widely in hand held form as a postcard. Interestingly a postcard of Guernica has entered into Picasso legend. During World War Two when the Germans occupied Paris (1940-44), Nazi officers would regularly visit Picasso in his studio. The story goes that a Gestapo officer picked up a postcard of Guernica and asked Picasso: “Did you do this?” Picasso responded: “No, you did!” This story demonstrates the power of Guernica even in its hand held and mass-produced form.

[1] Concha Calvo Salanova, “Reportage sur l’évolution de «Guernica» (Photo Report of the Evolution of “Guernica”).” Museo Nacional Centro De Arte Reina Sofia. Accessed: 19 February 2017.

[2] Ibid.