the ARTistry of ARThistory occasionally done ARTfully

Historical Memory and the Valle de los Caidos

Posted by gninja on January 17, 2008

(Note: rushed post; I’ll come back later to clean up and round it off.  Left un-edited.  I think I mention lazy somewhere in here.)

The NY Times put up an article a couple days ago, discussing a controversial law passed in Spain, known as the “Law of Historical Memory” (does the name of that law not scare you?; it scares me). One of the monuments affected by the law:


One of the law’s clauses:

la ley establece que los escudos, insignias, placas y otros objetos o menciones conmemorativas de exaltación personal o colectiva del levantamiento militar, de la Guerra Civil y de la represión de la dictadura deberán ser retiradas de los edificios y espacios públicos. La retirada no será de aplicación cuando [..] concurran razones artísticas, arquitectónicas, o artístico-religiosas protegidas por la ley, lo cual podrá aplicar a iglesias.

(the law establishes that the emblems, insignias, plaques, and other objects or commemorative mentions of the personal or collective exaltation of military uprising, of the Civil War, and the dictatorial repression should be removed from buildings and public spaces. The disposal will not be applicable when…artistic, architectural, or artistic-religious reasons protected by the law coincide, which could be applied to churches [my translation; apologies for any errors].

So. As with most laws (I believe), the language is interesting. For one, what constitutes “exaltation”? And secondly, who decides whether artistic, architectural, or artistic-religious (?) reasons are applicable? See! Art history is political. The Valle de los Caidos (purportedly constructed by labor forced from republicans) presents a case in which those “artistic-religious” reasons apply, but the government still has decided to alter the monument’s meaning:

se regirá por las normas aplicables a lugares de culto y religiosos. Se dispone su despolitización, prohibiéndose los actos de naturaleza política [..] exaltadores de la Guerra Civil, de sus protagonistas, o del franquismo y que la fundación gestora del Valle incluirá entre sus objetivos honrar y rehabilitar la memoria de todas las personas fallecidas a consecuencia de la Guerra Civil de 1936-1939 y de la represión política que le siguió.

I’m too lazy to translate. I might come back later to do so. In any case, it calls for a “depoliticization” of the site, which consists of a prohibition of political acts there, but at the same time honoring all those who died as a consequence of the Civil War. I don’t know.

I’m actually not writing this post in order to debate the obvious issues and controversies involved (revisionism and the like). Instead, I thought I’d sketch out a few of the ways in which the Valle de los Caidos is a brilliant (political) monument. Franco certainly knew what he was doing. Or, at the very least, hired someone who knew what he was doing.

For starters, it’s located in a valley, which also figures prominently in the name. There’s nothing subtle here about its resonance with a certain very well-known Psalm.

Then there’s its placement in a carved-out hill (mountain?), reminiscent of the catacombs and early Christian martyrdom.

The arms of the facade recall St Peter’s (and, oddly enough) Hatshepsut’s tomb. I’m pretty sure the former is the allusion, but I bring up Hatshepsut because of the long tradition of embracing, funneling entrances. Although I don’t know if anyone was ever meant to enter Hatshepsut’s tomb.

stpeters.jpg hatshepsut_1.jpg

The cross atop is placed against the backdrop of the sky, giving it the appearance of hovering, ethereally, over the monumental ensemble. The resulting impression is of divine authorization.

4 Responses to “Historical Memory and the Valle de los Caidos”

  1. anna said

    the issues (a mild way of putting it) are obvious, and you’re right not to spell them out here. what’s curious for me at the moment is the larger notion of those in the present trying to alter the past for the future… an antithesis of prudence in a way, and so on.

    a little bit of a tangent… what would you think of a similar law, but one that also stipulates that things taken off must be replaced, which is quite a standard move (through history)?

  2. gninja said

    I don’t actually aim to get involved with or comment upon the laws that alter the past. They’re too many to deal with and too frequent for me to argue that they’re bad or good to any end. Every part of history is revised from the moment it’s been written.

    More importantly, observing the activities of governments that legislate how we should experience our past is far more enlightening for me than saying that they shouldn’t be doing what they’re doing. That statement has two points: 1) since I’m not an activist–certainly not the kind who goes to my representatives to have laws changed or passed (my letters and phone calls aside), how useful is it for me to render a judgment?; 2) more useful, for my part as an art historian, is to analyze *why* these laws are being passed and *how* they function– i.e. observe and comment. In this case, the Valle de los Caidos is an enormously powerful monument if only by dint of its evocative and resonant forms. If I were a revisionist, that’d be one of the first things I’d try to historically revise.

    Taken off and replaced? It sucks when what was there was good. But, hey, so long as it’s still legal for me to write about what was there…

  3. anna said

    historically revise or revive?

  4. gninja said

    Revise. The Valle is a powerful symbol and, if not supporting my faction, I’d want to revise it in lieu of destroying it. I’m not supporting the revision itself; I’m pointing out how threatening this particular monument is to those who would prefer to forget Franco ever existed.

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