Munchausen in Belchite

Francesc Torres

Visual artist

Francesc Torres (Barcelona, 1948) began his artistic career at a young age, with early works that already suggested the aspiration of erasing the borders between different artistic languages. This learning soon piqued his interest in video installations. After completing his studies in Barcelona he moved to Paris and, later, to the United States, which meant a rupture with the past and a personal and artistic liberation because it enabled him to deal with issues of universal interest that at the time were prohibited in Spain because of Franco’s dictatorship. Thus, Torres evolved with the aim of turning art into an expression of freedom and a path to search for one’s own identity. He gradually defined his language. His stance against the abuses of power is very clear, as is his concern for the mechanisms of power and violence. In his works, he analyses the human origin of aggressive actions, building analogies and metaphors on forms of human behaviour. His installations, realistic and closely linked to collective awareness, continue this thematic line, as we see in this work.   

The old town of Belchite became a battlefront during the Spanish Civil War, changing hands three times. First it fell to the Fascists and later it was re-conquered by the Republican Loyalists, before finally being retaken by those who went on to win the war. There were many dead, some of whom were buried where they fell. The Loyalist attack was led by the American volunteers of the Lincoln Brigade, commanded by Robert Hale Merriman, a professor of Economics at Berkeley. He was later to die during the retreat from the battle of the River Ebro.

The old town of Belchite was never rebuilt. The government decreed that a new one be built using slave labour comprising prisoners of war from the defeated army.

In 1987, fifty years after the battle in which Merriman made his name, Terry Gilliam, founding member of Monty Python, directed a film called The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, using the old town of Belchite as a set. He needed an old European town destroyed by war and Belchite provided a ready-made solution, impossible to surpass using papier mâché, but at the same time capable of being cunningly complemented where it was needed. 

Munchausen in Belchite (Francesc Torres)

I was able to photograph the scene the day after the shoot had ended and before they could take everything away. These images show what I saw. The town looked like a cadaver wearing make-up, dressed as a clown. Incredibly realistic reproductions of buildings, ramparts and walls, made to be seen from the front and supported behind by scaffolding, had been used in various places. Artillery pieces, cannonballs, coffins, faux siege and assault machines lay around the perimeter of the town along with garbage of all kinds. Original buildings in ruins had been spray-painted to make them looked charred by fire and blackened by gunpowder. The interiors had also been painted in order to conceal the original light blue colour traditionally used in the region and to create a wallpaper effect. Old looking bric-a-brac had been added for effect. Erected in front of the church, which had been the last enemy redoubt and was attacked by Merriman and his men, was a gallows from which three nooses hung, swinging in the wind.

War as a simulacrum, history as a joke. Memory, human suffering and sacrifice desecrated by futile buffoonery over unmarked graves.

Only imbeciles take things seriously.