Spanish left cold over ′Franco in a fridge′ | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 19.08.2013
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Spanish left cold over 'Franco in a fridge'

A subversive sculpture of the former Spanish leader Francisco Franco has upset his supporters. It has also raised the issue of the country's handling of the legacy of the dictatorship.

When artist Eugenio Merino sold three limited edition copies of the same sculpture, each for around 30,000 euros, he was delighted. The artwork, 'Always Franco', was striking: an almost life-sized, silicon version of Spain's former dictator, Francisco Franco, dressed in a military uniform, crouching inside a large red fridge resembling those of the Coca Cola soft drink company.

"I put him inside a fridge because I thought he was still fresh, he's still present in our society," said the 37-year-old artist.

But despite the fact that it's nearly four decades since the right-wing dictator's death, Franco continues to stir strong feelings among Spaniards. And as well as drawing praise for its audacity, 'Always Franco' has been reviled, highlighting the deep divisions that the legacy of the dictator, who governed Spain from his victory in the 1936-39 civil war until his death in 1975, still creates.

Always Franco

When the artwork was first put on public display, at the ARCO international art show in Madrid in 2012, a pro-Franco organization started legal proceedings against Merino. The Francisco Franco Foundation claimed he had defamed the former head of state and sought 18,000 euros in damages.

Frozen Franco Skuptur von Eugenio Merino

Merino sought to show that Franco is still 'fresh' in Spain

In July of this year, a judge finally shelved the case, on the grounds that the sculpture was a legitimate piece of artistic expression. But the Francisco Franco Foundation is now appealing against what it believes is an unjust decision.

"These people on the left that call themselves artists or writers have a very serious problem," said Jaime Alonso, the vice-president of the foundation, in its offices in Madrid.

"They want us to believe that history was different to how it really was. They feel the need to claim that the nearly 40 years of the Francisco Franco regime were black years, of ostracism and persecution."

Alonso said the foundation, which is led by Franco's daughter, seeks to glorify the "work and ideology" of the late dictator.

It disputes the widely held view that Franco's regime was, if not fascist, then deeply repressive. Historians such as Franco biographer Paul Preston estimate that his forces killed at least 150,000 civilians during and after the civil war (Republican forces on the left are believed to have killed around 50,000 civilians during the war).

Deep divisions

Both sides in the 'Always Franco' case are unhappy at the way the memory of Franco has been handled since Spain returned to democracy in the late 1970s. For Alonso, the dictator has been unfairly portrayed as a monster; and by contrast, Merino says the country has still not come to terms with his deeply negative legacy.

"There's a huge problem here in Spain. In other countries, dictators either committed suicide or were lynched - but not here," the artist said.

"Franco died in his bed and so in a way, justice was never done. And for justice to be done you have to put someone on trial, you can't just say 'nothing happened here'. A lot of things happened."

Merino points to the amnesty given to members of the Franco regime when Spain made the transition to democracy as proof that the country has failed to face up to its violent 20th century.

In 2010, the well-known judge Baltasar Garzon sought to investigate the crimes of the Franco era. But he was suspended for overstepping his powers and the probe never progressed.

'More needs to be done'

Spain's historical memory has been a notoriously thorny issue for politicians ever since the transition. Socialist Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero (whose own Republican grandfather was killed by Franco's forces) was the first, in 2007, to tackle it through legislation.

Baltasar Garzon Gerichtsverhandlung Protest

Hundreds protested the trial of Garzon, who investigated crimes in the Franco era

He passed a law offering "moral reparation" for victims of the dictatorship and ordering the removal of public symbols honoring Franco, such as street signs bearing his name and statues of him.

But the political right criticized the legislation for stirring up the past and many on the left deemed it too vague. Historian Jose Alvarez Junco, who advised the government on the creation of the law, admits that in many areas, the legislation was "timid".

"More needs to be done," he said, "particularly in the domain of the exhumation of those people who were killed and were not properly buried. They are [in mass graves] on the side of roads."

And in many towns across Spain, street names dedicated to the dictator and his generals still stand. Perhaps most famously, a massive religious monument to Franco, The Valley of the Fallen, where the dictator is buried, still stands outside Madrid. Its existence has confounded the authorities, who are all too aware of its divisiveness.

Alvarez Junco believes that striking the right balance between offering closure to victims - or relatives of victims - of the Franco regime and avoiding a political controversy is extremely difficult.

But he points out that as time passes, there are fewer and fewer survivors of the civil war and Franco today has little meaning for many young Spaniards.

Meanwhile, back in his art studio, Eugenio Merino insists that his duty is to explore his country's past, however much that may anger other Spaniards.

"I can keep saying what I think," he said. "And that's at the heart of all this. I'm going to keep saying the things I believe, and the pressure isn't going to affect me."

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