Exploring hidden connections between David Bowie and the Spanish Civil War, via George Orwell, John Cornford, Tilda Swinton, and photography.
1. George Orwell
Many hardcore fans of David Bowie know that he tried to make a rock opera of George Orwell’s dystopia 1984, but was repeatedly refused permission by Orwell’s widow Sonia, who had married the ailing writer shortly before he died of TB. Bowie was able to write one song, “1984,” featured on his concept album Diamond Dogs, which described fragments of another very different, post-apocalyptic dystopian vision. These fans likely also know that three of Orwell’s books were on Bowie’s “Top 100 Books” list. The other two were his Collected Essays and his Spanish Civil War memoir Homage to Catalonia. Orwell was the only author to be represented by three volumes on the list, a sign of his central importance to Bowie.
Fewer fans seem to know that in 1992, the New York Times reported that Bowie was teaming up with director Oliver Stone to make Homage to Catalonia into a feature film, starring Bowie as Orwell. This project was never heard of again. What happened to it remains a mystery, at least so far. The obstacle was not Sonia Orwell, who had died in 1980. But why was this far less-well known work of Orwell’s important enough to Bowie for him to want to star in a movie based on it? Was it a consolation prize after his frustrating experience trying to make his version of 1984?
2. Antifascism and the Spanish Revolution
Once again, any serious fan knows that Bowie had a career-long preoccupation with—and often expressed fear and loathing of—fascism. And the Spanish Civil War began with an attempted fascist coup against the democratically elected Popular Front government, spearheaded by elements of the Army on behalf of the large landowners and the Church. Yet in over half of Spain, the coup was stopped dead in its tracks by various combinations of soldiers loyal to the Republic and impromptu workers’ militias organized by the revolutionary working-class parties, armed with whatever weapons they could lay their hands on. The Spanish rebel generals then received support from Hitler and Mussolini in the form of the most modern weapons and aircraft and 100,000 troops.
So began the war. The Western democracies sat on their hands in fake neutrality because they feared a leftist government dominated by revolutionary Socialists more than they feared the emerging fascist Axis. This turned out to be a fatal error that cost tens of millions of lives by 1945. The only international support for the fragile Spanish Republic came from the Soviet Union, which supplied it with aircraft and munitions, though never enough—and from foreign volunteers from more than fifty countries, soon organized into the International Brigades. Not surprisingly, historians today describe the war in Spain as the overture to World War II.
The young George Orwell went to Spain in early 1937 to fight as a militiaman of the POUM, a small socialist party loosely allied with his own Independent Labour Party in Britain. He discovered that a social revolution was already underway in Catalonia and the neighboring province of Aragon in northern Spain. When the Second Republic was declared and the Popular Front government took power in 1936, many landowners and factory owners fled. Peasants took over the land and farm machinery left behind, while workers took over the factories, and they formed a network of democratic collectives that kept farming and production going and also ran many small towns and villages. These efforts were mostly led by the anarchosyndicalists of the CNT-FAI, then the largest labor union in Spain and the strongest political tendency on the Spanish left. The workers were already building a new society in the shell of the old. Barcelona, Spain’s second-largest city and the provincial capital of Catalonia, was being run by a committee of representatives from the working-class parties and unions. Armed workers—both women and men—patrolled the sunny streets.
But already tension was growing between the Communist Party, numerically small but with disproportionate clout because it was part of the Soviet-dominated Communist International and could bring in Russian aid, and the longer-established revolutionary workers’ organizations. The Communist “line” was to form an alliance with the small business class, which meant putting off—in practice, reversing—the socialization of production that the workers’ collectives were already carrying out. The true goal of Soviet policy, as Orwell makes clear in Homage, was not achieving victory for the social revolution or even for the Republic, but prolonging the war until Britain and France could be drawn into an alliance against Germany and Italy. That meant putting a stop to the revolution in order to cement an alliance with the capitalist democracies.
In any case, a free cooperative commonwealth like what the Spanish collectives were building was totally different from the Russian model, in which workers were being ruled and exploited by a dictatorial police state instead of by private capitalists—a distinction that most Communists and allied leftists outside the USSR did not understand. The Soviet state under Stalin had every reason to suppress any such movement, which represented a direct challenge to its power. This was the situation when Orwell arrived and went off to fight.
Seriously wounded in combat, Orwell returned to Barcelona in May. Not long after, he found himself on the run, because the Communists in alliance with small-business conservatives and right-wing Catalan nationalists had taken over the provincial government and were conducting a brutal campaign of slander, imprisonment, execution, and assassination against the POUM and the FAI. (They falsely accused the POUM leaders of being fascist agents and murdered several of them.) This campaign ended with the slaughter of over 500 anarchists and other revolutionaries during days of bitter street-fighting. Orwell, pursued by Stalin’s agents, returned to England to tell the British Left what had happened, but neither the capitalist newspapers nor the Communists wanted the truth to come out, and he was largely ignored. This embittered him against much of the Left for the rest of his life, though he remained a libertarian socialist. His experience led him to equate Soviet-style “communism” with fascism, as basically similar forms of totalitarianism. The global victory of this system was the nightmare Orwell envisioned in 1984. Stalin was the most important model for Big Brother.
3. Franco’s Death and Bowie’s Smile
David Bowie’s fascination with the Spanish Civil War is visible only in glimpses, but he expressed his contempt for Franco and fascism clearly in a remarkable incident back in 1975. Here’s the story. In November 1975, Bowie, who had already been living in the U.S. for some time, bought satellite time from a TV station in Burbank, California for a one-hour live TV interview with the British chat-show host Russell Harty. (Bear in mind that at the time, communication satellites were few and time on them for live joint broadcasts was expensive.) Shortly before the broadcast, the station in Burbank was contacted by the Spanish government, which wanted to use the satellite time to announce to the English-speaking world that Franco, the dictator of Spain for the previous 34 years, had died, and presumably to eulogize him. The station asked Bowie to relinquish the time, offering various inducements, but he steadfastly refused. The interview went ahead, with Harty asking questions, some of them humorous, and Bowie seeming somewhat distracted and offhand and at times a little nervous, which at the time was attributed to cocaine use. Knowing the story behind the interview, it’s not hard to see in the video Bowie’s amusement at having frustrated the government of Spain and having posthumously stuck his thumb in the dictator’s cold and merciless eye.
4. War Photography: Eric Schwab and Black Star
Another even less well-known but crucial link between Bowie, the antifascist cause, and (less directly) the Spanish Civil War was through his long-time personal assistant, confidante, and traveling companion Coco Schwab. Coco is the daughter of the photographer Eric Schwab, a German Jew who became a naturalized French citizen as a young man in the late 1920s. During the 1930s, Schwab was doing mostly wedding and event photography in Paris, but he would have known Robert Capa and Gerda Taro. This extraordinary couple, Hungarian Jews by birth, traveled to Spain when the war broke out and, with incredible daring and ingenuity, essentially invented modern war photography. They snapped pictures in the thick of the action on the Republican and revolutionary side as well as of the devastation and human tragedy caused by the fascist bombing and strafing of civilians—the first time this had ever been done. Eric was drafted into the French Army in 1939 but with its ignominious and swift defeat by the Germans in 1940, found himself in a Nazi prison camp. He escaped and joined the Resistance, in which he fought throughout the rest of the Occupation.
In the Spring of 1945, with the German forces on the run, Schwab was part of a group of Resistance fighters who stormed into the French puppet government’s propaganda bureau and seized the facilities. The bureau was renamed Agence France-Presse, which soon became one of the world’s leading news agencies. Soon after, Schwab set out on a quest to find his mother in Germany, with whom he had lost contact at the start of the War. He joined an American Jewish writer, Meyer Levin, on a mission for AFP to follow the Allied advance across Belgium, then Germany, and finally Poland. There, he was among the first civilian witnesses to the horror of the death camps, starting with Auschwitz. His haunting images of the survivors, the dying, and the dead were not released by AFP for decades. Schwab did, however, find his mother in one of the camps, miraculously still alive. It now seems likely that Coco was in possession of the negatives, which she brought with her wherever Bowie and she went—including a tour of Poland, where Bowie visited the sites of at least one of the camps. Certainly Bowie made a painting from one of the images before they were released to the public.
Another group of German Jewish refugees involved in photojournalism also seem to be linked to Bowie and his work. They were Kurt Safranski, Ernest Mayer, and Kurt Kornfeld, who fled the Nazi regime and came to New York in 1935. They brought with them a wealth of knowledge and some new ideas for American mass print media. Safranski was a graphic designer and editor for the Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung (BIZ). BIZ's circulation was over one million. At BIZ, Safranski was using two or more photos placed together to create a story that made text largely unnecessary. Not only was this visually appealing, but it attracted more readers. Mayer had owned a photo agency in Berlin whose photographers had supplied pictures to BIZ. Kurt Kornfeld had been a literary agent. Together they formed Black Star Studios. BIZ had already attracted the attention of top American mass media publishers. Mayer brought the idea of a photo newsmagazine to Henry Luce, the largest publisher of the day, who owned periodicals like Time and Fortune. Luce collaborated with Black Star to produce a new weekly magazine called Life, modeled on BIZ. By the time the company was sold in 1964, Black Star had accumulated images from over 6,000 photographers, including many images of the Spanish Civil War, World War II, and their aftermath. Significantly, Robert Capa and Gerda Taro sold many of their poignant, often astonishing pictures from Spain through Black Star, including several spreads in Life. We can assume that Bowie, researching Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia with his customary thoroughness, saw these images, and many others from Spain. Maybe this association too is part of the multifaceted meaning of Bowie’s Black Star.
5. Tilda Swinton and John Cornford
David Bowie was also only two degrees of separation from another young writer who went to fight fascism in Spain, most of a year earlier than Orwell. That man was John Cornford, probably the first Englishman to go from Britain to fight the fascists. Cornford was a brilliant young organizer and poet, a great-grandson of Charles Darwin by way of his mother Frances, a well-known poet herself. Cornford was a Communist, but because he arrived several months before the formation of the International Brigades, he ended up fighting on his first tour of duty as a member of the same POUM militia that Orwell joined in the following year. By that time, Cornford was already dead, having fallen in combat on December 28, 1936, the day after his twenty-first birthday, as a member of a French battalion of the Brigades defending a town called Lopera near Córdoba. He never witnessed the Stalinist crushing of the non-Communist workers’ organizations and of working-class power in Catalonia and Aragon. In his letters and other writings, Cornford consistently though critically supported the revolutionary workers regardless of their particular political affiliation. So it seems more than possible that he would have broken with the Party had he witnessed the repression—which also included the murder of dozens of members of the International Brigades who dared to be vocal in their disagreement with Comintern policy.
After his tragic death, Cornford became famous on the British Left of the day—something of a Guevara-like revolutionary icon for his combination of heroic action, passionate poetry, and movie-star good looks. So it’s no surprise that Orwell chose to write about him in a 1940 essay, “My Country Right or Left,” in which he compared one of Cornford’s poems, “Full Moon at Tierz: Before the Storming of Huesca,” to a well-known Victorian anthem to the courage and determination of young men trained in England’s elite public schools. Orwell claimed—with admiration—that Cornford’s poem was identical in spirit to the conservative one, though politically opposite. He made the case that such virtues can survive a complete reversal of loyalties and remain valid. However, as several critics of Cornford’s writing have pointed out, the poem is actually an argument the poet is having with himself both about the Popular Front policy and about his own personal doubts and fears. So while Orwell’s claim doesn’t survive scrutiny of either Cornford’s biography or the poem itself, what matters here is that David Bowie undoubtedly read the essay and knew about John Cornford.
Bowie’s personal connection to Cornford, however, was considerably closer. Cornford’s girlfriend at the time of his death, to whom he wrote his most famous poem—one of the most celebrated English love poems of the twentieth century, in fact—was Margot Heinemann. Heinemann went on to become a professor of English Renaissance literature at Cambridge. In that capacity, she was the mentor of a student named Tilda Swinton, who later became a well-known actress. Swinton has credited Heinemann, who had remained critically loyal to the Communist Party, with radicalizing her. Bowie was a close friend of Swinton’s—so close in spirit and even appearance that Bowie chose her to wear his clothes in several fashion shoots and to play his wife in the 2013 music video of “The Stars (Are Out Tonight).” Twelve years earlier, Swinton had been present at Margot Heinemann’s funeral, where she had read aloud Heinemann’s late poem of continued grief at her loss of Cornford, “Ringstead Mill.” So Tilda Swinton is intimately familiar with John Cornford’s story and likely with his poetry as well. What are the odds that Bowie was too?
6. The Archers and “The Archer”
Finally, there is what may be only an odd series of coincidences, which brings the story to Valencia, Spain. In 1990, Bowie had invited one of his tour photographers, the Canadian John Rowlands, to breakfast. There they talked about a picture Rowlands had taken of him on his 1976 “Station to Station” tour, which Bowie called “The Archer” because his left arm is cocked back and his right arm held straight out (holding the mic) in the posture of someone drawing a bow. This pose was the signal to the stage techs to kill the stage lights. Bowie told Rowlands that this was his favorite picture of himself. In due course, this photo became the centerpiece and signature image of the 2013-2014 “David Bowie Is” touring exhibition featuring costumes, tour photos, videos, and other Bowie artifacts.
In 2013, Rowlands was in a bar in Canada when he spotted Tilda Swinton. He was figuring out how to approach her when she walked over to him, greeted him, and told him that David had a secret wish for the “Archer” image. Also in that year, David Bowie launched a wine company in Valencia called Whatever It Takes, whose products are sold to raise money for charity. Valencia is very close to the Catalan port city of Alicante (or Alacant, to give its original Catalan name). Alacant in 1939 was the last seaport in Spain still controlled by the Republic as the victorious fascist forces advanced. In the final days of the War, as Republican leaders were frantically trying to negotiate a less than unconditional surrender, thousands of refugees were gathered at the docks hoping for ships to come from neutral countries and rescue them. When it became clear that no ships would come—some had been turned back by fascist warships—hundreds of the refugees jumped into the harbor clutching their belongings as ballast and drowned. Hundreds more were interned in a nearby concentration camp at San Ysidro, where many perished from hunger and disease. The Civil War and its aftermath, in which an estimated 500,000 people died, overwhelmingly on the Republican and left-wing side—many in mass executions by Franco’s forces—has been called in a recent historical study “the Spanish Holocaust.” It’s not hard to see why.
In 2014, David Bowie put on a show of twenty-six of his paintings and drawings at a new exhibition space in Alacant, A Very Private Gallery. And in July of that same year, an artist named Miguel Angel Martínez Romero placed two stylized iron sculptures of archers at two different points on the battlements of Alacant’s Santa Barbara Castle, which overlooks the bay. The castle was once an important coastal fortification and was fought over by the Christian soldiers of the Kingdom of Aragon and the Muslim warriors of the Moroccan Caliphate of Al-Andaluz, now the province of Andalucia. Today it is a history museum, open to the public. The two iron archers are aiming their drawn bows at each other—the Christian from below, the “Moor” from above. The direct historical reference is distant enough in time to be innocuous. But the archers may also be a sly allusion to more recent events. The troops that Franco had airlifted into Spain in German cargo planes in July 1936—the first military airlift in history—were overwhelmingly Moroccans. Morocco, just across the Strait of Gibraltar, was then a Spanish colony. In which direction is David Bowie in that famous photograph aiming his imaginary bow?
Through George Orwell’s writings and through his own connections to war photography, David Bowie came to be fascinated by the Spanish Civil War. So much so, in fact, that he tried to make a movie about it with Oliver Stone. And a movie faithful to Orwell’s account in Homage to Catalonia would of necessity have gone well beyond the standard story agreed on by both liberal and Stalinist commentators—the heroic narrative of the International Brigade volunteers coming to defend democracy in the form of the Republic, with no mention of the aborted social transformation in Catalunya and Aragon. A reader as sensitive to poetry and as attentive to detail as David Bowie—arguably a poet in his own right as a lyricist—would have responded as well to the complex thoughts and feelings in the poetry of John Cornford, a revolutionary who faced his own doubts and gave his life in the fight against fascism.