On the first floor of the National Portrait Gallery, London, there is a wall whose current exhibition shows an array of political portraits by the American artist Leon Golub. The title of the exhibition is Powerplay and Golub speaks of the masks and expressionless facades that those in power nurture. The portraits are realistic but you can’t get behind them to the intentions and motivations of the powerful men depicted.
The four portraits of General Franco particularly struck me- happy, smug, old and dead. After his death in 1975 came the Constitution. A lovely young lady working at the Gallery came up and spoke to me. She was just new to the job, and her training in History of Art made her fascinating to listen to. Perhaps more fascinating though, was her personal story. She originated from the Basque Region of Spain, and she was a little taken aback to see these four portraits of Franco on her first day. Her parents and grandparents had known the harsh repression of Franco’s rule. It was a time when the Basque language was forbidden and no one was permitted to give their children Basque names. Her parents were the first generation to be free to name their children according to their ancient tradition. And this young lady’s name is Alaitz; proudly Basque.
Not even decades of repression can delete a strong and long heritage. The men in power should have seen that their hold on a country is passing: the silent, closed-eyed Franco, immobilised by death, is ended. The red lips, red no longer. The paling skin, translucent in the end. The mask of power trumped by the mask of death. But the country and its people endure.
The mountains stand and the land endures past all the dalliances of humans. The people of the soil watch spring and summer come and go again and again and know that all things are passing save the wind and rain the sun and sap the buds and berries. Those cycles are inveterate as are its people.