Luke Stegemann

In 2019, the Spanish government exhumed the remains of General Francisco Franco from the Valley of the Fallen memorial to relocate them, bringing the controversial dictator alive in national debate in a way he hadn’t been for decades. Franco’s wasn’t the only body to resurface in Spain. Of the 170,000 non-combatants – innocent people – murdered during the Spanish Civil War of 1936–38, 115,000 were killed behind nationalist lines, then buried under decades of silence. In recent years, however, the people of Spain have begun unearthing mass graves, ordering DNA tests in search of lost relatives, and hotly arguing the historical and cultural narratives of Franco’s dictatorship.

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The participation of the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War, from 1936 to 1939, was a great but overwhelmingly tragic adventure. According to Geoffrey Cox, an enthusiastic young journalist from New Zealand in Madrid at the time, it was ‘the most truly international army the world has seen since the Crusades’. Romance, bravery, and sacrifice were combined with bastardry, suffering, and humiliation, marred by often lazy and amateurish tactics, including the fatal notion that military discipline was a form of ‘class oppression’. Giles Tremlett’s richly documented new account overflows with exhilaration and alcohol, along with sabotage, treachery, and utter disorganisation. Perhaps it was the very failure of this romantic intervention that has encouraged, over the decades, a rose-tinted vision: a history, in effect, written by the losers.

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‘Our age,’ begins the epigraph to Anne Applebaum’s book Twilight of Democracy, ‘is indeed the age of the intellectual organization of political hatreds.’ This disarming quote from French writer Julien Benda dates back to 1927; how little has changed in a century. Just one generation after the triumphant ‘end of history’ – and notwithstanding the impact of Covid-19, fleetingly referenced here – Western democratic societies are prey to institutional decline, increasing distrust, violence, and hatred.

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The Stranger Artist is a finely structured and beautifully written account of gallerist Tony Oliver’s immersion into the world of the Kimberley art movement at the end of the twentieth century; the close relationships he developed over the following years with painters such as Paddy Bedford, Freddie Timms, and Rusty Peters; and the creation of Jirrawun Arts as a collective to both promote and protect the artists and their work. How these artists, under Oliver’s practical guidance, came to assume the mantle of the legendary Rover Thomas and took Kimberley art to the world provides a compelling narrative: from fascination to enthralment to disillusion. Dreams are born, bear fruit, and die. Like many a fine work of art, The Stranger Artist attracts with a brilliant surface while fascinating with its deeper layers. Behind the thrill and wisdom of the painting – so new and old, so luminous and dark – lurk the tragedies of history and dysfunctional politics. This book – how could it be otherwise? – is peopled with spectacular characters, art, and landscapes. Appropriate to this remote corner of Australia, it is full of intense colour and eccentricity, while also permeated with great sadness.

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