Both responded strongly to Spain’s civil war and early fight for democracy. But Orwell was willing to face – and tell – the truth
George Orwell was no great art lover. In Homage to Catalonia, his book on the Spanish civil war, he makes scathing remarks on Barcelona’s ‘hideous, modernist cathedral’ – by which he means Gaudi’s Sagrada Família , neither ugly, nor straightforwardly modernist, nor a cathedral. In a famous essay on Salvador Dalí, he portrays modern art as a decadent, amoral, selfish business.
I don’t know if he was even aware of Joan Miró, a far more likable modern artist by Orwell’s moral criteria, or of his poster Aidez L’Espagne! , which expressed the Catalan painter’s passion for the republican cause in Spain. But these two men and their responses to revolution and war in the 20th century make a fruitful comparison at this moment in the 21st.
In 1930s Spain, a democratic republic was trying to sweep away centuries of monarchical and Catholic absolutism. But Spanish democracy came under attack from a nationalist military revolt led by General Franco. Idealism did not defeat guns: Franco went on to win.
Miró, like Picasso , reacted with deep emotion to the plight of Spain. His paintings see the violence of civil war in an old shoe, in the prongs of a fork, in a colossal woman. Like Goya , he probes the horrors of a society tearing itself apart. But Miró and Picasso were not themselves fighting in Spain, and their support for the republican cause was not complicated by any investigation of its failings.
That is why, although the Spanish civil war generated some of the greatest art of the 20th century, if we want the real lowdown on Spain we will always go beyond images to a work of journalism. The more I think about it, the more incredible it seems that Homage to Catalonia got written. Only Orwell could have written it, because no one else was at the same time idealistic enough to join the militias and fight in Spain yet honest enough to anatomise in such ruthless detail the lies and manipulation that let the left cripple itself.
Today, we are all Joan Miró. We express loud and forthright support for democratic revolts across the Middle East . But what next? If it all ends in a democratic utopia without too much bloodshed, we will register our delight. Rightly so. But what if Gaddafi’s bloodcurdling words  mark a gorier stage in this regional revolution?
At that point, it would not matter how many fine words were spoken in support of fine ideals. Instead the world would – does – need new Orwells, ready to fight for justice but also to face and tell the truth, however uncomfortable. If you have not read Homage to Catalonia, read it. If you have, why not read it again? It is one of the truly essential modern books.
As published in Guardian