Facing War: Kati Horna’s Portraiture Experiments and the Spanish Civil War

Her face weary and wary, the mother stands with her one foot hoisted onto a chair, forming a support out of her body for her nursing infant. Her hair is neatly parted and combed back; her dark dress has a pretty polka-dot pattern under a prosaic striped apron. The mother’s right hand supports her full breast as she nurses the baby and the baby’s much smaller infant hand grips the mother’s middle finger. Both mother and baby look healthy. What captures the viewer’s attention, though, is the pale orb of the mother’s breast emerging almost impossibly from her polka-dotted chest, the baby’s head nearly the same size and shape. 

Kati Horna’s photography during the Spanish Civil War was like this: away from the front lines, directed at subjects that reveal the cost of the total war, with a touch of Surrealist style that often causes the viewer to startle and pause and look again. Horna’s faces are at once universal (a mother and infant, in this example) and yet also jarring and resist interpretation; her finely-tuned eye actively looks for interesting faces or ordinary poses that are just a bit unsettling. Although Horna did go to the front and took some typical war photographs, the most striking of her images tend to be of the home front; she seemed to find the disturbed domestic scenes more generative for her art. Her photographic war representations are informed by a feminist gaze: showing all that is at stake while leaving the war’s overt violence and soldiers’ heroism out of the frame. Instead of centering or celebrating masculine heroics, Horna uses photography to underscore that the face of the Spanish war is all Spaniards – the generations in peril, the future of the nation. Horna focuses on portraits of ordinary Spaniards, placing their faces in other contexts using photographic manipulation, and in so doing, brings in the war that is otherwise only haunting the images. In her work from Spain, Horna complicates our critical understanding of modernism by showing how Surrealism and portraiture are linked as vital elements of experimentation, and how both might be inflected through a feminist lens.

In this photograph, for example, the war is not present in any evident way. No airplanes are overhead; there is no evidence of destruction. This photograph is not about war in the same way that Migrant Mother by Dorothea Lange is not about the Depression: the viewer knowing the context for the photograph is everything. This could be a variation on the Madonna and Child – as is often the visual allusion for a mother and infant portrait – but Horna makes it surreal by capturing the breast in full view and in an almost inhumanly spherical form. It is perfect. It is monstrous. The mother looks worried. And the infant is completely dependent on her.


Kati Horna (1912-2000), Surrealist Photographer

     Kati Horna was born Katalin Deutsch in 1912, in Budapest, Hungary, to a financially comfortable Jewish family.[1] She was childhood friends with fellow Hungarian and Spanish Civil War combat photographer Robert Capa, and the two studied together in Budapest.[2] When Horna left Spain after 1939, she permanently resided in Mexico after a brief stint in Paris with her Spanish husband José Horna, whom she met during the war. In Mexico, she continued being a professional photographer, and joined the expatriate artist community. Horna further developed her work in Surrealist photographic experiments, forming part of the Surrealist triangle with fellow artists Leonora Carrington and Remedios Varo.[3] Despite such a prolific career in Mexico, Horna’s Spanish Civil War photographs really only entered into public knowledge in 1979 when, at the age of 67, she donated them to Spain’s Ministry of Culture. In an environment focused on the men photographers of the war – her good friend Robert Capa, for instance – it is not surprising that her contributions for mostly Spanish and Catalonian magazines and war posters would be sidelined and then forgotten for much of the twentieth century. Horna’s many images of Spain at war remained practically unknown until 1992, when the University of Salamanca displayed her donated collection of photographs in an exhibition. She died in 2000.

In 1936, Horna went to Spain to cover the war, finding work in Barcelona and its environs. Barcelona is the capital city of Catalonia, which had experienced more autonomy in the Second Spanish Republic (1931-1939), with a recognition of the Catalan language and more self-governance; it was one of the last regions of Spain to fall to the Nationalists. The Spanish Civil War was unique in the history of war photography: cameras had evolved to be small and portable, with a technical ability to capture action sequences that had not existed in previous conflicts. In addition to their portability, they had become (relatively) affordable and did not require extensive, elaborate training to operate. Unlike many of her fellow war photographers (including, most famously, Capa), Horna was not as preoccupied with capturing the “action” sequences of war photography that caught the eyes of photojournalists. On the contrary, Horna turned her attention to the effects of the war on women, children, and other non-combatants on the home front. 

During 1937, she worked for the Comité de Propaganda Exterior de la Confederacíon Nacional de Trabajadores (Propaganda Committee of the National Worker’s Confederation); she also contributed images and worked for the Republican magazines Umbral, Tierra y Libertad, Tiempos Nuevos, Libre Studio, and Mujeres Libres.[4] (These can be loosely translated as Threshold, Land and Freedom, New Times, Free Studio, and Free Women.) Horna brought a highly-wrought modernist aesthetic to her work. Trained in the Bauhaus school, and having previously been associated with the poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht and painter and photographer László Moholy-Nagy in Berlin, as well as the Surrealist school in Paris, she used technical methods such as superimposition and the layering of photographs to create photomontages, defying the representations of space and time typically found in war photography and portraiture.

Surrealism as a whole is hard to define as it was not an organized intervention, but as a loosely-grouped aesthetic movement partly preoccupied with sexual desire and psychoanalysis, (and also distinctly Marxist), Surrealism faced challenges to its ability to represent what was happening in Spain as famous Spanish Surrealists like Joan Miró and Salvador Dalí endeavored to paint the war. One difficulty was the breakdown of the body and civilization as wrought by aerial bombardment and total war. In Surrealism, bodies – and especially women’s bodies – are often central to the artist’s endeavor to delve into psychoanalysis. Robin Adele Greely in Surrealism and the Spanish Civil War explains the Surrealist project and its preoccupation with women: “The gendered body proved crucial time and again for this reappraisal [of linking sexuality, politics, and representation] as that site where the violence and confusion of private sexuality might become the mode for addressing the chaos (ideological or physical) of the world at large.”[5] For Surrealism, then, the body generally is a site where the public and the private merge and can represent the turmoil within and without. By “the gendered body,” Greely refers to Surrealism’s frequent aesthetic representations of the female form in its nakedness and the goal to represent sexual desire as a primal, psychoanalytic urge.


“El facismo es…”: Horna’s Portraits of Spain at War

In the intense setting of Barcelona at war, Horna’s production at the camera and her ability to manipulate images via photocompositions and photomontages were particularly useful for propaganda posters.[6] The second image under examination is a poster created for Catalonian viewers by Horna for the Federación Anarquista Iberica (FAI). This organization allied itself with the Confederación Nacional de Trabajo to form the CNT-FAI, a powerful anarchist workers’ group in Catalonia. The poster is in black and white and features the name of the FAI written out across the top with “El facismo es…” (Fascism is…) written out across the bottom. Horna has signed the poster in the bottom right corner.

In between these texts, there are layers of images: a destroyed, bombed out room with rubble and broken objects; an old woman whose face and hands are the only parts of the body we see; the portrait of a toddler’s face just alongside the old woman’s face, almost forgotten. It is difficult to distinguish what images of the poster belong with what, but it does seem clear that the faces of the old woman and the child, floating and bodiless, were not actually in the room when it was bombed. The faces are like ghosts – these generations, presumably killed in the aerial bombs, will haunt Spain if the fascists win.

The poster is a palimpsest of photographic images and text, as Horna layered more than one photograph to create the stunning and devastating final, composite image. The old woman, in white relief against the dark center of the poster, grabs the viewer’s attention as she looks out to the camera. Her face is turned, but we see her eye appealing to the camera and the viewer, and the strain of age and other stresses on her forehead. The hands – supposedly hers – clutch at the air and her left hand fades to gray, blending in with the background as yet another object, potentially destroyed. The old woman and the child are disembodied and super-imposed onto the other image. This disembodying decreases their potential association with war victimhood because it removes them from the present and places them into an indeterminate time and space. They have no bodies to injure; they float like ghosts, haunting the spaces. As one layer of the poster suggests, this destruction has already happened. Are they dead? In one sense, they could be anybody’s grandmother, anybody’s child; in another sense, the poster does not provide the viewer with enough information or allow the images of the child and old woman to be full enough to grip the viewer’s attention. 

The text is a vital element of this poster. It is a purposeful choice to place the two political ideologies on opposite ends of the poster and in contrasting fonts, to emphasize their opposition and difference. The text frames the images, for the images seem to answer the text, creating a relationship of call-and-response. “El fascismo es…” means “fascism is…”, but what it is exactly is perhaps unclear. The superimposed images confuse and overwhelm the viewer, perhaps deliberately. Because the viewer is likely to be Spanish and experiencing the civil war firsthand, the propaganda multiplies the consequences of fascism. Fascism, for those opposed to it and certainly for the CNT-FAI, signifies all these things: the destruction of the domestic space, a destruction that conflates the public and private spheres; the elimination of a generation or two, for there are no adults who are not elderly in the photograph; the equating of humans as nothing more than objects to be destroyed. The poster accumulates these signifiers. Even with all its layers and potential meanings, the poster is clear that fascism means the destruction of the past, the present, and the future.

The modernist face, for Horna, is not necessarily a Cubist portrait or a Surrealist or psychoanalytic representation, but it is one where the implied meaning is not straightforward. The poster, and the portraits within it, are all about the uncertainty of facing war and resist easy interpretation. The figures themselves are incomplete, fragmented into representative parts – heads and hands. One assumes that the hands belong to the old woman, but one does not know for certain. The child, peeking out from behind the older woman, almost blends in with the destruction of the ceiling and is noticed only at a second glance. It is telling that no other human figures are portrayed in this poster – Horna chose to skip a generation or three with just the old woman and the child being present. It is also telling that the figures are passive, like the tipped-over chair. Since all of them – the figures, the objects in the room – are targets of destruction, all are objectified, transformed by their potential to be broken to bits like the bricks in the lower-right corner. Although they are signifiers for the very common humanity that appeals to the viewer, given their fragmented bodies, this humanity of the old woman and the child is potentially disassembled.

Knowing the Surrealist preoccupation with desire and the female figure, Horna uses her position as the meaning-maker and photographer to resist Surrealist sexism and represent the vulnerability of the war’s victims. The old woman and the child are not sexualized, desired, or “gendered” in the Surrealist vein as Greely describes it. If anything, Horna’s representation here of gendered bodies is through the lens of their vulnerability, their fragility: their humanity. These bodies are not sexualized bodies depicted as a means of engaging with subconscious desire, and yet they are Surrealist, through their fragmentation – indeed, their disembodiedness – and work strongly against the body as a site through which political meaning can be made.

One would not necessarily call the images of the old woman and the child on this poster portraits, but in looking through Kati Horna: Fotografías de la guerra civil Española (1937-1938), I located the original series of portraits of the old woman in the negatives section of the book.[7] I have not been able to identify with certainty which photograph of the old woman Horna used to make the photomontage. As she roamed Spain taking pictures for the Spanish magazines, Horna enjoyed taking candid portraits of Spaniards (she often has several shots of the same figure), and all seem to be refugees or ordinary Spaniards going about their business amidst the war. This old woman is a particularly fine example. In the series of negatives included in Kati Horna: Fotografías de la guerra civil Española (1937-1938), she stands in a field. Her head is wrapped in a dark scarf, and she wears an apron over simple peasant clothes. The old woman gestures; she smiles; she seems to express skepticism. She is speaking to someone out of the frame. Horna photographs her mostly from a lower angle, making the old woman seem larger and more powerful, and experiments with the middle distance versus close-up. It is clear that Horna is trying to capture her portrait, emphasizing the wrinkles on her aged brow, and the old woman’s dynamism. Unlike the mother who opened this blog post, Horna leaves her experimentations for later, preoccupied in this series with capturing the old woman’s facial expressions. In the series, Horna clearly is trying to capture the woman’s face; in the photomontage, Horna is trying to say something with that face: these are the stakes of destruction. These are the people destroyed in war, looking at you, the viewer. 


Rubble and Blown-apart Buildings: Another Face of War

As I researched Horna’s photographic production from the war, I found the original background for the poster, as well. Unbraiding the layers of the photomontage reveal how creative Horna had to be to achieve this desired surreal effect and looking at the original ‘background’ is no different. In the original photograph, the tipped-over chair is the only object still intact in the image and so one notices it immediately. As a whole, the photograph is much brighter, and as a result the rubble and exploded walls have more details. In the poster, the contrast has been heightened so that everything is darker – the chair captures the attention of the viewer because the light gleams off its angles. Horna plays with the lighting in the poster to underscore the darkness of war in general, its bleak effect on once-stable structures. In the original, the destruction is more striking because one can see clearly how this indoor space has been totally destroyed. The viewer does not quite know that this is a domestic sphere – a chair is the only distinguishable object in the ruins, tipped over. This private space has fallen apart through what is likely shelling or aerial bombardment. The Spanish Civil War was the first conflict in Europe to feature extensive and systematic aerial bombardments from airplanes and urban shelling; foreigners were shocked at the effect of these military tactics on the integrity of domestic spaces. War photographers such as Robert Capa and German Gerda Taro – and of course, Kati Horna – often turned to capturing the destroyed, gutted-out buildings as another type of “face of war” for foreigners. Horna helped to originate a visual lexicon of war that would continue on in the twentieth century, immortalized during the Blitz or in the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and onward. 

Contrary to the appearance in the poster, where there is a sense of claustrophobia and a dark, cell-like room, what is highlighted in the original photograph is the sheer openness and exposure of these indoor rooms. The pile of roofing tiles in the bottom right, which one supposes to be a third photograph layered into the poster, actually belongs to this photograph. The original photograph belongs in the documentary tradition; but placed in the composite image with cropping, Horna creates propaganda.

Horna’s faces of the Spanish Civil War connote Surrealist experimentation and feminist propaganda against fascism, underscoring for both Spaniards and foreigners alike how much they have to lose in this war. 


Laura Hartmann-Villalta is a feminist Latina scholar whose research lies at the intersection between women’s lives, visual culture, human rights, and war. She is currently revising a book manuscript entitled She, Too, Went to Spain: Women Witnessing the Spanish Civil War in Photography and Writing.

Hartmann-Villalta has written entries on US women war journalists for American National Biography Online and the engaged humanities piece, “How I Talk about Activism without Talking about Activism,” for Modernism/modernity’s Print Plus. With Rebecca Colesworthy, Hartmann-Villalta collates an annual list of publications from contingent literary studies faculty for Contingent Magazine. Featured last December on the Pedagogue podcast, Hartmann-Villalta believes mindfulness and reflection is key to mastering transferrable skills in the college writing classroom.

Hartmann-Villalta serves on the MLA’s Committee on Contingent Labor in the Profession and runs a special interest group on modernism and pedagogy for the Modernist Studies Association. At all levels, Hartmann-Villalta is dedicated to the shared interests of tenure-track and contingent faculty faced with catastrophic financial cuts across American higher education.

Hartmann-Villalta is a lecturer at Johns Hopkins University.


  1. Naggar, Carole. “Kati Horna: A Surrealist in the Spanish Civil War.” Time, August 20, 2014. https://time.com/3811407/kati-horna-spanish-civil-war/. 

  2. Pelizzon, Lisa. Kati Horna: Constelaciones De Sentido (Mexico: Sans Soleil, 2015). 

  3. For more on this expatriate and Surrealist network in Mexico, see Moorhead, Joanna., Arcq, Teresa., Raaij, Stefan van. Surreal Friends: Leonora Carrington, Remedios Varo and Kati Horna (London: Lund Humphries, 2010).

  4. García Krinsky, Emma Cecelia. “La Fotografía: Un Acto Sensible.” In Kati Horna: Recuento De Una Obra, (México: Fondo Kati Horna, CENIDIAP-INBA, 1995), 174. 

  5. Greely, Robin Adele. Surrealism and the Spanish Civil War. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), 6.

  6. These terms can be used interchangeably, although photomontages place Horna’s work within the tradition of photographic Surrealism with Moholy-Nagy.

  7.  (I have not been able to find the original photograph of the child yet.)