Just the Facts

Institution
Yale University

Year
1996

Project
Study in Spain of how various Spanish artists of different political ideologies and from different parts of Spain approached the Spanish Civil War through the visual arts

Ara H. Merjian

It is hard to believe that more than 10 years have already passed since my Mortimer Hays-Brandeis Traveling Fellowship year. In response to your letter, I can only reply with the utmost enthusiasm and gratitude with regard to my experience.

I am currently a Mellon Postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University, where I am teaching in the department of Art History. Two years after my Mortimer Hays-Brandeis Traveling Fellowship year, I applied to graduate school and pursued — as I had planned — a Ph.D. at Berkeley in the history of art. I received my doctorate in 2006, and I proudly list the Mortimer Hays-Brandeis Traveling Fellowship on my curriculum vitae as one of my major awards, one that helped build the foundations of my post-graduate education. I am applying for tenure-track positions this year.

My year in Spain researching the Spanish Civil War and aesthetics was a life-changing experience — not only from an intellectual point of view, but also on a personal level. I met friends and colleagues with whom I remain very close, and whom I see with some frequency. For example, I still collaborate with Javier Pérez Segura, a professor at Madrid’s Complutense University with whom I struck up a friendship during my Fellowship year. In 2001, he had invited me to Córdoba to speak at a conference, and this past fall I was in touch with him to request a catalogue for a show that he curated. I made a few other lifelong friends during my time in Madrid, including my roommate and other neighborhood pals. One of those friends, Soledad Guerrero, had an uncle, Demetrio, who had fought with the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. I dedicated an essay to him two years ago, after he passed away, an essay that I had researched during my time in Spain with the Mortimer Hays-Brandeis Traveling Fellowship, and one that was informed by our conversations in Soledad’s kitchen. Those kinds of personal encounters and relationships were an integral part of my year in Spain. They will stay with me forever.

From visiting the Valle de los Caídos, to researching in Barcelona archives, to visiting Guernica in the Basque country — all of these enriched my study of the topic, and none of them would have been possible without the Mortimer Hays-Brandeis Traveling Fellowship. In January 2008, the journal, Modern Painters, asked me to write an essay on artistic responses to the Iraq War on the fifth anniversary of the U.S. invasion. I visited a show of anti-war posters, and one of
them used the slogan, "No Pasarán" — the battle cry of anti-Fascist Republican partisans. This continuity with a struggle from the past, and the visual weapons used to wage it, was all the more apparent to me as a result of my work in Spain.

Knowing what I know today, I would apply for the Fellowship again in a heartbeat. It allowed me to explore intellectual topics and themes outside of the classroom, while also providing an academic rubric — not to mention financial support — to a project that might otherwise not have gelled. I would not make any changes to my proposal were I to do it over again. Part of the learning experience was realizing that the practical matters “on the ground” are often unpredictable and quite different from one’s plans on paper, however detailed and feasible they may be. Even the frustrations were positive experiences. Years later, when I lived in Italy and France for three years to research my dissertation, I had archival experience and research in a foreign language under my belt. I had already mastered one foreign language, and had learned about adapting to a foreign city, finding my feet, and settling in, while also getting work done on my own. All of those experiences made graduate school and my focus on European topics infinitely easier.

I feel extremely grateful for the opportunity that I was granted, and would love to repay, in whatever small way, the program with anything I can do to help. I can be reached by e-mail at merjian@stanford.edu.