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Guernica: 81 Years Later

Pablo Picasso’s Guernica is probably the most famous painting of the 20th century, and almost certainly the most political and polemical artwork of its time. It was painted by Picasso for the Spanish Pavilion at the International Exhibition held in Paris in the summer of 1937, or La Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques Dans La Vie Moderne, to give that occasion its proper name.

The International Exhibition had long since been planned, well before Spain’s fascist generals launched an attempted coup on July 18th, 1936 against the democratically elected government of the left wing Popular Front, which had narrowly won the Spanish General Elections in February 1936.

It was this failed coup, spearheaded by fascist generals like Mola and Franco, which led to the Spanish Civil War, which ended only in April 1939 with the eventual victory of Franco’s fascist forces, backed by Adolf Hitler and Mussolini, and the exile and death of hundreds of thousands of Spanish Republicans.

So that, by the time The International Exhibition took place in the summer of 1937, the Spanish Civil War had been raging for almost a year, and Madrid was eight months into what would be a two-and-a-half-year siege, during which a people’s army held out against Franco’s forces, after the Republican Government had given up the Spanish capital for lost, decamping to the relatively safer location of Valencia in November in 1936.

The Republican Government, aware of Picasso’s political sympathies and his loyalty to the Republic – contrasting with his fellow artist Salvador Dali – sent an official delegation to Paris, where Picasso lived, and, seeing a chance to showcase the modern Spain which the Republic represented, commissioned him with an enormous painting for a space in the Spanish Pavilion which measured approximately 3.5 metres by 7.75 metres.

Picasso was initially somewhat reluctant to work on such a huge scale but soon came around to the idea, seeing the benefits for the besieged Republic in a Spanish Pavilion which would also boast works by Joan Miró and Alexander Calder. Picasso had a few ideas which he had outlined in a series of sketches entitled Dreams and Lies of Franco, but what he might have eventually painted had History not intervened is really anybody’s guess.

Exactly 81 years ago this week, on the 26th of April, 1937, just after Picasso had agreed to do the commission, Hitler’s Condor Legion bombed the small Basque town of Guernica into rubble on Franco’s orders, introducing a new kind of warfare hitherto unknown to humankind: the carpet bombing of a town and its civilian population, terror from the air as a means of warfare, with death and destruction raining down from the sky.

Hitler’s Blitzkrieg, the US carpet bombing of Cambodia and Vietnam, or the mass Allied bombing campaign of Dresden and other German cities during the Second World War, to which Kurt Vonnegut’s wonderful Slaughterhouse Five stands testament, are all examples of what was first tried out on the Basque towns of Durango and Guernica in the Spring of 1937.

Franco’s choice of Guernica for this new form of warfare – which has been put into practice by almost all of the major world powers since then, most recently in Syria – was no accident. Guernica was never a military target, but it was and still is the spiritual home of the Basque people, with its oak tree, the Guernikaka Arbola, the symbol of Basque traditional civic and political rights.

Around three hundred people died in the bombing, which took place on market day, but this terrible war crime soon established itself as a symbol of fascist barbarity, in no small part thanks to British journalist George Steer, who documented the terrible atrocity and announced it to the world, though without Picasso’s monumental painting, it might well have been forgotten by now.
For on hearing the news of the destruction of Guernica, which Franco’s fascist propaganda machine tried to blame on the very Basques themselves, Picasso immediately set to work. In just one month he painted Guernica, this astonishing painting which hangs today in Madrid’s wonderful modern art gallery, El Museo Reina Sofía, though which at the time of the Paris International Exhibition, largely went unremarked.

Furthermore, in what must be one of the most illuminating set of photographs of an artist at work, Picasso’s then lover, Dora Marr, carefully recorded the great artist at work with her camera, documenting Picasso’s progress with the painting.

Following the end of hostilities in Europe, Picasso refused to set foot in Spain ever again so long as Franco remained in power, and opted to deposit Guernica in the MoMA, the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Still, for the next decade or two, Picasso’s vast canvass was exhibited widely throughout Europe and the Americas, used to raise funds for Spanish Republican refugees from Franco’s reign of terror. It soon became a world-famous icon against fascist barbarity and the horrors of war, seriously ruffling the feathers of Franco’s diplomatic corps wherever it travelled, a permanent thorn in the side of a fascist regime which, by the 1960’s, was trying to curry favour with the international community in the new Cold War climate.

Such is the power of Guernica as a symbol that a tapestry copy hangs in the corridor of the UN Security Council in New York. As Gijs van Hensbergen tells us in his illuminating book Guernica: The Biography of a Twentieth-Century Icon, this tapestry was covered over with a blue cloth in the run up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, hiding it from public view.

The excuse given at the time by a UN spokesman was that a blue canvass would make a better backdrop for the television cameras, though everybody knew that the real reason behind the move was that US President George W Bush, British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, and Spanish Presidente Jose María Aznar were about to invade Iraq on the basis of a cooked up dossier documenting non-existent Weapons of Mass Destruction, and were all set to unleash the same campaign of terror and barbarity from the sky on defenceless civilians which Picasso had denounced and decried in his painting.

Following Picasso’s wishes and in line with his instructions, Guernica was eventually housed in Spain, once Franco had died and democracy had been restored, initially to an annex of the Prado Museum, the Casón del Buen Retiro, in 1981. Such is the polemical and explosive nature of this painting, and so bound up is Picasso’s name with the Spanish Republic, that it was originally exhibited behind a bullet-proof glass screen, watched over by Guardia Civils armed with machine guns.

In 1992, with democracy consolidated in Spain, the painting was rehoused in the newly inaugurated Reina Sofia Modern Art Museum, the bullet-proof screen removed and the armed guards despatched, where it continues to attract audiences from all over the world today.

But as William Faulkner once wrote, “the past is never dead. Sometimes, it hasn’t even passed”. Just this month in the Spanish Senate, the second chamber of the Spanish Parliament, Mariano Rajoy’s PP used their majority to reject a motion put forward by Spain’s PSOE to set up an international congress on the bombing of Guernica, and the appointment of committee of international historians to fully investigate the massacre.

The arguments put forward by the PP to block the motion are the same arguments used by the Spanish right-wing any time the losers of the Spanish Civil War, Republican Spain and their heirs and descendants, seek any kind of symbolic redress for the terrible crimes of Franco and his followers; namely, that the Spanish Civil War saw atrocities on both sides. Which may be true, but simply misses the point entirely.

And as the barrel-bombs rain down on the poor people of Syria and Iraq and who knows where next, one thinks of Pablo Picasso and Guernica, and the power of art – some art, some of the time – to change the way people see the world. To provoke, unsettle and challenge government and the State when it decides to frivolously lead us into another war, into more bloodshed and conflict, almost invariably unleashed from the sky.

Or as Picasso himself put it, “a painting isn’t made to decorate rooms. It’s an offensive and defensive instrument in the war against the enemy…”

©Douglas Stuart Wilson, April 26, 2018.

Comments (9)

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  1. Alasdair Macdonald. says:

    An informative piece, which is always worth repeating from time to time.

    It might be worth referring to the town by is Basque name of ‘Gernika’.

  2. Josef Ó Luain says:

    Gernika, for sure. Make an effort to catch the wee train from Bilbao, you’ll be glad you did.

  3. C E Ayr says:

    Magnificent artwork, heart-rending tale.
    I wrote a short piece on this just last year:

  4. SleepingDog says:

    Between the end of World War 1 and the Spanish Civil War, an attempt was made to make aerial bombing of civilians an international war crime. However, the draft of the 1923 Hague Rules of Aerial Warfare were apparently opposed by the UK and to a lesser extent France, who wanted to continue their policies of “colonial air policing” (basically bombing defenceless villages for heinous crimes such as non-payment of taxes), and their geographically-large imperial provinces made aerial terror-bombing the most cost-effective solution.

    I don’t know if this is an accurate copy but it contains clauses on civilian targets:

    “Aerial bombardment for the purpose of terrorizing the civilian population, of destroying or damaging private property not of a military character, or of injuring non-combatants is prohibited.”

    and so forth.

    If the rules had been agreed, it may or may not have deterred bombings like Guernica. Only in 1977 was Protocol I added to the Geneva Conventions “prohibiting the deliberate or indiscriminate attack of civilians and civilian objects, even if the area contained military objectives, and the attacking force must take precautions and steps to spare the lives of civilians and civilian objects as possible”.

    The victors of World War 2 were not in a rush to pass retrospective condemnation on their own war crimes of aerial bombing to kill and terrorize civilian populations.

  5. Douglas says:

    Thanks for the comments.

    Alasdair and Joseph:

    Picasso entitled the painting Guernica, and the article is about the painting after all…

    As for the town itself, Guernika? Fine by me, though I don’t speak Euskera and nor did Picasso.

    I should say I’ve yet to come across any Scot writing in English who refers to Glasgow as Glaschu or Inverness as Inbhir Nis or Dundee as Dùn Dèagh, which are the original names of these towns in Scottish Gaelic after all.

    90% of the place names of Scotland are Gaelic in origin, and the Scots never refer to them in their original form when they write English, ever…

    … yet they are very quick to get all sensitive over Guernica spelt with a or with a k… something of a paradox I would say.

  6. mince'n'tatties says:

    Engrossing, although to be perfectly frank I think the Spanish Civil War was even more shaded than the painting. Three times more servants of the church were murdered than during the French Revolution Jacobin Red Terror.
    Anyhow, the painting….
    I do ‘get’ why it was done in black gray and white. What I don’t fully understand is why it was done in the cubism style. Why not life style which would have pushed his anger out to an even wider understanding audience?
    Picasso could do life style quite brilliantly, so a wee bit perplexed.

    1. Mathew says:

      I think the reason Picasso used black,grey and white was because of time limitations and size. By reducing the palette to just three colours he could dodge the difficulties of harmonising/balancing colours and concentrate instead on getting the composition right and extracting maximum expressive power from the figures, horse and bull.
      What you call life style I would call realism or representationalism. I don’t agree that it would be more powerful done that way. Picasso’s distortions and dislocations of form and space are a means to express his full horror of war and cruelty.
      (I’ve never seen the painting for real but I suspect it looks a lot better than the above reproduction – some subtlety has been lost, it looks like someone’s gone over the drawn/linear work with a black pen to make it more contrasty. We also lose the awesome scale of the original).

      1. mince'n'tatties says:

        Appreciated your thoughts.

  7. SleepingDog says:

    From the article’s anecdote, perhaps it would be helpful to have a live webcam trained on the peace-oriented artworks of the UN Security Council headquarters. Oh-oh, they’re covering another one up!

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