Guernica: Testimony of War
It is modern art’s most powerful antiwar statement… created by the twentieth century’s most well-known and least understood artist. But the mural called Guernica is not at all what Pablo Picasso has in mind when he agrees to paint the centerpiece for the Spanish Pavilion of the 1937 World’s Fair.
For three months, Picasso has been searching for inspiration for the mural, but the artist is in a sullen mood, frustrated by a decade of turmoil in his personal life and dissatisfaction with his work. The politics of his native homeland are also troubling him, as a brutal civil war ravages Spain. Republican forces, loyal to the newly elected government, are under attack from a fascist coup led by Generalissimo Francisco Franco. Franco promises prosperity and stability to the people of Spain. Yet he delivers only death and destruction.
more about the Spanish Civil War
Hoping for a bold visual protest to Franco’s treachery from Spain’s most eminent artist, colleagues and representatives of the democratic government have come to Picasso’s home in Paris to ask him to paint the mural. Though his sympathies clearly lie with the new Republic, Picasso generally avoids politics – and disdains overtly political art.
The official theme of the Paris Exposition is a celebration of modern technology. Organizers hope this vision of a bright future will jolt the nations out of the economic depression and social unrest of the thirties.
As plans unfold, much excitement is generated by the Aeronautics Pavilion, featuring the latest advances in aircraft design and engineering. Who would suspect that this dramatic progress would bring about such dire consequences?
On April 27th, 1937, unprecedented atrocities are perpetrated on behalf of Franco against the civilian population of a little Basque village in northern Spain. Chosen for bombing practice by Hitler’s burgeoning war machine, the hamlet is pounded with high-explosive and incendiary bombs for over three hours. Townspeople are cut down as they run from the crumbling buildings. Guernica burns for three days. Sixteen hundred civilians are killed or wounded.
By May 1st, news of the massacre at Guernica reaches Paris, where more than a million protesters flood the streets to voice their outrage in the largest May Day demonstration the city has ever seen. Eyewitness reports fill the front pages of Paris papers. Picasso is stunned by the stark black and white photographs. Appalled and enraged, Picasso rushes through the crowded streets to his studio, where he quickly sketches the first images for the mural he will call Guernica. His search for inspiration is over.
From the beginning, Picasso chooses not to represent the horror of Guernica in realist or romantic terms. Key figures – a woman with outstretched arms, a bull, an agonized horse – are refined in sketch after sketch, then transferred to the capacious canvas, which he also reworks several times. “A painting is not thought out and settled in advance,” said Picasso. “While it is being done, it changes as one’s thoughts change. And when it’s finished, it goes on changing, according to the state of mind of whoever is looking at it.”
Three months later, Guernica is delivered to the Spanish Pavilion, where the Paris Exposition is already in progress. Located out of the way, and grouped with the pavilions of smaller countries some distance from the Eiffel Tower, the Spanish Pavilion stood in the shadow of Albert Speer’s monolith to Nazi Germany. The Spanish Pavilion’s main attraction, Picasso’s Guernica, is a sober reminder of the tragic events in Spain.
Initial reaction to the painting is overwhelmingly critical. The German fair guide calls Guernica “a hodgepodge of body parts that any four-year-old could have painted.” It dismisses the mural as the dream of a madman. Even the Soviets, who had sided with the Spanish government against Franco, react coolly. They favor more overt imagery, believing that only more realistic art can have political or social consequence. Yet Picasso’s tour de force would become one of this century’s most unsettling indictments of war.
After the Fair, Guernica tours Europe and Northern America to raise consciousness about the threat of fascism. From the beginning of World War II until 1981, Guernica is housed in its temporary home at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, though it makes frequent trips abroad to such places as Munich, Cologne, Stockholm, and even Sao Palo in Brazil. The one place it does not go is Spain. Although Picasso had always intended for the mural to be owned by the Spanish people, he refuses to allow it to travel to Spain until the country enjoys “public liberties and democratic institutions.”
Speculations as to the exact meaning of the jumble of tortured images are as numerous and varied as the people who have viewed the painting. There is no doubt that Guernica challenges our notions of warfare as heroic and exposes it as a brutal act of self-destruction. But it is a hallmark of Picasso’s art that any symbol can hold many, often contradictory meanings, and the precise significance of the imagery in Guernica remains ambiguous. When asked to explain his symbolism, Picasso remarked, “It isn’t up to the painter to define the symbols. Otherwise it would be better if he wrote them out in so many words! The public who look at the picture must interpret the symbols as they understand them.”
In 1973, Pablo Picasso, the most influential artist of the twentieth century, dies at the age of ninety-two. And when Franco dies in 1975, Spain moves closer to its dream of democracy. On the centenary of Picasso’s birth, October 25th, 1981, Spain’s new Republic carries out the best commemoration possible: the return of Guernica to Picasso’s native soil in a testimony of national reconciliation. In its final journey, Picasso’s apocalyptic vision has served as a banner for a nation on its path toward freedom and democracy.
Now showcased at the Reina Sofía, Spain’s national museum of modern art, Guernica is acclaimed as an artistic masterpiece, taking its rightful place among the great Spanish treasures of El Greco, Goya and Velazquez. “A lot of people recognize the painting,” says art historian Patricia Failing. “They may not even know that it’s a Picasso, but they recognize the image. It’s a kind of icon.”
“One reason Guernica is considered a treasure in terms of art history is that it seemed to provide a bridge between what were considered by some to be antithetical poles: the idea of making an effective political statement and an effective artistic statement at the same time. And this is certainly one of the achievements of the Guernica project, that it was a third space between those two antithetical poles.”
“A lot of artists, who looked up to Picasso as the exemplar of Modernist practice in painting, were interested very much in being Modernists on the one hand, and still very concerned about larger political events and the larger political arena in which they could act as artists. You can find many attempts to bring these two concerns together into the same body of work, to be really expressive and exploratory in formal terms and still be able to make a very heartfelt political statement. And to find that the great master of Modernism was able to accomplish this goal somehow – the mere fact that this kind of resolution might be possible – is what had such an enormous effect on artists in the twentieth century.”
“Guernica betrays the stereotype of the Modern as the incredibly new and the incredibly, let’s say, divorced from tradition, from academic practice. Because it’s a painting that you don’t necessarily associate with Modernism, and yet it makes an extremely important and extremely evocative Modernist statement at the same time. It did something that an academic painter would have loved to do, which is to take a very traditional theme and make it modern and make it relevant to a new time and a new audience and a new sensibility. That’s a pretty big accomplishment.”
“There was, of course, a great deal of argument about whether or not it was really as effective a political statement as it could have been if it had been more accessible, if it had been more traditional. And also whether it was really the strongest artistic statement it could have been if it weren’t so tied up with a specific political agenda.”
“When the painting was on tour around the world, there was a great deal of interest on the part of Communist Party members and Communist intellectuals about whether or not this painting would be able to communicate with anybody of the proletarian or worker class. And so you find that there was a lot of testimony collected over the years from people of the working class who saw Guernica. And they responded to it very powerfully, found that they were really just awestruck by this particular painting. It did seem to have an effect on people who you wouldn’t think very likely to react in a positive way to this kind of elitist painting.”
“The controversy about whether or not this particular painting could really be an effective political tool never leaves the painting. Picasso himself later on said that painting is not for decorating apartments; it has a much broader social importance. And I think partly the tour was about finding confirmation of that belief.”
The first composition for the mural — drawn the very day word of the bombing reached Picasso in Paris — introduced characters that had recurred in the artist’s previous work. Picasso shaped and reshaped these figures over the next weeks in a series of preliminary sketches. He brought out the vulnerability of the bull and the agony of the horse. He drew screaming women and children, perhaps inspired by his fear that harm might come to his own baby daughter. He seemed haunted by the many faces of anguish.
“Many of the drawings are much more expressive than the final painting,” says art historian Tomas Llorens. “But that is inevitable because Guernica was conceived as a very public image. And some of the meanings and emotions that you can convey on a piece of paper cannot be conveyed in a mural that is seven meters wide. For instance, in one of the drawings there is hair — perhaps the hair of Dora Maar — pasted in a kind of collage. So, you would lose that meaning in a large public mural. But in a sense the energy, the emotional energy that comes from those experiments, is not lost. Picasso was always synthesizing in each image a lot of different possibilities.”
On May 11th, just fifteen days after the bombing, Picasso stretched a canvas for the mural. It stood eleven-and-a-half feet tall by almost twenty-six feet wide – so large, he had to brace it at a slant to fit under the ceiling of his studio. He then began to lay out the images in full scale – a woman wailing over her dead child… a warrior clutching a shattered sword as his horse drops in torment to its knees… a jumble of bodies lying trampled on the ground — all part of Picasso’s vision of the holocaust at Guernica.
According to art historian, Patricia Failing, “Picasso was very properly trained in the grand tradition of painting, allegorical painting about universal themes: the horrors of war, the massacres of the innocents. Characters that typically appear in these paintings reappear in Picasso’s paintings as well. There’s usually quite clearly a suffering woman, someone who’s screaming, a woman with a child who’s been injured, or may even be dead. And to see that Picasso was able to take that traditional academic motif and actually rework it and make it relevant again to this particular time and this particular circumstance, I think is really one of his great achievements in this painting.”
With Picasso as he painted was his latest lover, Dora Maar, a young photographer who also became his collaborator. Dora’s photographs of the work in progress documented Picasso’s creative process and his struggle between political imagery and artistic merit.
As the focal point of the painting, Picasso initially drew a boldly raised arm and clenched fist, the familiar salute of the Spanish Republican forces. But the artist was dissatisfied with the obvious symbolism. Over the next several days, he created a more hopeful message of victory, the raised fist clutching stalks of grain in front of a blazing sun. Still, Picasso’s artistic sensibility was in conflict with the political sentiment of the canvas. “The stand of Picasso was quite clear,” says Llorens. “A work of art, in order to be really effective in political terms, has to work first of all as a work of art.”
A week later, the arm was completely painted over. But the center of the painting had lost its focus. To solve the problem, Picasso moved the body of the bull near to the woman and child, lifting the head of the horse to a place of prominence and making the spear more obvious. No longer was the battle between the horse and bull of the ring. Clearly, the mortal wound was caused by an act of man.
Picasso’s inventiveness took him in many directions. He added color, pattern and texture with scraps of wallpaper; he gave the weeping woman a blood-red tear. Later, Picasso removed all color. Earlier in his career, in his Blue Period, Picasso learned that using a monochromatic palette could produce powerful imagery. He suppressed color because he felt color would distract from the impact of the painting. “There was certainly a long tradition that equated line with intellect and color with emotion,” adds Failing. “And so, to not bring in the whole element of color and its associations with emotion and the sensual, in a way makes it a tour-de-force on another level.”
Picasso then sketched possibilities for the warrior. Not the heroic figure of patriotic fantasy — lifeless, broken, weapons shattered — the warrior in Guernica is no match for the engines of modern warfare. “It’s not the clenched fist with the upright arm at the end that becomes such a moving part of the picture, but the outstretched hands with the kind of flayed fingers and the deeply crossed palm,” explains Failing.
As Guernica neared completion, Picasso added a single image of twentieth century technology. According to Llorens: “In Spanish, an electric bulb is called ‘bombia,’ and ‘bombia’ is like the diminutive of ‘bomb.’ So, ‘bomba-bombia’ is a verbal poetic metaphor for the terrifying power of technology to destroy us.”
Shortly after, although he was not at all certain the mural was complete, Picasso delivered Guernica to the Spanish Pavilion.