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Humans · Arts

The anniversary of an iconic anti-war masterpiece

June 09th, 2017
in:Humans, Arts
by:Pablo Pérez Álvarez
located in:Spain
tags:Guernica, Pablo Picasso, Queen Sofia Museum, World War

‘Guernica’, the iconic painting by Pablo Picasso, turns 80 this year. The Queen Sofia Museum celebrates the anniversary with an exhibition exploring the Spanish artist’s evolution amidst the surge of Nazism and fascism.

 ‘Guernica’, painted between May and June 1937, depicts the terror of the bombing by the Nazi airforce against the civilian population in the eponymous Basque village in a test bed of what it will implement in the World War II.

The piece, which became one of the most resonant images of the twentieth century, resulted in the transformation of a painter who known worldwide as the creator of cubism, whose paintings defined by optimism, bright colours and set in domestic and private scenes. Quite the contrary of ‘Guernica’.

But after 1925, the painter went through a personal and artistic crisis, fed by the historical turmoil he was witnessing, particularly the Civil War in his country, which ended with the defeat of the democratic Second Republic by the military dictator Francisco Franco.

In the beginning of 1937, the republican government commissioned him to paint a wall painting upholding the Republic to display in the Spain’s pavilion for an imminent International Exposition in Paris. He was not convinced of being the best choice for that job. He said: ‘I’m not really at all sure I can do the kind of picture you want’, claims the British art historian Timothy Clark, one of the curators of an exhibition, ‘Piety and terror in Picasso: the way to Guernica’, displayed in the Queen Sofía Museum in Madrid (house of the painting since 1992) from the 4th April to 4th September.

“You can understand his doubts: he is a private artist, he’s never worked on a large scale in a public arena”, explained Clark. “He’s certainly not a political artist up to that point. But he did it in the end. And of course, he was partly inspired by the moment. And by his own horror and outrage at what was actually happening”.

For several weeks, Picasso doesn’t find a motif for his painting. But then, in April 26th that year, the German airplanes, bombed Guernica.

That air raid wasn’t the first one during the Spanish Civil War and, therefore, in the History, against a civil population. Madrid and Durango, another Basque village, had already suffered the bombs of the Condor Legion, the military force sent by Adolf Hitler to help Franco’s insurrection. But its proportion, its effects and the symbolism of Guernica made it the big testing ground for the Nazi army of what would come soon, during the Second World War.

The attack happened on a Monday, the market day, when the town was most crowded. For over three hours, the German aircraft, supported by Mussolini’s Italian airplanes, launched at least 31 tons of bombs over Guernica. The village, that had then around 7,000 inhabitants, didn’t have any strategic value for Franco’s rebel forces. Only a bridge and an arms factory could be considered as military targets, but these were not touched by the bombs.

However, the moral effect on the Basque population was devastating. Guernica was a symbolic village for the Basque people as it was there, under an oak, where the Basque govern used to assemble and where the Basque ruler, fist, and the Spanish ones, later, vowed their respect to the people’s freedoms.

The raid was sectioned in three stages. First, the bombardiers dropping bombs to destroy the roofs of the buildings. Then the fighters passed over strafing those persons who came out into de open trying to run away. In fact, many victims died in the outsides of the village or in the road shot by the fighters’ gun machines. Finally, they dropped incendiary bombs over the roofless buildings.

It is known that 271 buildings (85% of the village) were ravaged by the bombs and the fire. But it’s not clear about the number of victims. The Basque government said then there had been 1,654 deceased and 899 injured. But the official figure nowadays is still 156 mortal victims, as the Franco forces, that seized Guernica three days after the bombing, tried to erase the evidence of the slaughter. They even tore pages of the municipal registration of deaths out.

As a matter of fact, the news about the brutal bombing had such an impact worldwide that Franco tried to disassociate himself from it by all means. First, he said that Guernica had been set on fire by the communists during their withdrawal. When this lie was indefensible, he alleged that he didn’t give the order and the German forces didn’t inform him about their plans.

But these efforts were futile and Guernica bombing went down in history as an emblem of Franco’s regime, Nazism and fascism’s ignominy and brutality. Picasso played a part in getting people to understand these with his masterpiece, which also later became a symbol of war and air bombings horror.

The painting, measuring 7.75×3.5 meters and painted in black, white and a scale of greys, represents in the cubist style a crying woman holding a dead baby, a man dismembered by bombs, a wounded horse, and some buildings on fire with a woman burning alive. On one side, the figure of a bull representing brutality.

Instead of painting the usual heroic scene to depict de Spanish Republic, he focused on the victims. For Timothy Clark, “it is the manifestation in advance of the collateral damage idea. The ‘Guernica’ is a reminder of it decades before the beginning of the Iraq war”, he adds.

The Museum’s director, Manuel Borja-Villel, assess that “one of the reasons because the ‘Guernica’ has become an icon of the twentieth-century art is because Picasso is able to reflect not only the terror but at the same time also the pity, the sympathy produced by the victims”.

Besides, in spite of being communist, Picasso didn’t include any political reference in the piece and that helped to give it a universal nature.

Clark, who organised the exhibition alongside his wife, Anne Wagner, considers that the ‘Guernica’ gestation began some years before the bombing, as the painter was shocked since the I World War: “The painting was born in the 20’s, during the Picasso’s deep personal crisis”.

“For at least, the past ten years of his art, from 1925 onwards, he’d been obsessed with terror, and pain, and panic and extreme states of mind. And all of that previous was drawn on in the making of Guernica”, Clark says. This crisis is what the exhibition tries to express, by exhibiting a series of Picasso’s pieces from all those previous years,

After the International Exposition in Paris, the ‘Guernica’ started a several decades tour through several Europe and United States cities up to 1958, when it stayed in a stable way in New York Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) by request of Picasso, who didn’t want it to be moved anymore for preservation reasons.

Afterward, Franco tried to appropriate of the painting and claimed its return to Spain as a symbol or an alleged reconciliation among the Spaniards that was far from happening during his 40 years dictatorship. Finally, in 1981, after Franco’s death (1975) and the reinstatement of democracy, the wall painting was taken back to Spain and was displayed for several years in an annex to the Madrid’s Prado Museum, where Picasso himself had been the director in the Second Republic.

But in 1992 was moved to the newly open Queen Sofia Museum in a polemic decision, as every step of the painting have been followed by Spaniards with a huge interest, as the years haven’t reduced at all its symbolic significance: the painter (deceased in 1973) had established that the piece shouldn’t return to Spain until the reinstatement of the Republic and it has ended up in a museum dedicated to a queen of a constitutional monarchy.

Article written by:
Pablo Pérez Álvarez
Author
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The piece, which became one of the most resonant images of the twentieth century, resulted in the transformation of a painter who known worldwide as the creator of cubism, whose paintings defined by optimism, bright colours and set in domestic and private scenes. Quite the contrary of ‘Guernica’.
In the beginning of 1937, the republican government commissioned him to paint a wall painting upholding the Republic to display in the Spain’s pavilion for an imminent International Exposition in Paris.
For at least, the past ten years of his art, from 1925 onwards, he’d been obsessed with terror, and pain, and panic and extreme states of mind.

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