‘Guer­nica’: 80 years on still a stark re­minder of war’s hor­ror

Pi­casso’s haunt­ing art­work is the fo­cus of spe­cial events at the Reina Sofía in Madrid

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - NEWS REVIEW - Guy Hedge­coe in Madrid

Pi­casso was dis­traught by the in­dis­crim­i­nate loss of life be­ing widely re­ported by the in­ter­na­tional me­dia

In 1981, when Pablo Pi­casso’s Guer­nica fi­nally ar­rived in Spain af­ter more than four decades of ex­ile, i t was placed in a new an­nex of the Prado mu­seum, be­hind bul­let- proof glass. With Spain hav­ing only re­cently emerged from dic­ta­tor­ship, democ­racy was still frag­ile and the au­thor­i­ties feared that such was the paint­ing’s po­lit­i­cal and emo­tional charge that it might pro­voke an act of van­dal­ism or ter­ror­ism.

It now hangs in the Reina Sofía modern art mu­seum. The bul­let- proof pro­tec­tion has long been re­moved, but the im­pact of the work – which draws by far the big­gest crowd of any in the build­ing – has not di­min­ished.

“In a black- and- white rec­tan­gle that looks like an an­cient tragedy, Pi­casso sends us our death no­tice,” noted French writer Michel Leiris of Guer­nica. He went on to de- scribe it as the em­bod­i­ment of “all the high emo­tion of a last farewell . . . some­thing so un­for­get­tably beau­ti­ful.”

Eighty years af­ter Pi­casso com­pleted the mu­ral, on June 4th, 1937, not only does Guer­nica still draw crowds, but it re­minds the modern world of the atroc­ity that in­spired it – the bomb­ing of the Basque town of Gernika by the German Luft­waffe dur­ing the Span­ish civil war – as well as the hor­rors of more re­cent events.

In an age of air strikes, it is some­thing of a ref­er­ence point – last year, Bri­tish MP An­drew Mitchell, speak­ing in the House of Com­mons, com­pared the at­tack on Gernika to Rus­sia’s use of force in Syria.

The paint­ing can also still pro­voke con­tro­versy. In April, Basque politi­cians ap­proved a mo­tion in their lo­cal par­lia­ment re­quest­ing that Guer­nica be moved to their re­gion on the grounds that the sep­a­ratist vi­o­lence that plagued the Basque Coun­try for four decades has now ended.

Po­lit­i­cal paint­ing

“If there is one po­lit­i­cal paint­ing in the world, it is Guer­nica,” Ja­sone Agirre of the na­tion­al­ist Bildu coali­tion told the Basque par­lia­ment.

“For po­lit­i­cal rea­sons it trav­elled around the world to de­nounce war and bar­bar­ity; for po­lit­i­cal rea­sons it wasn’t brought to Spain un­til af­ter [ dic­ta­tor Francisco] Franco died . . . and, for po­lit­i­cal rea­sons we also ask that it be brought to Gernika, be­cause de­nounc­ing war and bar­bar­ity is also pol­i­tics.”

That Basque re­quest to move the paint­ing has been re­buffed for tech­ni­cal rea­sons. But it forms part of an ex­tra­or­di­nary legacy for a work that Pi­casso con­ceived and ex­e­cuted with light­ning speed hav­ing been com­mis­sioned by Spain’s leftist repub­lic for the 1937 World Expo in Paris.

As part of the se­ries of events to mark the paint­ing’s 80th an­niver­sary, an ex­hi­bi­tion in the Reina Sofía mu­seum, Pity and Terror: Pi­casso’s Path to Guer­nica, shows the artis­tic and psy­cho­log­i­cal evo­lu­tion that led the artist to pro­duce the mas­ter­piece. Al­though Pi­casso was com­mis­sioned in early 1937, it was not un­til the town of Gernika was bombed on mar­ket day on April 26th, killing be­tween 200 and 1,600 civil­ians – his­to­ri­ans re­main di­vided on the fig­ure – that the artist found his sub­ject mat­ter.

Pi­casso, who was born in the south­ern city of Málaga and was liv­ing in Paris, had never vis­ited Gernika, but was dis­traught by the in­dis­crim­i­nate loss of life be­ing widely re­ported by the in­ter­na­tional me­dia.

Fi­nal mu­ral

He worked on the paint­ing in his stu­dio in Rue des Grands- Au­gustins, pro­duc­ing about 60 prepara­tory draw­ings and paint- ings, and the fi­nal mu­ral was large in both am­bi­tion and scale, mea­sur­ing 7.8m by 3.5m.

The Pity and Terror ex­hi­bi­tion doc­u­ments the whole process, show­ing the pre­lim­i­nary works, as well as a fas­ci­nat­ing se­quence of pho­tos by Pi­casso’s lover, Dora Maar, doc­u­ment­ing the creation of Guer­nica it­self, from the sketched out­lines of a mother hold­ing her dead c hi l d, a dead-eyed bull, an im­paled horse and spec­tral hu­man faces, to its fi­nal, ter­ri­ble glory.

The ex­hi­bi­tion also in­cludes some of the French news­pa­per ar­ti­cles that Pi­casso would have read af­ter the bomb­ing. Mean­while, pho­to­graphs from Pi­casso’s per­sonal ar­chive show the mu­ti­lated limbs of Spa­niards who had been maimed dur­ing the civil war and high­light his unique re­la­tion­ship with the hu­man body. “It’s a funny thing, flesh, to be made of flesh,” he once told a friend. “Imag­ine a house built of flesh – it wouldn’t last long.”

Fol­low­ing the World Expo, in 1938 Guer­nica went on an ex­ten­sive Euro­pean tour. By the time it ar­rived in New York, on May 1st, 1939, the Span­ish civil war had ended, with the right- wing rebels vic­to­ri­ous and their leader Franco in­stalled as dic­ta­tor. Pi­casso de­clared the paint­ing would not re­turn to Spain un­til democ­racy was re­stored.

In the mean­time, it would in­spire a gen- er­a­tion of young Amer­i­can artists, who viewed it in the Valen­tine Gallery and then the Mu­seum of Modern Art ( MoMA). As Span­ish art his­to­rian María Dolores Jiménez- Blanco wrote, Guer­nica showed them ab­stract art could be po­lit­i­cal and that “the max­i­mum ex­pres­sion of sol­i­dar­ity to­wards their own era was that which came from in­side the artist”.

Jack­son Pollock vis­ited Guer­nica and his wife Lee Kras­ner later re­called him ex­claim­ing, while ad­mir­ing a book of Pi­casso’s paint­ings: “God damn it, that guy missed noth­ing!”

Artis­tic legacy

The paint­ing’s artis­tic legacy con­tin­ues to res­onate in the con­text of more re­cent con­flicts, as Ira­nian artist Siah Ar­ma­jani showed when he ref­er­enced i t i n his anti-war work Fal­lu­jah in 2007.

The long ex­ile of Pi­casso’s work had made it a sym­bol of the bloody di­vi­sion in Span­ish so­ci­ety be­tween Franco’s vic­tors and the van­quished left. But the re­turn of Guer­nica to Spain in 1981, while fraught with con­tro­versy, also re­flected the po­lit­i­cal ef­forts be­ing made to re­pair that schism fol­low­ing Franco’s death in 1975.

For­mer mem­bers of the regime were co-op­er­at­ing with the newly le­galised po­lit­i­cal left to ease the tran­si­tion to democ­racy. In a pact which has only started to crum­ble in re­cent years, both left and right agreed dur­ing that tur­bu­lent time that the ter­ri­ble events of the civil war and dic­ta­tor­ship would not en­ter the po­lit­i­cal arena. But since then, Spa­niards – and the whole world – have been able to see that trauma ex­pressed in un­for­get­table fash­ion in Pi­casso’s Guer­nica.

Pablo Pi­casso’s Guer­nica: Basque politi­cians want the paint­ing moved to their re­gion. PHO­TO­GRAPH: DENIS DOYLE/GETTY IMAGES

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