A mag­num opus go­ing dig­i­tal, and the lofti­est art­works that broke auc­tion his­tory

An on­line ex­hibit shows hidden depths of Pi­casso’s Guer­nica

Red Magazine - - EDITOR’S NOTE | CONTENTS -

Spray-painted in mu­rals, wielded on anti-war ban­ners, and even once hung as a ta­pes­try at the United Na­tions, Pablo Pi­casso’s Guer­nica might be the world’s most fa­mous po­lit­i­cal art­work.

Now, or­ga­niz­ers of a new ini­tia­tive are invit­ing art lovers to re­visit the iconic blackand-white paint­ing, us­ing the lat­est imag­ing tech­nol­ogy and re­leas­ing a trove of pre­vi­ously un­seen doc­u­ments to chart its tur­bu­lent his­tory.

“Guer­nica is a source of never-end­ing artis­tic ma­te­rial, and it’s a priv­i­lege to be with as an art his­to­rian,” says Rosario Peiro, head of col­lec­tions at Madrid’s Reina Sofia mod­ern art mu­seum.

She is part of the team be­hind Re­think­ing Guer­nica an in­ter­ac­tive ex­hi­bi­tion launched this week about the work. “Putting all of this to­gether al­lows you to re­think the his­tory of the paint­ing.”

Guer­nica, con­ceived in the depths of Spain’s dev­as­tat­ing civil war, shows the bomb­ing of a Basque town on April 26, 1937 by Ger­man and Ital­ian air forces un­der the or­ders of fu­ture Span­ish dic­ta­tor Fran­cisco Franco.

Hun­dreds died in an aerial at­tack on civil­ians that shocked the world and set a prece­dent re­peated of­ten by Ger­man and al­lied forces in World War II. Pi­casso, then liv­ing in France, was com­mis­sioned by the strug­gling Span­ish Repub­li­can gov­ern­ment to pro­duce a work de­pict­ing the bomb­ing for the 1937 World Fair in Paris.

Sto­ried his­tory

That com­mis­sion and hun­dreds of other doc­u­ments con­cern­ing Guer­nica are now avail­able on­line for the first time. They tell the story of a hugely well-trav­elled work, with stops in Scan­di­navia, Bri­tain, and the United States, where it spent decades on loan at New York’s Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art (MoMA).

There are pa­pers re­lat­ing to its trip to Venezuela in 1948 that was cut short due to a coup d’etat, and a fran­tic tele­gram sent by MoMA col­lec­tions di­rec­tor Al­fred H. Barr Jr. in­form­ing the artist that his works were safe af­ter a fire tore through the mu­seum in 1958.

“Clearly, it is a po­lit­i­cal paint­ing be­cause it was re­quested by the gov­ern­ment for a pro­pa­ganda pur­pose,” says Peiro. “The truth is, dur­ing all these years of travel and be­ing in dif­fer­ent places, the work was de­politi­cized.”

Re­searchers took thou­sands of images us­ing vis­i­ble and ul­tra­vi­o­lent light as well as in­frared re­flec­tog­ra­phy and high-def­i­ni­tion x-rays to cre­ate a “gi­gapixel” ren­der­ing that al­lows users to browse a 436-gi­ga­byte com­pos­ite of the work.

De­tails of its restora­tion, in­di­vid­ual paint strokes, and even rogue hairs from Pi­casso’s brushes can be seen still stuck to the orig­i­nal can­vas. Residue from a 1974 act of van­dal­ism is vis­i­ble in the form of barely per­cep­ti­ble red­dish dis­col­oration across cen­tral ar­eas.

“For me, what is in­ter­est­ing to see is the ge­og­ra­phy of the paint­ing, its sur­face, as if it’s a kind of his­tory map,” says Peiro.

New per­spec­tives

The Reina Sofia cur­rently dis­plays dozens of black-and-white war images along­side Guer­nica, many cap­tured by leg­endary Cata­lan con­flict pho­tog­ra­pher Agusti Cen­telles. Some crit­ics credit the pho­tos for Pi­casso’s de­ci­sion to eschew his usual vivid col­ors in the piece.

As Cat­alo­nia’s in­de­pen­dence cri­sis ex­poses Spain to its deep­est po­lit­i­cal tur­bu­lence since re­turn­ing to democ­racy in 1978, Peiro, how­ever, in­sists the cur­rent in­stal­la­tion isn’t about pol­i­tics.

“We do show a lot of Barcelona pho­to­graphs, but that’s be­cause the best Span­ish pho­to­jour­nal­ist of the time was Cata­lan,” she said.

Peiro hopes the new project will pro­vide new per­spec­tives on one of the 20th-cen­tury’s defin­ing images. “Guer­nica is the most im­por­tant work, phys­i­cally and sym­bol­i­cally, for the mu­seum, so we have to keep on work­ing on it,” she says. “It’s the least we can do.”

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