Perspective | Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ marked a specific event. What does it say today?

On April 27, 1937, the London Times reported the following:

“Guernica, the most ancient town of the Basques and the center of their cultural tradition, was completely destroyed yesterday afternoon by insurgent air raiders. The bombardment of the open town far behind the lines occupied precisely three hours and a quarter, during which a powerful fleet of aeroplanes … did not cease unloading on the town bombs weighing from 1000 lbs. downward. … The fighters, meanwhile, plunged low from above the center of the town to machine-gun those of the civilian population who had taken refuge in the fields.”

Pablo Picasso painted “Guernica,” arguably his greatest masterpiece, in response to this devastating attack, which took place during the Spanish Civil War. Possibly the most famous painting of the 20th century, and certainly the most iconic antiwar painting, it is a vast, desperate and dramatic work, oddly frozen and flat, yet at the same time teeming, tumultuous, terrifying.

Artists and activists have been using “Guernica” for inspiration since its first unveiling. A tapestry version, the creation of which was supervised by Picasso, hangs at the entrance to the Security Council Chamber at the United Nations. In San Francisco, on March 23, the artist Lee Mingwei will stage a performance, titled “Guernica in Sand,” in which a giant copy of “Guernica” made on the floor in colored sand will be blurred and partially erased by the feet of audience members and by giant brooms.

The Spanish Civil War began when Gen. Francisco Franco, with support from Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini, carried out a coup against Spain’s newly installed left-wing government. Franco’s Moroccan troops took the city of Seville and advanced north, leaving devastation in their wake. Their brutality triggered horrific reprisals by Republican forces and their allies, who executed thousands, often targeting Catholic clergy.

The bombing of Guernica was intended by Hermann Göring, commander in chief of the German Luftwaffe, as a birthday gift for Hitler. The attack was delayed by several days because of logistical issues, but Hitler was pleased nonetheless. The plan was to maximize civilian casualties. Col. Wolfram von Richthofen, who was in charge of the attack, achieved this by pausing after a brief initial bombing, then, after civilians had come out of their shelters, launching a devastating second wave. People were trapped in the open, incinerated, asphyxiated and strafed with machine-gun fire. An estimated 1,500 civilians were killed. Guernica was leveled.

Richthofen, a cousin of Manfred von Richthofen, the notorious “Red Baron” of World War I, described the attack as “absolutely fabulous … a complete technical success.”

Picasso, by this time, had already been commissioned to create a mural for the Spanish Pavilion at the Paris World’s Fair. Needing foreign support, Spain’s embattled Republican government wanted to make a positive impression. Picasso, Spain’s best-known expatriate artist, had recently worked on a series of printed images mocking Franco, but it wasn’t until after the attack on Guernica that he knew what he would paint for the pavilion.

When news of the attack broke, Juan Larrea, cultural attaché at the Spanish Embassy in Paris, rushed to the Café Flore, where he found Picasso and floated the idea of making a mural about the attack. The next day, after Picasso saw photos of corpses amid the ruins of Guernica in the French dailies, his mind was made up. He ordered an enormous canvas, set it up in his new studio on Paris’s Rue des Grands-Augustins, climbed a ladder and got to work.

Just over a month later, “Guernica” was complete. Picasso’s lover, the Surrealist photographer Dora Maar, captured every stage of its development with her camera (she also painted the short vertical strokes on the horse). Alive to the momentousness of what he was doing and hoping to generate more interest, Picasso allowed a coterie of friends, artists and politicians to watch him as he worked.

“Guernica” eventually made Picasso the most famous artist in the world. But in those first weeks and months, the praise was by no means unanimous. The painting divided the organizers of the Spanish Pavilion. Some, who said “Guernica” was too hard to interpret, too indirect, preferred a more clearly legible propaganda painting by Picasso’s compatriot Horacio Ferrer de Morgado.

A Basque artist, José Maria Ucelay, called “Guernica” “one of the poorest things ever produced … It has no sense of composition … it’s just 7 x 3 meters of pornography, s—ting on Guernica, on Euskadi [Basque country], on everything.” Less surprisingly, the Nazis also hated it. The German guide to the World’s Fair described “Guernica” as a “hodgepodge of body parts that any four-year-old could have painted.”

Today, “Guernica” hangs in Madrid, in the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia. I saw it there about a month after the Oct. 7 attacks on Israel by Hamas and three weeks into Israel’s invasion of Gaza. A second year of war was raging away in Ukraine. The painting felt more poignant, more “relevant” — whatever that might mean — than ever. (Sadly, mind you, there haven’t been many times since it was painted that “Guernica’s” relevance has been much in doubt.)

After leaving the museum, I walked to the nearby Prado. I made a beeline for Diego Velázquez’s “Las Meninas” — many people’s choice for the most astonishing of all European paintings. On Nov. 16, 1936 — just under six months before the attack on Guernica — nine bombs were dropped on the Prado.

Picasso had been made honorary director of the museum, in absentia, earlier that year. When museum staff began evacuating its masterpieces, he lamented that he was now “the director of an empty museum.” One surprise air raid forced the poet Rafael Alberti to dump “Las Meninas” on a crowded sidewalk as he ran for cover.

After half an hour with “Las Meninas,” I took in several of Francisco Goya’s depictions of depravity and Hieronymus Bosch’s disturbing masterpiece, “The Garden of Earthly Delights.” All but undone by these various visions, I walked back to the square outside the Reina Sofia.

Sharp. Witty. Thoughtful. Sign up for the Style Memo newsletter.

It was a Friday, the end of the workweek. As evening came on, I sat eating paella at an outside table as the square filled with children emerging from a nearby public school. Running and skipping and playing soccer, some would intermittently break away from their playmates to check in with their parents, who sat in large, convivial groups at tables near mine, before running back to their games.

“Guernica” was perhaps 50 yards from where I sat. The ferocious power of its wordless lament radiated on some low, invisible frequency through the museum walls.

I tried to knit together these various phenomena — Bosch, Goya, Velázquez; the cascading chaos of “Guernica”; the peaceable scene in the square, and what I’d been seeing from Israel, Gaza and Ukraine in the news.

I tried, and I failed, utterly.

That’s because I know nothing about war. I grew up in Australia, a relatively tranquil place. My mother is from neutral Sweden. Sure, I’ve seen violence — real, recorded, simulated — and I’ve occasionally been fascinated by it (less so, to be honest, as I get older). But my home has never been bombed, members of my family have never been ripped from me in the early hours of the morning, or dismembered before my eyes, and no one has ever pointed a deadly weapon at me. So truly, I know nothing.

That may be part of why a lot about “Guernica” (although I’ve seen it several times and read about it in books) remains elusive and impenetrable to me. What is actually happening in it? Who is dead? Who is alive? What sort of space are we in? What do the animals — a bull, a horse and a bird — have to do with it?

Some parts of the composition read clearly. But how to understand the pileup of body parts and overlapping planes that form a vast triangle at the center of the picture? And why the lamp held aloft beneath a radiant, spiky sun that also contains a lightbulb?

Some of these questions have helpful answers, some don’t. But “Guernica” is not a puzzle. It is a work of art. And so one hopes, in the end, not to “solve” it, but to enter into it and let it lodge, in turn, inside each of us.

The painting is indeed a hodgepodge of body parts, but it’s also constructed with immense sophistication. There are rhyming forms all over the canvas: triangles, crescents, spiky starbursts and tongues, stubby fingers and egg-like heads with open mouths. Their deployment helps unify the splintered elements in a web of correspondences, even as it keeps the eye roving.

Picasso’s decision to restrict the palette to black, gray and white imposes another kind of coherence, even as it evokes newsprint and photography (both critical aspects of modern warfare). We can trace Picasso’s adaptation of the bull and the Minotaur in his art of the 1930s and unpack his other aesthetic decisions, variously informed by Surrealism, ancient mythology, bullfighting and his private life. But in the end, I feel, “Guernica” defeats analysis. It is too raw, too potent.

And yet, of course, it is still just a work of art. Expecting “Guernica,” or any other work, to express the authentic horror of what people experience in war is wrongheaded. Talk about “Guernica” to someone whose daughter is being held hostage by Hamas or whose parents were just killed by Israeli bombs and, frankly, I don’t think they will care.

For me, the most resonant thing ever written about “Guernica” came from the pen of the ethnographer Michel Leiris, who ventured that Picasso had used “Guernica” to send us all a “letter of doom.”

The contents of this letter? Its message? “All that we love is going to die,” wrote Leiris, “and that is why it is necessary that we gather up all that we love, like the emotion of great farewells, in something of unforgettable beauty.”

Leiris’s words help me understand the near-universal appeal of “Guernica,” both for those who have experienced war and those who haven’t. Yes, the painting evokes a specific historical event: a Basque town razed by German bombs. It should always be tethered to that event. But its importance extends beyond 1937, and beyond even registering the unconscionable stupidity of violence and war.

More than a cry of despair or protest, “Guernica,” with its sheer tumult, captures “the emotion of great farewells” and speaks to the necessity of gathering up “all that we love.”

Source link

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top