Guernica (1937)

Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)


Spain endured a horrific civil war from July 1936 to April 1939. The government was known as Republican but was radical. General Franco the eventual winner led the Falangists with a group of other generals, were fascists. The war was brutal pitting family against family as the Church was in the middle of it.

One region which annoyed Franco was the Basque area, with its different language, customs and constant demand for independence (still to this day). Franco formed an alliance with Hitler and Mussolini to help. Hitler wanted to try his air force out and experiment with a modern air blitzkrieg.

On April 26, 1937 the German von Richthofen used 50 aircraft, including Junkers and a Messerschmitt to attach Gernika, a Basque town of 7,000 people on its market day. Planes came in waves dropping bomb after bomb and then in another wave, incendiary bombs creating a vast furnace. This done to be able to advance the propaganda ploy that Basques had torched their own town.

People who fled were strafed by low flying planes.

Death, rubble, fire, indiscriminate murder of civilians – welcome to modern warfare. All obliterated.

The Republic still controlled Madrid and Barcelona, hence were still the government. There was to be a Spanish pavilion at the Paris International Exposition of Art and Technology celebrating modern life May 24, 1937.

The two dominant pavilions of the World Fair were Germany and Russia. Spain’s very primitive exhibition only opened on July 12th and its dominant exhibit was Pablo Picasso’s Guernica. It was done in four weeks, 27 square metres of canvas in the end all black, white and grey. He experimented with colour but in the final work eliminated it. It was Picasso’s contribution to the Republican cause and paid for by the government.

The painting is a black and white image of torture, LSD dreams and electric shock, your mental finger wetted up, jammed into the live socket, while your feet are in water.

The figures are unrealistic, part absurd and yet is war anything but?

Today the work is an acknowledged legend. What was the opinion then?
Well Hitler’s rival Germans said in their:

… guidebook to the world’s fair which incorporated Hitler’s recent pronouncements on modern art with the suggestion that German-speaking visitors simply pass by the pavilion of “Red” Spain because it contained nothing of interest or importance, least of all a mammoth black-and-white painting that seemed to be the dream of a madman, a melee of broken bodies that might have been the work of a four-year-old child. [See Picasso’s War, The destruction of Guernica, and the masterpiece that changed the world, Russell Martin (Penguin Books, 2003 – a Plume Book) at p. 119]

Le Corbusier, the famous French architect didn’t like it because it wasn’t pretty. He said, “Guernica saw only the back of our visitors for they were repelled by it.” See Picasso’s War, p. 121.

Those that supported the work were fulsome in praise. Christian Zervos (see remarks at end), a journalist friend of Picasso said:

In Guernica, expressed in the most striking matter, is a world of despair, where death is everywhere; more violent than lightning, flood, hurricane, for everything there is hostile, uncontrollable, beyond understanding, whence rise the heart-rending cries of beings dying because of men’s cruelty. From Picasso’s paintbrush explode phantoms of distress, anguish, terror, insurmountable pain, massacres, and finally the peace found in death … This work will forever enter our hearts, will inspire, stir up feelings, and around our convictions that there are greater things than “reality”, and that to participate in their grandeur is to rise again in dignity. [pp. 122-123]

Sir Anthony Blunt, expert on Poussin and the advisor to Queen Elizabeth on art and her massive art collection, a spy controlled by the Russians (not discovered until 40 years later) took a real run at Picasso:

“… ridiculed Picasso for having lived his life in an ivory tower, a “Holy of Holies of Art”, that made it impossible for him to understand the true complexities of the Spanish war. In an article titled “Picasso Unfrocked”, which appeared in the Spectator as well, Blunt charged that the painting was nothing more than a series of “abstruse circumlocutions” with no meaning whatsoever for serious observers of art or politics. Neither should the painter, Blunt instructed, produce work that was too esoteric for ordinary people to decipher or enjoy. “In the religious half light of the temple [of art] Picasso looked like a giant. Now, in a harsher glare, and up against more exacting standards, he appears a pygmy.”

Herbert Read, a renowned and trustworthy critic replied:

“The monumentality of Michelangelo and the High Renaissance cannot exist in our age, for ours is one of disillusionment, despair, and destruction. Guernica is a monument to destruction – a cry of outrage and horror amplified by the spirit of genius.

Not only Gernika, but Spain; not only Spain, but Europe, is symbolized in this allegory. It is the modern Calvary, the agony in the bomb-shattered ruins of human tenderness and frailty. It is a religious picture, painted, not with the same kind, but with the same degree of fervour that inspired Grunewald and the master of the Avignon Pietá, Van Eyck, and Bellini. It is not sufficient to compare the Picasso of this painting with the Goya of the “Desastres”. Goya, too, was a great artist, and a great humanist; but his reactions were individualistic – his instruments irony, satire, ridicule. Picasso is more universal. His symbols are banal, like the symbols of Homer, Dante, Cervantes. For it is only when the widest commonplace is infused with the intensest passion that a great work of art, transcending all schools and categories, is born; and being born, lives immortally. Martin, p. 137.

Stephen Spender, a poet of destruction introduces the aspect of when does a painting become a masterpiece:

… The impression made on me by the picture is one that I might equally get from a great masterpiece, or some very vivid experience. That, of course, does not mean that it is a masterpiece. I shall be content to wait some years before knowing that. [Martin, p. 139.]

Robert Hughes wrote:

Guernica was the last great history painting … It was also the last modern painting of major importance that took its subject from politics with the intention of changing the way large numbers of people thought and felt about power … Picasso could imagine more suffering in a horse’s head than Rubens normally put into a whole Crucifixion. The spike tongues, the rolling eyes, the frantic splayed toes and fingers, the necks arched in spasm; these would be unendurable if their tension were not braced against the broken, but visible, order of the painting. [Martin, p. 266.]

Franco who died in 1975, outlived Picasso who died in 1973.

Franco was always in control of Spain until the end and he was always a dictator. He always denied that he was responsible for the bombing of Gernika. He hated Picasso. It was a jail offence to create a reproduction of Guernica while Franco lived. The police tore down copies in houses they searched. Picasso consented that it be housed in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art until Franco had left. Picasso had vehemently insisted the painting should not go back to Spain until democracy was established. Spain requested its return in 1975. MOMA stalled from 1975 until 1981. At last it went to its Spanish home – first at the Prado then ten blocks away at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia.

Picasso officially became a Communist in 1944 but he was not really a political painter. People have of course argued about the significance of various parts of the Guernica:

… Jerome Seckler, the former American soldier who had interviewed the artist about Guernica four years before. Picasso had assured him, Seckler still maintained, that the bull plainly symbolized the brutality of Franco and his forces, and that the dying horse was symbolic of the suffering of the Spanish people. But [Juan] Larrea, a friend of the artist and a fellow Spaniard, was equally convinced that Picasso had meant the bull to represent the particular courage and tenacity of the Spanish people themselves, while the suffering horse in turn predicted the ultimate collapse of Franco’s Fascist regime. Further complicating the debate, however, was the letter Barr had received in May of that year from Picasso’s longtime Paris art dealer Daniel-Henri Kahnweiler, in which he maintained that the painter had insisted to him as he neared completion of the canvas, “This bull is a bull and this horse is a horse … It’s up to the public to see what it wants to see.” [Martin, p. 176.]

After writing this I came across a book by Michael Kimmelman, The Accidental Masterpiece, Penguin Books, 2006 at p. 10 which warns you to be suspicious of some critics here calling Zervos a mouthpiece for Picasso.

Picasso, when talking of Pierre Bonnard 1867-1947, a French painter of immense charm, impressionistic concertos of soft colour reveals his tough strident qualities:

“Picasso had also called Bonnard a piddler: Don’t talk to me about Bonnard. That’s not painting what he does … Painting isn’t a question of sensibility: it’s a question of seizing the power, taking over from nature, not expecting her to supply you with information and good advice.”

Modern art often exhibits abrasiveness.

I saw it years ago when it resided in New York.

I see Guernica again before the invasion of Iraq in 2001. The world is preparing for the United States to invade Iraq to remove Suddam Hussein.

This vast expression – the horrors of war – can only be matched by Goya and Keifer (who paints of the aftermath of German warfare).

The electric light bulb at the top sets the acid feel for the whole agonized howl of the grey black white and off white painting.

One of the world’s greatest paintings. Not fun but a profound shock. The anguished mother with a dead child, was carefully prepared as many of Picasso’s preparatory drawings reveal. A blinding painting which forces you to equivocate and avoid its indomitable force.

On my October 5, 2009 visit I really scrutinize the work, foot by foot. After the scrutiny I realize that my impression of the work hasn’t changed at all. With other works I am struck with my evolving perceptions. I’m not sure what this means.

Across from this Spanish treasure there are six photographs of the evolution of the work. Picasso was constantly shifting focus, figures, over the six weeks of its creation.

Compare it with Goya’s The Shooting of May 3rd, 1808 in the Prado. Picasso puts in the abstract this electric reality.

What do I think?

Goya’s May 3, with the French soldiers as an impersonal killing machine shooting the Spanish resisters who had on May 2nd in Plaza del Sol, murdered French troops, is the ultimate actual expression of Picasso’s Guernica. The Spaniard in the white shirt, arms rigid in a V, eyes shimmering with terror, says it all about war and its consequences. Picasso expressed in abstract harshness this electric reality. The victims about are either dead, or desperately avoiding looking at the French rifles.