Art & Politics

Painting : Pablo Picasso's 'Guernica' (1937)

Guernica - by Pablo Picasso


1. Spanish painter Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ is a mural-sized oil painting on canvas (3.5 metres tall and 7.8 metres wide). It is all greys, blacks and whites and was painted in 1937. Picasso started the painting when he heard that the Germans had just bombed the quiet and traditional Basque town of Guernica in support of the Spanish Nationalist forces of the Fascist General Franco during the Spanish Civil War. Picasso's strong sense of this infamous atrocity is unmistakeable in the painting.

2. On Monday, 26 April 1937, German warplanes led by von Richthofen, bombed Guernica for about three hours. Germany did this in support of the Nationalists and were also using this as an opportunity to test out their new weapons and tactics, in a crucial rehearsal of the ‘Blitzkrieg’ tactics they used in the second world war. In his journal for 30 April, von Richthofen wrote: “When the first Junker squadron arrived, there was smoke already everywhere...nobody would identify the targets of roads, bridge, and suburb, and so they just dropped everything right into the center. The 250s (bombs) toppled a number of houses and destroyed the water mains. The incendiaries now could spread and become effective. The materials of the houses: tile roofs, wooden porches, and half-timbering resulted in complete annihilation." Richthofen, of course, was not on the ground in Guernica.

3. Local accounts state that the town's inhabitants were congregated in the centre of town (as it was market day) when the bombardment started. They were unable to escape because the roads leading out of the town centre were full of debris and the bridges leading out of town had been destroyed. In fact, a majority of the town's men were away as they were fighting on behalf of the Republicans. So, the town at the time of the bombing was populated mostly by women and children.

How Picasso Heard About the Bombing of Guernica

4. Immediately after the bombing, the South African-born British journalist George Steer (a Basque and Republican sympathizer) went to Guernica. He put his observations into an article published on 28 April in both ‘The Times’ (of London) and ‘The New York Times’. The next day, the article also appeared in the daily paper ‘L'Humanité’ in Paris, where Picasso was living. This brought the awful truth about the events in Guernica onto the international scene and it was through reading the article that Picasso learnt what had happened in his home country.

5. Steer wrote : “Guernica, the most ancient town of the Basques and the centre of their cultural tradition, was completely destroyed yesterday afternoon by insurgent air raiders. The bombardment of this open town far behind the lines occupied precisely three hours and a quarter, during which a powerful fleet of aeroplanes consisting of three types of German Junkers and Heinkel bombers, did not cease unloading on the town bombs weighing from 1,000 lbs. downwards and, it is calculated, more than 3,000 two-pounder aluminium incendiary projectiles. The fighters, meanwhile, plunged low from above the centre of the town to machinegun those of the civilian population who had taken refuge in the fields."

What Picasso Did

6. Picasso began work on the painting within a few days. For Picasso the attack on the civilian population of mainly women and children made Guernica an image of innocent, defenceless humanity. Women and children were often presented by Picasso as a very perfection of mankind. An assault on women and children was, in Picasso's view, directed at the core of mankind.

7. ‘Guernica’ is possibly the best-known piece of political art yet created, and one of the most important. Therefore, many interpretations and views have been expressed since its creation. Perhaps Picasso was trying to fully express his role and power as an artist in the face of political power and violence. Far from being a straightforward political record, Guernica is Picasso’s self-assertion in his own uniquely self-expressive and powerful style. Perhaps it is also his self-assertion - of his own humanity and compassion - which is sometimes the only thing an individual can do against overwhelming forces such as political and military crimes, war, and death.

8. We can only conjecture about the specific feelings and thoughts that may have driven him to do this painting - and in this way. Looking at the painting, which is very big, complex and demanding of the artist, it seems like it is the response of an artist consumed by the issues in front of him. During the work did he pour anger into it ? Was he 'aiming' it at anyone in particular or everyone ? Which bits were the most emotionally and intellectually challenging for him ? Did he sit down and bawl his eyes out at any stage ? Did he at any stage think that he couldn't continue, that experiencing the reality, getting close to it, or inhabiting the experience in this way was too much ? Was he ‘speaking truth to power’, to himself and to the world, in the most forcible way that he could summon up ? Does anyone really know ?

9. There are many opinions about the painting. It seems that in ‘Guernica’ Picasso - one of the best visual artists who has ever lived - powerfully concentrated his previous decades of expertise, imagery, techniques (plus his experience of living) into the painting.

10. Within a few years the painting had gained much international recognition and became known as a powerful and potent symbol of the destruction of war and its terrible impact on innocent lives. In fact, the life of the painting since then has remained political, all the way up to the present day.

Competing Claims in Spain

11. In 1968, General Franco, Spain’s Fascist dictator expressed his wish to have ‘Guernica’ returned to Spain (it was then at MoMA in New York). However, Picasso refused to allow this until the Spanish people once again lived in a Republic. He later added other conditions, such as the restoration of "public liberties and democratic institutions".

12. Picasso died in 1973. Franco died two years later and by 1978 Spain was transformed into a democratic constitutional monarchy, ratified by a new constitution. However, MoMA was reluctant to give up one of their greatest treasures and argued that a monarchy did not represent the republic that had been stipulated in Picasso's will as a condition for the painting's return. Nevertheless, under great pressure from a number of observers, MoMA finally ceded the painting to Spain in 1981.

13. During the 1970s, the painting was a symbol for Spaniards, of both the end of the Franco regime and of the ongoing campaign for Basque nationalism. Over the decades the Basque left has repeatedly used imagery from the picture. A tiled wall in the town of Guernica today proclaims "The Guernica to Guernica." (i.e. that the painting should actually be in Guernica).

14. In 1992, the painting was moved from the Museo del Prado to the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, both in Madrid, along with about two dozen preparatory works. This action was controversial in Spain, since Picasso's will had stated that the painting should be displayed at the Prado. However, the move was part of a transfer of all of the Prado's collections of art after the early 19th century to other nearby buildings in the city for reasons of space. The Reina Sofía, which houses the capital's national collection of 20th century art, was thought to be the best place to house it. A special gallery was built at the Reina Sofía to display Picasso's masterpiece to best advantage.

15. Basque nationalists have advocated that the picture should be brought to the Basque country, especially since the building of the world famous Guggenheim Museum in the Basque City of Bilbao. Officials at the Reina Sofía claim that the huge canvas is now thought to be too fragile to move. Even the staff of the Guggenheim do not see a permanent transfer of the painting as possible, although the Basque government continues to support the possibility of a temporary exhibition in Bilbao. So, the Painting is a continuing source of contention in Spain, at least in terms of where it should be, and why.

The Painting's Global Political Role

16. The story of the painting also has a global political dimension, because Guernica has also had a life at the United Nations. A tapestry copy of Picasso's Guernica is displayed on a wall in the United Nations Building in New York, at the entrance to the Security Council room. It was commissioned in 1955 by Nelson Rockefeller (more on his allegiances in paragraph 6 here) since Picasso refused to sell him the original. The tapestry was given on loan to the United Nations by the Rockefeller estate in 1985.

17. On 5 February 2003 a large blue curtain was placed over the Guernica Tapestry at the UN, so that it would not be visible in the background when the U.S. officials Colin Powell and John Negroponte gave press conferences at the United Nations leading up to the War on Iraq. The next day, it was claimed that this covering-up was done at the request of television news crews, who had complained that the wild lines and screaming figures made for a bad backdrop, and that a horse's hindquarters appeared just above the faces of any speakers.

18. However, some diplomats, in talks with journalists claimed that the U.S. Bush Administration pressured UN officials to cover the tapestry, rather than have it in the background while Powell or other US diplomats argued for war on Iraq.

'An Inconvenient Masterpiece'

19. In a critique of the covering-up, columnist Alejandro Escalona wrote that Guernica’s "unappealing ménage of mutilated bodies and distorted faces proved to be too strong for articulating to the world why the US was going to war in Iraq”. Guernica was, as he said, "an inconvenient masterpiece." The war on Iraq began on 20th March, with what is remembered as the massive ‘Shock and Awe’ bombing attack on the city of Baghdad by the U.S and the U.K, assisted by smaller forces from several countries.

20. In 2012, on the 75th anniversary of the painting's creation, Alejandro Escalona also said : “Guernica is to painting what Beethoven's Ninth Symphony is to music : a cultural icon that speaks to mankind not only against war but also of hope and peace. It is a reference when speaking about genocide from El Salvador to Bosnia.”

21. Given the continuing problems with war, conflict and genocide around the world, it is likely to remain a powerful global icon and reference. Here is another artistic response to the conduct of (a different) war, and its terrible effects.