Guernica (painting) explained

Guernica
Artist:Pablo Picasso
Year:1937
Type:Oil on canvas
Height:349
Width:776
Height Inch:137.4
Width Inch:305.5
City:Madrid
Museum:Museo Reina Sofia

Guernica is a painting by Pablo Picasso. It was created in response to the bombing of Guernica, Basque Country, by German and Italian warplanes at the behest of the Spanish Nationalist forces, on 26 April 1937, during the Spanish Civil War. The Spanish Republican government commissioned Picasso to create a large mural for the Spanish display at the Paris International Exposition at the 1937 World's Fair in Paris. Guernica shows the tragedies of war and the suffering it inflicts upon individuals, particularly innocent civilians. This work has gained a monumental status, becoming a perpetual reminder of the tragedies of war, an anti-war symbol, and an embodiment of peace. On completion Guernica was displayed around the world in a brief tour, becoming famous and widely acclaimed. This tour helped bring the Spanish Civil War to the world's attention.

The painting

Guernica is grey, black and white, 3.5 metres (11 ft) tall and 7.8 metres (25.6 ft) wide, a mural-size canvas painted in oil. This painting can be seen in the Museo Reina Sofía in Madrid. Picasso's purpose in painting it was to bring the world's attention to the bombing of the Basque town of Guernica by German bombers, who were supporting the Nationalist forces of General Franco during the Spanish Civil War. Picasso completed the painting by mid-June 1937. Picasso exhibited his mural-size painting at the Spanish display at the Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Moderne (1937) (Paris International Exposition) in the 1937 World's Fair in Paris and then at other venues around the world. The San Francisco Museum of Art (later SFMOMA) gave the work its first public, free appearance in the United States from 27 August – 19 September. The Museum of Modern Art in New York City then mounted an important Picasso exhibition on 15 November 1939 that remained on view until 7 January 1940, entitled: Picasso: 40 Years of His Art, that was organized by Alfred H. Barr (1902–1981), in collaboration with the Art Institute of Chicago. The exhibition contained 344 works, including Guernica and its studies.[1]

Guernica shows suffering people, animals, and buildings wrenched by violence and chaos.

Symbolism and interpretations

Interpretations of Guernica vary widely and contradict one another. This extends, for example, to the mural's two dominant elements: the bull and the horse. Art historian Patricia Failing said, "The bull and the horse are important characters in Spanish culture. Picasso himself certainly used these characters to play many different roles over time. This has made the task of interpreting the specific meaning of the bull and the horse very tough. Their relationship is a kind of ballet that was conceived in a variety of ways throughout Picasso's career."

When pressed to explain them in Guernica, Picasso said,

In "The Dream and Lie of Franco," a series of narrative sketches also created for the World's Fair, Franco is depicted as a monster that first devours his own horse and later does battle with an angry bull. Work on these illustrations began before the bombing of Guernica, and four additional panels were added, three of which relate directly to the Guernica mural.

Picasso said as he worked on the mural: "The Spanish struggle is the fight of reaction against the people, against freedom. My whole life as an artist has been nothing more than a continuous struggle against reaction and the death of art. How could anybody think for a moment that I could be in agreement with reaction and death? ... In the panel on which I am working, which I shall call Guernica, and in all my recent works of art, I clearly express my abhorrence of the military caste which has sunk Spain in an ocean of pain and death.[2]

However, according to scholar Beverly Ray the following list of interpretations reflects the general consensus of historians:

In drawing attention to a number of preliminary studies, the so called primary project,[3] that show an atelier installation incorporating the central triangular shape which reappears in the final version of Guernica, Becht-Jördens and Wehmeier interpret the painting as a self-referential composition in the tradition of atelier paintings such as "Las Meninas" by Diego Velázquez. In his chef d'oevre, Picasso seems to be trying to define his role and his power as an artist in the face of political power and violence. But far from being a mere political painting, Guernica should be seen as Picasso’s comment on what art can actually contribute towards the self-assertion that liberates every human being and protects the individual against overwhelming forces such as political crime, war, and death.[4]

Historical context

See also: Spanish Civil War and Spanish Civil War, 1937.

Guernica is a town in the province of Biscay in Basque Country. During the Spanish Civil War, it was regarded as the northern bastion of the Republican resistance movement and the epicenter of Basque culture, adding to its significance as a target.[5]

The Republican forces were made up of assorted factions (Communists, Socialists, Anarchists, to name a few) with wildly differing approaches to government and eventual aims, but a common opposition to the Nationalists. The Nationalists, led by General Francisco Franco, were also factionalized but to a lesser extent. They sought a return to the golden days of Spain, based on law, order, and traditional Catholic family values.[6]

At about 16:30 on Monday, 26 April 1937, warplanes of the German Condor Legion, commanded by Colonel Wolfram von Richthofen, bombed Guernica for about two hours. Germany, at this time led by Hitler, had lent material support to the Nationalists and were using the war as an opportunity to test out new weapons and tactics. Later, intense aerial bombardment became a crucial preliminary step in the Blitzkrieg tactic.[7] [5]

In his journal for 30 April 1937, von Richthofen wrote:

This account contains striking discrepancies from other accounts that state that the town's inhabitants were in fact congregated in the center of town, as it was market day, and when the bombardment commenced, were unable to escape the inferno because the roads leading out of the center of the town were full of debris and the bridges leading out of town had been destroyed.

Guernica's location was at a major crossroads 10 kilometers from the front lines and between the front lines and Bilbao, the capital of Bizkaia. Any Republican retreat towards Bilbao and any Nationalist advance towards Bilbao had to pass through Guernica. "During 25 April, many of the demoralized (Republican) troops from Marquina fell back on Guernica, which lay 10 kilometers behind the lines."[8] Wolfram von Richthofen's war diary entry for 26 April 1937 states, "K/88 [the Condor Legion bomber force] was targeted at Guernica in order to halt and disrupt the Red withdrawal which has to pass through here." The following day, Richthofen wrote in his war diary, "Guernica burning."[9] The Republican retreat towards Bilbao did pass through Guernica, before and after the bombing, and, as Beevor points out, "At Guernica the communist Rosa Luxemburg Battalion under Major Cristobal held back the nationalists for a time".[9]

Guernica was a quiet village. The nearest military target of any consequence was a factory on the outskirts of the town, which manufactured various war products. The factory went through the attack unscathed. Thus, the motivation of the bombing was clearly one of intimidation. Furthermore, a majority of the town's men were away as they were fighting on behalf of the Republicans. Thus, the town at the time of the bombing was populated mostly by women and children.[10]

These demographics are reflected in the painting because, as Rudolf Arnheim writes, for Picasso: "The women and children make Guernica the image of innocent, defenseless humanity victimized. Also, women and children have often been presented by Picasso as the very perfection of mankind. An assault on women and children is, in Picasso's view, directed at the core of mankind." Clearly, the Nationalists sought to demoralize the Republicans and the civilian population as a whole by demonstrating their military might on a town that stood for traditional Basque culture and innocent civilians.[5]

After the bombing, it was through the work of the Basque and Republican sympathizer and The Times journalist George Steer that propelled this event onto the international scene and brought it to Pablo Picasso's attention. Steer, who rushed to town, compiled his observations into an article that was published on 28 April in both The Times and The New York Times, and which on the 29th, appeared in L'Humanité, a French Communist daily. Steer wrote:

It was through this article that Picasso was made aware of what had gone on in his country of origin. At the time, he was working on a mural for the Paris Exhibition to be held in the summer of 1937, commissioned by the Spanish Republican government. He deserted his original idea and on 1 May 1937, began on Guernica. This captivated his imagination unlike his previous idea, on which he had been working somewhat dispassionately, for a couple of months. It is interesting to note, however, that at its unveiling at the Paris Exhibition that summer, it garnered little attention. It would later attain its power as such a potent symbol of the destruction of war on innocent lives.[7] [10]

1937 Paris International Exhibition

Guernica was initially exhibited in July 1937 at the Spanish Pavilion at the Paris International Exposition.[11] The Pavilion, which was financed by the Spanish Republican government at the time of civil war, was built to exhibit the Spanish government's struggle for existence contrary to the Exposition's technology theme. The Pavilion's entrance presented an enormous photographic mural of Republican soldiers accompanied by the slogan:

We are fighting for the essential unity of Spain.

We are fighting for the integrity of Spanish soil.

We are fighting for the independence of our country and for

the right of the Spanish people to determine their own destiny.

The display of Guernica was accompanied by a poem by Paul Éluard, and the pavilion displayed works by Joan Miró and Alexander Calder, both of whom were sympathetic to the Republican cause.

Post-exhibition experiences

After the Paris Exhibition, the painting went on tour, first to the Scandinavian capitals, then to London, where it arrived on 30 September 1938, the same day the Munich Agreement was signed by the leaders of the United Kingdom, France, Italy, and Germany. The London exhibition at the Whitechapel Art Gallery included preparatory studies and was organized by Roland Penrose with Clement Attlee addressing a public meeting.

In 1939, Manchester Foodship For Spain, a group of artists and activists engaged in sending aid to the people of Spain, exhibited the painting in the HE Nunn & Co Ford automobile showroom in Manchester for two weeks.[12]

It then returned briefly to France; after the victory of Francisco Franco in Spain, the painting was sent to the United States to raise funds and support for Spanish refugees. At Picasso's request the safekeeping of the piece was entrusted to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City. It formed the centerpiece of a Picasso retrospective at MoMA which opened six weeks after the Nazi invasion of Poland.[13] [14]

Between 1939 and 1952, the painting traveled extensively in the United States; between 1953 and 1956 it was shown in Brazil, at the first-ever Picasso retrospective in Milan, Italy, and then in numerous other major European cities, before returning to MoMA for a retrospective celebrating Picasso's seventy-fifth birthday. It then went on to Chicago and Philadelphia. By this time, concern for the state of the painting resulted in a decision to keep it in one place: a room on MoMA's third floor, where it was accompanied by several of Picasso's preliminary studies and some of Dora Maar's photos. The studies and photos were often loaned for other exhibitions, but until 1981, Guernica itself remained at MoMA.[13]

While living in Nazi-occupied Paris during World War II, Picasso suffered harassment from the Gestapo. One officer allegedly asked him, upon seeing a photo of Guernica in his apartment, "Did you do that?" Picasso responded, "No, you did."[15]

During the Vietnam War, the room containing the painting became the site of occasional anti-war vigils. These were usually peaceful and uneventful, but on 28 February 1974, Tony Shafrazi – ostensibly protesting Second Lieutenant William Calley's petition for habeas corpus following his indictment and sentencing for the murder of a 109 Vietnamese civilians during the My Lai massacre – defaced the painting with red spray paint, painting the words "KILL LIES ALL"; the paint was removed with relative ease from the varnished surface.[14]

As early as 1968, Franco had expressed an interest in having Guernica return to Spain.[13] However, Picasso refused to allow this until the Spanish people again enjoyed a republic. He later added other conditions, such as the restoration of "public liberties and democratic institutions". Picasso died in 1973. Franco, ten years Picasso's junior, died two years later, in 1975. After Franco's death, Spain was transformed into a democratic constitutional monarchy, ratified by a new constitution in 1978. 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. Under great pressure from a number of observers, MoMA finally ceded the painting to Spain in 1981.The Spanish historian Javier Tusell was one of the negotiators.

During the 1970s, it was a symbol for Spaniards of both the end of the Franco regime and of Basque nationalism.The Basque left has repeatedly used imagery from the picture.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 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 the natural place to move it to. A special gallery was built at the Reina Sofía to display Picasso's masterpiece to best advantage.

When first displayed in Spain, the painting was placed at El Casón del Buen Retiro, an annex to the Prado that housed early 19th century paintings but had a large enough wall.It was kept behind bullet-proof glass and guarded with machine guns. However, since that time there has never been any attempted vandalism or other security threat to the painting. In its present gallery, the painting has roughly the same protection as any other work at the Reina Sofía.[16]

Basque nationalists have advocated that the picture should be brought to the Basque country,[17] especially after the building of the Guggenheim Bilbao Museum. Officials at the Reina Sofía claim[18] 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.[16]

Guernica at the United Nations

A tapestry copy of Picasso's Guernica is displayed on the wall of the UN building in New York City, at the entrance to the Security Council room. It was commissioned in 1955 by Nelson Rockefeller, since Picasso refused to sell him the original [19], and placed on loan to the United Nations by the Rockefeller estate in 1985,[20] the tapestry is less monochromatic than the original, and uses several shades of brown. On 5 February 2003 a large blue curtain was placed to cover this work, so that it would not be visible in the background when Colin Powell and John Negroponte gave press conferences at the United Nations.[21] On the following day, it was claimed that the curtain was placed there 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. Some diplomats, however, in talks with journalists claimed that the Bush Administration pressured UN officials to cover the tapestry, rather than have it in the background while Powell or other U.S. diplomats argued for war on Iraq.[22]

According to The Washington Times in 2003,[23] the sequence was as follows:

On 17 March 2009, Deputy Spokesperson for the Secretary-General Marie Okabe announced that the Guernica tapestry had been moved to a gallery in London in advance of extensive renovations at UN Headquarters. The Guernica tapestry is the showcase piece for the grand reopening of the Whitechapel Gallery. It is located in the 'Guernica room' which was originally part of the old Whitechapel Library.[24]

Sources

External links

Notes and References

  1. Fluegel (1980), p. 350
  2. Tóibín (2006).
  3. [Werner Spies]
  4. See Becht-Jördens (2003)
  5. Arhheim, (1973) p. ???
  6. Barton (2004).
  7. Ray (2006),168–171.
  8. Beevor (2006), 231
  9. Beevor (2006), 233.
  10. Preston (2007).12–19.
  11. Russell (2002)
  12. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-16927120 bbc.co.uk
  13. http://www.pbs.org/treasuresoftheworld/guernica/glevel_1/gtimeline.html Timeline
  14. Hoberman 2004
  15. http://www.artdaily.com/section/anecdotes/index.asp?int_sec=114 artdaily.org
  16. http://www.picassoswar.com/interview.html Author interview
  17. Ibarretxe reclama 'para siempre' el 'Guernica', El Mundo, 29 June 2007.
  18. El Patronato del Reina Sofía rechaza la cesión temporal del 'Guernica' al Gobierno vasco, El Mundo, 22 June 2006.
  19. http://www.guardian.co.uk/theobserver/2004/oct/03/art The Guardian - A scream we can't ignore, 3/10/2004
  20. Campbell (2009), 29.
  21. Kennedy (2009).
  22. Cohen (2003).
  23. Pisik (2003).
  24. Hensbergen (2009)