Guernica (painting) explained

Artist:Pablo Picasso
Type:Oil on canvas
Height Inch:137.4
Width Inch:305.5
Museum:Museo Reina Sofia

Guernica is a painting by Pablo Picasso, showing the bombing of Guernica, Spain, by twenty-eight German bombers, on April 26, 1937 during the Spanish Civil War. The attack killed between 250 and 1,600 people, and many more were injured. The Spanish rulers commissioned Pablo Picasso to create a large mural for 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.

Guernica shows the tragedies of war and the suffering war inflicts upon individuals, and in particular, innocent civilians. This monumental work has eclipsed the bounds of a single time and place, 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. Within fifteen days of the attack, Pablo Picasso began painting this mural. This tour brought the Spanish civil war to the world's attention.

The Painting

Guernica is black and white, 3.5 metre (11 ft) tall and 7.8 metre (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 to the worlds attention the bombing of the Basque town of Guernica by German bombers, on April 26, 1937 who were supporting the Nationalist forces of General Franco during the Spanish Civil War. 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 Museum of Modern Art in New York City mounted an important Picasso exhibition on November 15, 1939 that remained on view until January 7, 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 it's studies. [1] Guernica presents a scene of death, violence, brutality, suffering, and helplessness without portraying their immediate causes. The choice to paint in black and white conveys the chronological nearness of a newspaper photograph and the lifelessness war affords.

Guernica depicts 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, "...this bull is a bull and this horse is a horse... If you give a meaning to certain things in my paintings it may be very true, but it is not my idea to give this meaning. What ideas and conclusions you have got I obtained too, but instinctively, unconsciously. I make the painting for the painting. I paint the objects for what they are."[2]

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 these relate directly to the Guernica mural.

Picasso said as he worked on the mural:

However, according to Beverly Ray in her article entitled, “Analyzing Political Art to Get at Historical Fact: Guernica and the Spanish Civil War” the following list of interpretations reflects the general consensus of historians:

Historical Context

Guernica was a small village located in Spain’s Basque country. During the Spanish Civil War, it was considered to be the bastion of the Republican resistance movement in the north. It was the also the epicenter of Basque culture, lending its selection as a target further significance.[4]

The Republican forces were a conglomeration of assorted factions (Communists, Socialists, Anarchists, to name a few) that had different approaches to government, but nonetheless joined forces to oppose the Nationalists, lead by General Francisco Franco. The Republicans were not wholly united in what they were fighting for: Leftist Republicans wanted a liberal democracy, while others, including the Anarchists, Communists and some radical Socialists were not only fighting to oppose the Nationalist values, but for a social revolution. They believed that such a revolution was necessary for victory in the war. The Nationalists, who were also comprised of assorted factions (Carlist and Alfonsine monarchists, Falangists, etc.), on the whole presented a more unified platform, which they hoped to defend. They sought to return to a more "true" Spain—a return to the golden days of Spain They wanted to restore order, stability, and law, which they felt were sorely lacking in the Republic. They wanted to reinstall traditional values of Catholicism. They sought a return to traditional family values, with the wife being concerned first and foremost with her husband and children and with the husband being looked to as the patriarchal provider.[5]

An article "exposing the red myth" of Guernica by Jeffrey Hart of Dartmouth College was published in 1973 with the title "The Guernica Fraud" and reprinted in Die Welt and Il Tempo. In Il Tempo the article had as its title "Sensational Revelations Destroy a Myth".

On the afternoon of Monday, April 27, 1937, at about 4:30 pm, the village underwent an attack of about two hours by German warplanes. Colonel Wolfram von Richthofen, who would go on to organize the aerial attacks on Poland and France known as the Blitzkrieg during World War Two, orchestrated the attack. For the Germans, who at this time were under Hitler’s reign, aiding the Nationalists was not only a show of solidarity with Franco (they contributed airplanes, tanks, etc. to the Nationalist war effort) but also an opportunity to test out new weapons.[6] [7]

In his journal, on April 30, 1937, Colonel von Richthofen, leader of the Condor Legion, wrote the following in his entry:

When the first Junker squadron arrived, there was smoke already everywhere (from the VB [VB/88] which had attacked with 3 aircraft); nobody would identify the targets of roads, bridge, and suburb, and so they just dropped everything right into the center. The 250s 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. Most inhabitants were away because of a holiday; a majority of the rest left town immediately at the beginning [of the bombardment]. A small number perished in shelters that were hit.[8]

This account contains striking discrepancies from other accounts that cite that the towns members 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."[9] 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."[10] The Republican retreat towards Bilbao did pass through Guernica, before and after the bombing, and, as Beevor points out, "At Guernica the communist Rosa Luxembourg Battalion under Major Cristobal held back the nationalists for a time"[11]

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. [12]

These demographics are reflected in the painting because, for Picasso, as Rudolf Arnheim writes in The Genesis of a Painting: Picasso's Guernica, "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 village that stood for traditional Basque culture and innocent civilians.[13]

After the bombing, it was through the work of the Basque and Republican sympathizer and London Times journalist George Steer that propelled this event onto the international scene and brought it to Pablo Picasso’s attention. Steer, who rushed to the village, compiled his observations into an article that was published on April 28 in both The Times and the New York Times, and which on the 29th, appeared in L’Humanite, a French Communist daily. 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 types, 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.[14]

It was through this article that Picasso was made aware of what had gone on 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 May 1st, 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.[15] [16]

1937 Paris International Exhibition

Guernica was initially exhibited in July 1937 at the Spanish Pavilion at the Paris International Exposition.[17] 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 September 30, 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 organised by Roland Penrose with Clement Atlee addressing a public meeting. 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.[18] [19]

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.[19]

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."[20]

During the Vietnam War, the room containing the painting became the site of occasional anti-war vigils. These were usually peaceful and uneventful, but in 1974, Tony Shafrazi—ostensibly protesting Richard Nixon's pardon of William Calley for the latter's actions 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.[18]

As early as 1968, Franco had expressed an interest in having Guernica return to Spain.[19] 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 constitutional 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. 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 nineteenth 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.[21]

Basque nationalists have advocated that the picture should be brought to the Basque country,[22] especially after the building of the Guggenheim Bilbao Museum. Officials at the Reina Sofía claim[23] 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.[21]

Guernica at the United Nations

A tapestry copy of Picasso's Guernica is displayed on the wall of the United Nations building in New York City, at the entrance to the Security Council room. It was placed there as a reminder of the horrors of war. Commissioned and donated by Nelson Rockefeller, it is not quite as monochromatic as the original, using several shades of brown. On February 5, 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.[24] 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.[25]

According to The Washington Times in 2003[26], the sequence was as follows:

External links

Notes and References

  1. Fluegel, Jane. "Chronology". In: Pablo Picasso, Museum of Modern Art (exhibition catalog), 1980 p.350. William Rubin (ed.). ISBN 87070-519-9
  2. ...questions of meaning
  3. Ray, Beverly. “Analyzing Political Art to Get at Historical Fact: Guernica and the Spanish Civil War.” The Social Studies 97 (2006): 168-171.
  4. Arhheim, Rudolf. The Genesis of a Painting: Picasso’s Guernica. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1962.
  5. Barton, Simon. A History of Spain. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.
  6. Arhheim, Rudolf. The Genesis of a Painting: Picasso’s Guernica. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1962.
  7. Ray, Beverly. “Analyzing Political Art to Get at Historical Fact: Guernica and the Spanish Civil War.” The Social Studies 97 (2006): 168-171.
  8. Oppler, Ellen C. Picasso’s Guernica: Illustrations – Introductory Essay – Documents – Poetry – Criticism – Analysis. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1988.
  9. Beevor, Anthony. "The Battle for Spain. The Spanish Civil War 1936-1939" London, Penguin Books, 2006, p. 231.
  10. Beevor, Anthony. "The Battle for Spain. The Spanish Civil War 1936-1939" London, Penguin Books, 2006, p. 233.
  11. Beevor, Anthony. "The Battle for Spain. The Spanish Civil War 1936-1939" London, Penguin Books, 2006, p. 233.
  12. Preston, Paul. “George Steer and Guernica.” History Today 57 (2007): 12-19.
  13. Arhheim, Rudolf. The Genesis of a Painting: Picasso’s Guernica. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1962.
  14. Preston, Paul. “George Steer and Guernica.” History Today 57 (2007): 12-19.
  15. Preston, Paul. “George Steer and Guernica.” History Today 57 (2007): 12-19.
  16. Ray, Beverly. “Analyzing Political Art to Get at Historical Fact: Guernica and the Spanish Civil War.” The Social Studies 97 (2006): 168-171.
  17. Martin, Russell, Picasso's War: The Destruction of Guernica and the Masterpiece that Changed the World on-line excerpt. Accessed 2 August 2006.
  18. Hoberman 2004
  19. Timeline
  21. Author interview
  22. Ibarretxe reclama 'para siempre' el 'Guernica', El Mundo, 29 June 2007.
  23. El Patronato del Reina Sofía rechaza la cesión temporal del 'Guernica' al Gobierno vasco, El Mundo, 22 June 2006.
  24., January 26, 2009. Accessed 2009-02-08.
  25. David Cohen, Hidden Treasures: What's so controversial about Picasso's Guernica?, Slate, February 6, 2003. Accessed 16 July 2006.
  26. February 3, 2003 by the Washington Times