2012 marks the 75th anniversary of one of the most infamous moments of the Spanish Civil War and the European inter-war period. On 26 April 1937, at the request of military dictator Francisco Franco, Hitler’s Luftwaffe bombed the Basque city of Guernica. While certainly a tragedy, the attack was not the most deadly of the civil war, though it is most remembered thanks to Pablo Picasso’s iconic painting.
Picasso, living at the time in Paris, read about the attack in the newspaper and was subsequently inspired to create what has become one of his great masterpieces. The canvas reaches 20×30 feet making the viewing experience almost immersive and all the more powerful. Painted almost entirely in black and white, the painting refers to Picasso’s second-hand experience of the event by alluding to newspaper images. As a Spanish native who spent his early life living all throughout the country, news of the bombing of Guernica was especially horrific.
Franco chose the small city of Guernica (or as the Basques spell it: Gernika) because though not the largest in the region, it was the official seat of the Basque government and very symbolic in Basque identity. The Basque region straddling the border of Spain and France has long expressed separtist leanings with many hoping for autonomy, and this would not be acceptable in Franco’s desire to build a new Spain. Though born in the south of Spain, Picasso spent four years in A Coruna, a town in Galicia in western Spain, and his teenage years in Barcelona, the major cultural and political centre of Catalonia. Galicia, Catalonia, and the Basque region each harbor unique identies within Spain and Gallego, Catalan, and Euskera respectively are official languages in addition to Spanish. It is likely that the experiences of his youth led to an even greater sympathy for the Basque people. The painting was initially displayed at the 1937 Paris International Exposition in the Spanish pavilion attracting great attention to the artist and the tragic event. With Europe on the brink of the Second World War, the fear expressed in the painting was soon to become reality for many.
What is it though about this one painting that has left such an imprint on our collective memory of the event? Of course many who survived the attack are no longer alive today, but people around the world are familiar with the events of 26 April though primarily through art, not history. The grief-stricken faces, contorted poses, and dramatic abstraction create a feeling of frenzy and terror that is not seen in many other works. The simultaneous simplicity of the colour palatte and complexity of composition create a narrative and a mood that remains with viewers long after seeing the painting.
Today Guernica resides in the Museo Reina Sofia, Madrid’s modern and contemporary art museum, though it spent a considerable amount of time at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Picasso and others felt the painting would not be safe while Franco was in power, so until the dictator passed away in 1975, the painting was held across the Atlantic Ocean to protect it from being destroyed eventually returning to spain in 1981.
Even years after the painting was produced, the work holds a political significance beyond the artistic merit. Particularly after the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao was built drawing public attention once again to the Basque Region, many Basques wanted the painting to return to it’s origins, not of production but of inspiration. Officials at the Reina Sofia and the government in general are reluctant to part with such an important work that draws tourists into the museum. They claim the work is too fragile to travel and there is an undertone that implies it will be better taken care of and more frequently viewed in the Spanish capital than in the north. Some art workers in the Basque region have also expressed concerns about the practicality of moving the work north. The question, really, is of identity and symbolism instead of the actual physical location.
Today Guernica is still a quiet Basque city and has been rebuilt and restored after the destruction of the bombing. The city remains the symbolic capital for the Basque people and has created a Peace Museum to promote peace throughout the world while referencing the significance of their town. Even though the painting is halfway across the country, a full-scale replica is painted as a mural on a stone wall placing the history of the town within the contemporary landscape.
It is amazing to see how powerful art can be in retelling a narrative, shaping opinions, while also retaining a sense of universality. Guernica is an iconic piece of modern artwork that has not only commemorated an isolated event, but also represents the horrors of war and the healing nature of art. Words: Emily Sack © ArtLyst 2012