A new exhibition marking the 80th anniversary of the creation of Picasso’s masterpiece Guernica is unveiled in Spain on 5 April. The exhibition, ‘Pity and Terror in Picasso’, opens at the Museo Reina Sofía. The great mural will be at the centre of the show. It will look again at Picasso’s depiction of modern warfare – war from the air, death from a distance, aimed at the destruction of whole populations – and the special kinds of agony, bewilderment, and terror such warfare brings with it.
Guernica is a painting of an interior world collapsing
In particular, the exhibition will focus on the roots of Guernica’s imagery in Picasso’s previous turn, during the years following 1925, toward scenes of frenzied or ecstatic human action, often tinged with danger and sometimes tipping over into outright violence: wild dancing, ominous confrontation between artist and model, monstrous sexual grapplings on the beach, women wedged in armchairs with their mouths open in a scream or a predatory roar. Picasso occasionally commented on this kind of subject matter. He said that the armchair in his paintings of the nude was death lying in wait for beauty; and once, talking about the sadness and anxiety haunting his paintings of Dora Maar, he blurted out that ‘woman is a machine for suffering.’
This last statement could be interpreted as compassionate, or gloating. In Guernica, we believe compassion rules. And it is notable that in Guernica violence is not made part of a dance of the sexes, in which aggression and submission are fused with desirability and jouissance. Yet in Picasso’s work as a whole that fusion often takes place. This exhibition will explore the deep ambivalences of Picasso’s treatment of violence and sexuality.
Guernica is a painting of an interior world collapsing. A room is being torn apart by a bomb. This is a new and profoundly difficult subject for Picasso to handle. From the beginning Picasso’s world, in painting, had been premised on the containing space of the room: it had depended on, and celebrated, an intimacy and proximity guaranteed by four walls and a window. Yet his art is also filled, notoriously, by a feeling for everything in 20th-century modernity that puts such room-space at risk.
A second strand of the exhibition will explore Picasso’s new treatment of the interior from 1924 onward: the way the space of drawing room or studio is more and more invaded by broken or dismembered bodies, with the outside world pressing in through the window. The room becomes populated by monsters. And eventually, in and around 1930, the unnerving creatures escape from the room, and begin to take a stand in an open, maybe even public, space. Monsters become monuments – monstrosity in Picasso is in no sense simply negative, it may be a new form of giant vitality and self-recognition. Again there would have been no Guernica, the exhibition will argue – no final staging of tragedy on a vast scale, addressed to the public realm – without these earlier strange experiments.
Pity and Terror in Picasso will build on major loans from the Musée Picasso in Paris, Tate Modern, Centre George Pompidou, MoMA, the Metropolitan Museum, the Beyeler Foundation, and elsewhere. It will begin with the still lifes and interiors of 1924-25, chart Picasso’s treatment of monstrosity and violence in the later 1920s and 1930s, take the story beyond Guernica to the doom-laden portraits and interiors done as World War II began, and end with a room dedicated to Picasso’s attempts in the 1950s to return to ‘history painting’ in works like Massacre in Korea and the UNESCO mural, Fall of Icarus.