Art Through Time: A Global View
Conflict and Resistance Art: Guernica
The 1937 World Exposition in Paris took place during a period in Europe that was fraught with political unrest and armed conflict.
Strong, aggressive, dictatorial regimes were in control of both Germany and Russia, and Spain was in the midst of a civil war. Headed by General Francisco Franco and backed by Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, Nationalists in Spain had risen up against leftist republican leaders the previous year. Thus, when the embattled Spanish government decided to participate in the 1937 Exposition, its aim, at least in part, was to rally the support of the international community. To this end, the politically sympathetic expatriate Pablo Picasso was commissioned to create a mural for the nation’s pavilion at the fair.
The twenty-five-foot-wide painting that Picasso eventually produced was a direct response to an incident that occurred shortly before the Expo’s opening. On April 26, 1937, Nazi airplanes firebombed Guernica, completely destroying the small Basque town and killing about 1,500 civilians. Named for the town where the attack took place, Picasso’s Guernica is an image of chaos and violence. A woman flees a burning house on the far right. At center, a dying horse, stabbed with a spear, stands above a severed arm holding a broken sword. On the far left, a woman, clutching a dead baby, cries out in anguish. With a palette comprised solely of black, white, and gray, Guernicaevokes the look of newspaper, not only referencing the means by which word of such events spread, but also emphasizing the documentary nature of the work itself. At the same time, the absence of color suggests the mourning of a tragedy.
The organizers of the Spanish Pavilion who had commissioned the work from Picasso had wanted it to convey their dire situation as clearly as possible. They worried, upon seeing Guernica, that its use of abstraction and symbolism would prove too difficult for the public to understand. Their fears, however, seem to have been unfounded. Communicating on its own terms, the image expressed the horror of what happened in Guernica with an intensity and palpability that still resonates today. Ultimately, the work is not just a lament of what happened in one small town, but a condemnation of war in general.
John Elderfield, Chief Curator Emeritus of Painting and Sculpture, Museum of Modern Art, New York
“Guernica the painting was public from the get go. It was toured internationally. It was an explicitly political painting. It ended its tour at MoMA where it remained for many years. And, indeed, its period at MoMA was itself political because Picasso’s instruction was that it would stay there until democracy was returned to Spain. And then the picture could go back, leaving aside the slightly comedic element of a New York museum having to decide when Spain is sufficiently democratic to get the painting.
It was initially shown in the Prado before it went to the Reina Sofía. When it was first shown it was shown behind bulletproof glass because of concerns of its safety at the time when the Basque Separatist cause was high in Spain. So that even then it was perceived as a political picture and inseparable from a notion of independence within Spain. And in this case, the Basques, wanting their own independence from Spain, were ready to damage the picture.”
Arnheim, Rudolph. The Genesis of a Painting: Picasso’s Guernica. Second edition. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006.
Greeley, Robin Adèle. Surrealism and the Spanish Civil War. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006.
Larrea, Juan, and Walter Pach, eds. Guernica: Pablo Picasso. Manchester, NH: Ayer, 1969.
Van Hensbergen, Gija. Guernica: The Biography of a Twentieth-Century Icon.Bloomsbury, 2005.
Wood, Paul. Varieties of Modernism. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004.