Why Picasso’s Guernica Will Always Matter
One of my favourite things about living in Madrid is the easy access to a wide array of the world’s most precious art heritage, particularly Picasso’s iconic Guernica.
A key quality for an artist, in my opinion, is to be honest about the world in all its beauty and ugliness –and this masterpiece combines those two in powerful ways. This is what makes the Guernica the defining portrait of our age.
Much has been written about the huge mural, which depicts the bombing of an undefended Basque town by planes of the German Luftwaffe on April 26, 1937 –a critical turning point in the Spanish Civil War. The death toll is disputed, but there’s no doubt that from one hundred to a thousand people died that day. Journalist George Steer, writing for The Times of London, described this (then) new strategy of warfare as follows:
Guernica, the most ancient town of the Basques and the centre of their cultural tradition, was completely destroyed yesterday by insurgent air raiders. The bombardment of the open town far behind the lines occupied precisely three hours and a quarter during which a powerful fleet of aeroplanes … did not cease unloading on the town bombs weighing from 1,000lbs downward 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 machine-gun those of the civilian population who had taken refuge in the fields.
At the time, Picasso had been commissioned to create a painting for the Republican government in exile, to be displayed at a Paris exhibition. Facing a creative block, Picasso read Steer’s reports and other accounts from Spain, and in his anger decided to change course and attempt to capture the suffering inflicted on the town. Having a very sullen mood, he only started working on what would be one of his earliest politically inclined pieces on May 1, 1937, approximately three weeks before the scheduled launch of the exhibit. Guernica was not completed until early June, about two weeks after the pavilion opened.
Working furiously in his Paris studio on the massive canvas, Picasso completed the work in less than a month. Reactions to this reveal were mixed. Some recognized its genius, while some supporters of the Republican cause were critical –claiming the picture lacked an overt message, unlike some of the other propaganda on display. [The Reina Sofia Museum has created a thoughtful exhibit that provides excellent context for Guernica, including posters, Picasso’s preliminary sketches, and newsreels about the Spanish Civil War.]
But Picasso’s masterpiece wasn’t propaganda, and that’s why it continues to endure in our imagination.
Why Will Picasso’s Guernica Always Matter?
It’s a cry of rage against the horrors of modern warfare, a work of art that prophetically envisioned the carnage of the modern world. Technology and brutal efficiency all reside in that evil-eye electric lightbulb hovering at the painting’s apex. Picasso foretold the fracturing of countless lives on all sides of war. Not just in London, Rotterdam, or Warsaw, but also Berlin, Dresden, the Middle East, Tokyo, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki. Throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, we’ve seen that screaming mother and her dead child too many times (as well as the ineffectual bull, the male symbol so potent in many of Picasso’s works, here reduced to a dumbstruck bystander).
Guernica continues to be the icon of a world steeped in violence, whether it’s napalm dropped by B-52s on the people of Vietnam or the callous acts of terrorism that’s shattering so many lives in the world today.
There’s nothing mysterious about why a tapestry based on Guernica at the United Nations was hidden behind a curtain when Colin Powell gave a speech pitching the invasion of Iraq. We want our shock and awe to be abstract, just words. But words have consequences, and we see this in the news every day: in the indiscriminate deaths in Syria, in extremist attacks around the world… Paris, Nice, Ouagadougou, Beirut, Jakarta, Panakhot, Brussels, Garissa University, and in reprisal attacks on Raqqua, Sana, Waziristan… And the list goes on and on of largely ignored news of killings. Where is their Guernica?
It’s hard to call Picasso’s painting political when its subject is such a pervasive constant of our time. It’s realism. Within those stark, cracked images of fear and grief is a command: that we actually see the results of violence, especially those acts we might otherwise ignore.
We live in a world of dark threats, but to my mind there’s no brand of warfare as cowardly and dangerous as remote-controlled drone strikes, where soldiers sit in front of computer monitors sipping their Big Gulps and, with a click of a mouse, send missiles thundering down from that lightbulb in the sky. These are the ones in which the targets’ identities aren’t known, but simply chosen because they look suspicious. After the target is hit, more missiles are fired at the people who attempt to help the victims.
Drone operators jokingly refer the photo evidence of these strikes as “bug splats.” And I suppose from satellites in orbit, that’s what they resemble. But what Picasso’s Guernica reminds us is this: these aren’t bugs, but real human beings –with real lives–that are being ripped apart.
Death tolls secondary to violence are on the rise around the world, and the numbers have long surpassed that of the town of Guernica.
This is why Picasso’s Guernica will always matter.