Picasso and war

Blog by Roger Stephenson
Date27 Jun 2011

In Paris, Dora Maar was in tears and Picasso had found the subject for the painting he had been commissioned to do by the Spanish republican government for the Spanish pavilion at the international exhibition that was due to open in the French capital in May. With time running out, the exhibition finally opened on the 1900 exhibition site between the Champs de Mars and the Trocadero in June. The Spanish pavilion was not ready until July.

Picasso worked quickly with an intense fury of creativity, trying out ideas on the huge (11 feet by 25 feet)  canvas that he head crammed into his studio in the Rue des Grands Augustins. The final painting confronted the viewer, as it has confronted viewers ever since, with a graphic depiction of the horror of the bombing of a civilian population.

In an interview he gave in May 1937, Picasso said: “The war in Spain is the battle of reaction against the people, against liberty. My whole career has been one continual struggle against reaction and the death of art. In the painting on which I am now at work, which I shall call Guernica - and in all my recent works – I am very clearly expressing my horror at the military caste which has plunged Spain into a sea of suffering and death.” (Pierre Daix, Picasso, Thames and Hudson 1965, p166).

In Guernica, Picasso has not attempted to paint a recognisable image of the ruins of the town but has instead painted the suffering caused by the bombing at the time of the bombing.

The painting is in greys and blacks and whites, so we focus entirely, and without distraction, on the figures who are compressed into this scene. It is one of great movement and noise.

On the right, a woman, her arms raised above her head, is looking and gesturing in terror at the sky. She can also be read as falling from a burning building. On the left, a women holding the limp body of her dead baby, her heads thrown back in agony, screams at the sky. In the centre, a wounded horse, screaming in pain, collapses on the broken body of a warrior.

From January to April 1938, after the closure of the international exhibition, Guernica was shown in Oslo, Copenhagen, Stockholm and Goteborg as part of a group exhibition (with works by Matisse, Braque and the sculptor Henri Laurens as well as others by Picasso) before being returned to Picasso’s studio in Paris.

Roland Penrose, surrealist painter and friend of Picasso, who was also a Quaker pacifist and prominent member of the anti-fascist Artists’ International Association, worked hard to arrange for _Guernica_ to tour the UK.

In his 1958 biography of Picasso, Penrose writes: “When the moment arrived for the painting to be shipped to London with sixty-seven of the preparatory paintings, sketches and studies, the political situation, culminating in Chamberlain’s visit to Munich, looked so sinister that I telegraphed to ask Picasso what he wished us to do. His reply was immediate and definite. I was to continue with the arrangements. The purpose of the picture was to draw attention to the horrors of war and it mayst take its chance.” (Roland Penrose, Picasso: his life and work, Pelican Books, 1971, p328).

In October, Guernica and the preliminary studies were shown at the New Burlington Galleries in London. Then the preliminary studies alone were shown at Oriel College, Oxford, before going to Leeds City Art Gallery in December. In January 1939, they returned to London, to the Whitechapel Gallery, where they were shown with Guernica. The earlier exhibitions had raised money for Spanish Relief; here the price of admission was a pair of boots in a fit state to be sent to the Spanish front. In February, Guernica was shown in a car showroom in Manchester for two weeks.

By the end of March 1939, Franco had won the Spanish civil war and his reprisals against supporters of the Republican government were about to begin.

Picasso decided that Guernica should go to the United States to raise funds for refugee relief. It would tour the country from city to city ending in the Picasso retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in November.

Picasso agreed that the museum should keep Guernica until it was deemed safe for it to return to Europe. In 1970, he signed an agreement that he wanted Guernica to be kept at MOMA “until such time as individual liberties returned to Spain”.

Picasso died in 1973. Franco died in 1975. Guernica returned to Spain in 1981. It is now on display in its own special room in Madrid’s museum of modern art, the Museo Reina Sophia.

An exact tapestry copy of  Guernica hangs in the corridor outside the debating chamber at the United Nations Security Council in New York.

In February 2003, when the US tried to win approval for the invasion of Iraq, the tapestry was mysteriously covered with a blue shroud. A UN spokesman said that blue was a more appropriate colour as a backdrop for television cameras. Picasso’s mixture of blacks and whites and greys was visually too confusing.

In 1970, talking to the Argentinian photographer Roberto Otero about Franco’s treatment of the Basques, Picasso said: “The truth of the matter is that by means of Guernica I have the pleasure of making a political statement every day in the middle of New York city.”

Topics: Culture