Pablo Picasso, 1937. Ad for Guernica
Oil on canvas, Museo Reina Sofia, Madrid, Spain.
Guernica: Painting Review.
by Two Ink Pages
This is one of Picasso’s most celebrated works and a continual point of reference for anti-war art. The bombing of Guernica (a Basque village in northern Spain) by German and Italian warplanes was green-lighted by Spanish Nationalist forces and commenced on the 26th of April 1937 killing a speculated 126 – 400 people (800 by Russian accounts).
3.5 metre (11 ft) tall and 7.8 metre (25.6 ft) wide
Despite the offer of commission having been admitted before the attack by the Spanish Republican government, Picasso sacrificed his original idea to create an anti-war mural for the Spanish display of the Paris international exposition at the 1937 world fair in response to this tragedy.
Picasso moved into a new studio in the attic of 7, rue des Grands-Augustins, which Dora Maar found for him in early 1937. Originally part of a grand 17th-century mansion, it had an intriguing history that appealed to Picasso's sense of irony, particularly as he was painting Guernica.
The studio was said to be the setting for The Unknown Masterpiece, a short story written in 1837 by the famous French author, Honoré de Balzac. It describes an obsession by the painter, Frenhofer, the greatest painter of his time, to represent the absolute on his canvas, a process that takes years for his creative powers to complete.
When the picture, which becomes less and less recognizable as time goes on, is ridiculed by his artist friends as the work of a madman, he destroys the work and dies. The story resonated with Picasso who, like Frenhofer, also locked himself away in the same studio to create a masterpiece, although in his case it was recognized as such.
Picasso made hundreds of preliminary drawings for Guernica and more than fifty studies. In some of these, the heads of Weeping Women appear for the first time.
Constraints such as the enormous size of the stretched canvas, measuring 3.5 x 7.8 metres and so had to be tilted to fit under the rafters of the ceiling, and dim lighting from bay windows on one side of the studio, failed to hinder Picasso.
The painting was completed in twenty-four frenetic days. Streams of ideas, emotions, traditions, myths, obsessions and symbols of his roots deeply embedded in Hispanic and Mediterranean culture spilled onto the canvas. These were fuelled by anger and a need to express his pain.
The attack was one born not from the need to suppress a military stronghold as much as it was an ostentatious display of nationalist brutality, the only target of any legitimate threat was a small factory on the outskirts of the town that produced a small amount of military produce, a factory that went completely unscathed during the bombing, added to this the majority of the villages men were away fighting, resulting in most causalities encompassing women and young children.
After the Paris exhibition, Guernica went on to travel the world, first Scandinavia and Europe then later in 1939 the United States. Picasso refused to allow it to be hung in Spain until the republic were once again in power, after Franco’s death in 1975 Spain was transformed into a democratic constitutional monarchy by 1978.
The painting was finally returned home in 1981 and continues to be a colossal warning to humanity of the consequences and horrors of warfare, its nonspecific nature makes it both universal and timeless.