On Monday 26th April 1937 the small Basque town of Guernica was subjected to an unprecedented barrage of horror as German and Italian planes blanket- bombed the city for three hours , reducing it to a burning fireball. Afterwards innocent civilians were indiscriminately mowed down by machine gun fire as they tried to escape the carnage by fleeing into the hills. Shock waves rippled round the world as newspapers graphically reported the event:-
At 2.am today when I visited the town, the whole of it was a horrible sight, flaming from end to end. in the form of its execution and the scale of the destruction …..Guernica is unparalleled in military history. Guernica was not a military objective…. the objective of the bombardment was seemingly the demoralization of the civil population and the destruction of the cradle of the Basque race. ( Steer Times 28.4)
Out of this event would come the most iconic painting of war and suffering ever produced, one that has grown in symbolic meaning in the intervening years and one that is forever in the hearts of those who have suffered unwarranted destruction at the hands of the powerful warmongers of the 20th century .
Pablo Picasso’s Guernica
Guernica the painting is a great grey abstract, eleven feet high and twenty-five feet long, looming over its audiences like a great classical carving of supernatural proportions. Picasso transferred his imagining of the horrors onto his enormous canvas in only two months working at frenetic speed and finishing his work in time for the Exposition Internationale in Paris 1937 where it was displayed for the first time in the Spanish pavilion. The reactions were mixed but many stood in front of the painting and felt the suffering as Picasso had intended , one critic wrote :-
Guernica makes one feel the terrible drama of a great people abandoned to medieval tyrants and makes one think about it …
Within the next three years , the imagined reality of Guernica arrived for the rest of Europe as the horrors of total war descended on the continent and town after town were to follow the fate of Guernica, from Coventry
to Dresden. Those that doubted the depictions in Picasso’s masterpiece came to realize that he had captured the absolute lived experience of war in its raw essence.
Why has the painting of Guernica had such a lasting effect? It does not specifically allude to the bombing of the town itself but uses symbolic meanings that have resonated within the universal human conscience. Fundamentally it is very Spanish, as it should be with the image of the bullfight at centre stage and the inherent knowledge that the innocent will suffer and the brave will not necessarily prevail. The horse is contorted with pain and in its death throes , about to collapse upon the corpse of the dead warrior who is clothed in classical attire. Three women look on in various stages of distress and most poignant , to the right a mother with the limp body of her child is overshadowed by the powerful figure of the bull. The mother and child brings to mind so many images of the Madonna and the powerful bull figure has been iconic in ancient art in a variety of forms.
Picasso has therefore managed to combine and fuse the power of the myth of the Minotaur ( half man, half beast ) with the deep pathos of the Crucifixion and the chaotic violence of the Spanish corrida. He has in one masterpiece of a painting modernized myth and fused the ancient and modern worlds so that the painting speaks of the universality of human suffering, whilst also being embedded in community.
Guernica has become the universally iconic image of the destruction of war. Although first shown in Paris 1937 to rather muted reception its imagery has taken hold of the public imagination . It symbolizes for us all the horror of mass slaughter thinly disguised behind the rituals of ancient warfare and death. As every country has come to experience the appalling atrocities that mankind is capable of the painting has become synonymous with the suffering of the helpless pawns of the powerful. For the Japanese it is symbolic of Hiroshima and for the Americans it has symbolized both Vietnam and the terror attack of 9/11. The painting has the capacity to speak to us intimately as individuals whilst also maintaining a universality of symbolic meaning for all.
Picasso has turned terror into an art form that teaches us something, it depicts the essence of suffering but has taken on a life force beyond the reality to symbolize the fight for freedom and peace and the eternal hope that maybe
…will learn from its mistakes.
It was the last modern painting of major importance to take a political subject puposfully intending to bring about change. From the day of its first showing, Guernica has continued to shock and to enlighten in equal measure gradually reinventing itself as a mechanism that speaks of reconciliation and the hope for enduring world peace.
That we seem incapable of learning the lessons of history makes the painting even more relevant and iconic today as ever.
Martin. R 2002. Picasso’s War.
Van Hensbergen. G 2004 .Guernica the Biography of a 20th century Icon