The Masterpiece of the 20th Century
I discovered Guernica after reading Picasso's War, Russell Martin's brilliant examination of the history of the painting. The book examines the Spanish Civil War and its part as a precursor to World War II while simultaneously following Picasso's life.
The Spanish Civil War:
A fledgling Spanish democracy had finally been born out of the old monarchy, but it was only able to exist for a few years before Franco and his fascists started to wrest control of Spain from the socialist government. Picasso supported the embattled Republic and sent much of his fortune to Spain, but to little use. Franco had the clandestine support of the Italian army as well as Hitler's troops. Hitler was slowly taking over Western Europe while Britain and France hid in denial.
The fascists decided to attack a city in Spain and kill two birds with one stone - test out the Nazis' horrible new warfare techniques and send a symbolic message to the Republic to crush their spirits. Guernica was a small city in the heart of Spain's Basque region. The Basques were a minority group and just beginning to enjoy full rights in the Republic. They expected renewed persecution if Franco came to power, and were fighting fiercely.
Under cover of darkness, on April 26, 1937, Nazi planes decimated the city. It was the first time that devestation on that scale had been wrought from the air, and that new development allowed the pilots complete disconnection from their victims. This encouraged the planes not just to bomb military targets but every building in the city, and to circle back again and again to gun down every person they could find.
The world was outraged at the devastation and Franco was forced to spread lies that the Communists, a group that supported the Republic, had torched the city to prevent the fascists from capturing it. But much of the world press saw through this rumor. Picasso and other Spanish exiles in France decided to express their anger through their art, both as a way of fighting Franco's lies and to drum up more support for the Republic.
Spanish by birth, Picasso spent most of his life in Paris, the center of the art world. He had been commissioned to create a giant mural for the Spanish exhibition at the 1937 World's Fair. He was working on ideas that included much of his recurring imagery - such as a Bull that often represented himself, or Spain - but then heard of the attack on Guernica. Though he disdained overt political art, Picasso couldn't resist making a bold statement against Franco, whom he despised.
For three months - lightspeed for such a huge canvas - Picasso created what was to become his masterpiece. But the Spanish Pavilion at the World's Fair, meager due to little funding from the dying Republic, was overshadowed by Albert Speer's Nazi monolith. Those that did see Guernica, especially the press reviews, were overwhelmingly critical.
But soon after, the painting began to tour Europe and then America to raise awareness of the horrors of Fascism. Its fame grew, and the painting was displayed at MoMA in New York for safety. It stayed there as the centerpiece of MoMA's collection for almost forty years.
Franco's regime outlasted Picasso by only a few years. Before he died, Franco restored the prince from the old monarchy to the throne to succeed him. It had always been Franco's dream to hand over Spain to the harsh tradition of the monarchy he remembered. But he miscalculated drastically, because the new king decided to hand over power peacefully to a new democratic Republic. Picasso had vowed that the painting belonged to a democratic Spain and would only be taken there when the Republic again existed. In the 1980s, Guernica was eventually brought to its homeland ... for the first time.
"A painting is not thought out and settled in advance," said Picasso. "While it is being done, it changes as one's thoughts change. And when it's finished, it goes on changing, according to the state of mind of whoever is looking at it."