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Pablo Picasso - Guernica 1937

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Pablo Picasso - Guernica 1937

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Guernica, Pablo Picasso,  1937

Oil on canvas

349 ?776 cm, 137.4 ? 305.5 in

Museo Reina Sofia, Madrid

 

Guernica is a painting by Pablo Picasso, depicting the Nazi German bombing of Guernica, Spain, by twenty-four bombers, on April 26, 1937 during the Spanish Civil War, in which a number of people variously estimated between 250 and 1,600 were killed and many more were injured.

A huge mural had already been commissioned from Picasso by the Spanish Republican government to decorate the Spanish Pavilion at the Paris International Exposition (the 1937 World's Fair in Paris). Picasso's first sketches were done on May 1st, a week after the bombing. Picasso said as he worked on the mural:

 

? The Spanish struggle is the fight of reaction against the people, against freedom. My whole life as an artist has been nothing more than a continuous struggle against reaction and the death of art. How could anybody think for a moment that I could be in agreement with reaction and death? ... In the panel on which I am working, which I shall call Guernica, and in all my recent works of art, I clearly express my abhorrence of the military caste which has sunk Spain in an ocean of pain and death.[1]

The painting

In its final form, Guernica is an immense black and white, 3.5 metre (11 ft) tall and 7.8 metre (23 ft) wide mural painted in oil. In creating Guernica, Picasso had no interest in painting the non-representational abstraction typical of some of his contemporaries, such as Kazimir Malevich. The mural presents a scene of death, violence, brutality, suffering, and helplessness without portraying their immediate causes. The choice to paint in black and white contrasts with the intensity of the scene depicted and invokes the immediacy of a newspaper photograph.[2]

 

 

Hidden images in Guernica. This de-contrasting of the lower portion of the horse makes it easier to discern the hidden skull in profile in the painting. The bull's head is formed mostly by the bent front leg. The head's nose is formed by the leg's knee cap.Guernica depicts suffering people, animals, and buildings wrenched by violence and chaos.

 

The overall scene is within a room, where, at an open end on the left, a wide-eyed bull stands over a woman grieving over a dead child in her arms.

The center is occupied by a horse falling in agony as it had just been run through by a spear or javelin. The shape of a human skull forms the horse's nose and upper teeth.

Two "hidden" images formed by the horse appear in Guernica (illustrated to the right):

A human skull is overlayed on the horse's body.

A bull appears to gore the horse from underneath. The bull's head is formed mainly by the horse's entire front leg which has the knee on the ground. The leg's knee cap forms the head's nose. A horn appears within the horse's breast.

Under the horse is a dead, apparently dismembered soldier, his hand on a severed arm still grasps a shattered sword from which a flower grows.

A light bulb blazes in the shape of an eye over the suffering horse's head.

To the upper right of the horse, a frightened female figure, who seems to be witnessing the scenes before her, appears to have floated into the room through a window. Her arm, also floating in, carries a flame-lit lamp.

From the right, an awe-struck woman staggers towards the center below the floating female figure. She looks up blankly into the blazing light bulb.

Daggers that suggest screaming replace the tongues of the bull, grieving woman, and horse.

A bird, possibly a duck, stands on a shelf behind the bull in panic.

On the far right, a figure with arms raised in terror is entrapped by fire from above and below.

A dark wall with an open door defines the right end of the mural.

 

Symbolism in Guernica

Interpretations of Guernica vary widely and contradict one another. This extends, for example, to the mural's two dominant elements -- the bull and the horse. Art historian Patricia Failing said, "The bull and the horse are important characters in Spanish culture. Picasso himself certainly used these characters to play many different roles over time. This has made the task of interpreting the specific meaning of the bull and the horse very tough. Their relationship is a kind of ballet that was conceived in a variety of ways throughout Picasso's career."

 

When pressed to explain them in Guernica, Picasso said, "...this bull is a bull and this horse is a horse... If you give a meaning to certain things in my paintings it may be very true, but it is not my idea to give this meaning. What ideas and conclusions you have got I obtained too, but instinctively, unconsciously. I make the painting for the painting. I paint the objects for what they are." [3]

 

In "The Dream and Lie of Franco," a series of narrative sketches also created for the World's Fair, Franco is depicted as a monster that first devours his own horse and later does battle with an angry bull. Work on these illustrations began before the bombing of Guernica, and four additional panels were added, three of these relate directly to the Guernica mural.

 

 

History

 

1937 Paris International Exhibition

Guernica was initially exhibited in July 1937 at the Spanish Pavilion at the Paris International Exposition[4]. The Pavilion, which was financed by the Spanish Republican government at the time of civil war, was built to exhibit the Spanish government's struggle for existence contrary to the Exposition's technology theme. The Pavilion's entrance presented an enormous photographic mural of Republican soldiers accompanied by the slogan:

 

We are fighting for the essential unity of Spain.

We are fighting for the integrity of Spanish soil.

We are fighting for the independence of our country and for

the right of the Spanish people to determine their own destiny.

The display of Guernica was accompanied by a poem by Paul Eluard, and the pavilion displayed works by Joan Miro and Alexander Calder, both, of whom, were sympathic to the Republican cause.

 

 

Post-Exhibition experiences

After the Paris Exhibition, the painting went on tour, first to the Scandinavian capitals, then to London, where it arrived on September 30, 1938, the same day the Munich Agreement was signed by the leaders of the United Kingdom, France, Italy, and Germany. The London exhibition at the Whitechapel Art Gallery included preparatory studies and was organised by Roland Penrose with Clement Atlee addressing a public meeting. It then returned briefly to France; after the victory of Francisco Franco in Spain, the painting was sent to the United States to raise funds and support for Spanish refugees. At Picasso's request the safekeeping of the piece was entrusted to the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York City. It formed the centerpiece of a Picasso retrospective at MOMA which opened six weeks after the Nazi invasion of Poland. [5][6]

 

Between 1939 and 1952, the painting traveled extensively in the United States; between 1953 and 1956 it was shown in Brazil, at the first-ever Picasso retrospective in Milan, Italy, and then in numerous other major European cities, before returning to MOMA for a retrospective celebrating Picasso's seventy-fifth birthday. It then went on to Chicago and Philadelphia. By this time, concern for the state of the painting resulted in a decision to keep it in one place: a room on MOMA's third floor, where it was accompanied by several of Picasso's preliminary studies and some of Dora Maar's photos. The studies and photos were often loaned for other exhibitions, but until 1981, Guernica itself remained at MOMA. [6]

 

During the Vietnam War, the room containing the painting became the site of occasional anti-war vigils. These were usually peaceful and uneventful, but in 1974, Tony Shafrazi ? ostensibly protesting Richard Nixon's pardon of William Calley for the latter's actions during the My Lai massacre ? defaced the painting with red spray paint, painting the words "KILL LIES ALL"; the paint was relatively easily removed from the varnished surface. [7] (Nixon actually refused to pardon Calley, but he did commute Calley's sentence to time served after it was twice reduced by the courts.)

 

As early as 1968, Franco had expressed an interest in having Guernika return to Spain. [6] However, Picasso refused to allow this until the Spanish people again enjoyed a republic. He later added other conditions, such as the restoration of "public liberties and democratic institutions". Picasso died in 1973. Franco, ten years Picasso's junior, died two years later, in 1975. After Franco's death, Spain was transformed into a democratic constitutional monarchy, ratified by a new constitution in 1978. However, MOMA were reluctant to give up one of their greatest treasures and argued that a constitutional monarchy did not represent the republic that had been stipulated in Picasso's will as a condition for the painting's return. Under great pressure from a number of observers, MOMA finally ceded the painting to Spain in 1981. The Spanish historian Javier Tusell was one of the negotiators.

 

During the 1970s, it was a symbol for Spaniards of both the end of the Franco regime and of Basque nationalism. The Basque left has repeatedly used imagery from the picture.

 

 

A tiled wall in Gernika claims "Guernica" Gernikara, "The Guernica (painting) to Gernika."In 1992 the painting was moved from the Museo del Prado to the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, both in Madrid, along with about two dozen preparatory works. This action was controversial in Spain, since Picasso's will stated that the painting should be displayed at the Prado.

 

However, the move was part of a transfer of all of the Prado's collections of art after the early 19th century to other nearby buildings in the city for reasons of space; the Reina Sofia, which houses the capital's national collection of 20th century art, was the natural place to move it. A special gallery was built at the Reina Sofia to display Picasso's masterpiece to best advantage.

 

When first displayed in Spain, the painting was placed at El Cason del Buen Retiro, an annex to the Prado that housed early nineteenth century paintings but had a large enough wall. It was kept behind bullet-proof glass and guarded with machine guns. However, since that time there has never been any attempted vandalism or other security threat to the painting. In its present gallery, the painting has roughly the same protection as any other work at the Reina Sofia. [8]

 

Basque nationalists have advocated that the picture should be brought to the Basque country, especially after the building of the Guggenheim Bilbao Museum. Officials at the Reina Sofia claim that the huge canvas is now thought to be too fragile to move. Even the staff of the Guggenheim do not see a permanent transfer of the painting as possible, although the Basque government continues to support the possibility of a temporary exhibition in Bilbao. [8]

 

 

Guernica at the United Nations

A tapestry copy of Picasso's Guernica is displayed on the wall of the United Nations building in New York City, at the entrance to the Security Council room. It was placed there as a reminder of the horrors of war. Commissioned and donated by Nelson Rockefeller, it is not quite as monochromatic as the original, using several shades of brown. On February 5, 2003 a large blue curtain was placed to cover this work, so that it would not be visible in the background when Colin Powell and John Negroponte gave press conferences at the United Nations. On the following day, it was claimed that the curtain was placed there at the request of television news crews, who had complained that the wild lines and screaming figures made for a bad backdrop, and that a horse's hindquarters appeared just above the faces of any speakers. Diplomats, however, told journalists that the Bush Administration pressured UN officials to cover the tapestry, rather than have it in the background while Powell or other U.S. diplomats argued for war on Iraq. [9]

 

 

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Notes

  1. ^ Colm Toibin, The Art of War, The Guardian, April 29, 2006. Accessed online 16 July 2006.
  2. ^ Pablo Picasso - Biography, Quotes & Paintings, retrieved June 14th 2007.
  3. ^ ...questions of meaning, part of a series of web pages on Guernica in PBS's Treasures of the World series. Accessed 16 July 2006.
  4. ^ Martin, Russell, Picasso's War: The Destruction of Guernica and the Masterpiece that Changed the World on-line excerpt. Accessed 2 August 2006.
  5. ^ Hoberman 2004
  6. ^ a b c Timeline, part of a series of web pages on Guernica in PBS's Treasures of the World series. Accessed 16 July 2006.
  7. ^ Hoberman 2004
  8. ^ a b Author interview on Russell Martin's Picasso's War site. Accessed 16 July 2006.
  9. ^ David Cohen, Hidden Treasures: What's so controversial about Picasso's Guernica?, Slate, February 6, 2003. Accessed 16 July 2006.

References

  • Martin, Russell, Picasso's War: The Destruction of Guernica and the Masterpiece that Changed the World (2002). On-line excerpts link.

 

Oil on canvas, Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain

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