Picasso’s Guernica: Painting a Bombing


In a way, we were inflicting violence on the
children. During my years as a teaching assistant in
Spain, I had the privilege of escorting several of my fourth-grade classes to the Reina Sofia
Museum of 20th century art in Madrid. Now a painting or sculpture by Picasso can
be difficult for anyone to wrap their heads around, myself included, and this proved a
particular challenge for the often less-than-attentive groups of 9 year-olds we brought out of the
Spanish public school system. Even with an attentive guide from the museum,
our students would begin to zone out after only a few of his distorted portraits and
sculptures. The distances between teacher ‘whisper shouts’
of ‘que os calléis’, basically, ‘shut up’, became shorter. So when entering the area of the museum which
holds Picasso’s Guernica, my attention always went to the students first; their dispositions
would immediately change. Initially they were drawn to the size (Guernica’s
canvas is as large as a wall), but soon the museum guide would begin a low-voiced explication
of the story behind it, asking the students to point out what stuck out to them: the ‘toro’,
the bull, the ‘caballo’, the horse, ‘la luz’, the light. 60 precursor sketches resulted in the colossal
canvas which stretches 25 feet wide and over 11 feet high; the black, white and grey paints
give glossless life to horrific imagery. Though my Spanish in the first year was insufficient
to grasp each word, I knew that my student’s eyes were wide, their attention focused. Rather than spoken word I had to interpret
the moment in body language, in the stillness of the class, the gesticulation of our guide. No doubt we were exposing them to the violence
of Spanish history, an exposure they didn’t ask for, but one every Spaniard needs. Perhaps most difficult of all to explain is
that the suffering depicted in Picasso’s painting was caused by the German Luftwaffe to a sleepy
Spanish village in 1937, years before the outbreak of world war 2, and onto a people
who would remain uninvolved for the duration of that conflict. Perhaps the villagers were as confused as
they were panicked when swastikas filled the sky. Whether our guide, in explaining the situation,
actually used words like, ‘slaughter’, ‘dismemberment’, or ‘burned alive’
in telling them the story, I’ll never know. The Spanish Civil War is a oft overlooked
part of 20th Century history, partially because it was sandwiched between World Wars one and
two, but also because it’s a portion of history Spaniards themselves tend to avoid. Madrileños are often surprised to learn,
for example, that in the northwest corner of their city lie university buildings still
pockmarked from bullet holes inflicted during intense fighting there. It started as a nationalist uprising against
a legally elected government of the second Spanish republic. Before this rebellion could result in 36 years
of fascist dictatorship, there was first nearly three years of bloody conflict between 1936
and 1939. Journalists and historians often use shorthand
in order to be accurate and objective in their descriptions, and so often call the rebelling
side led by Francisco Franco “The Nationalists”, and the defending government side, “The
Republicans”. But as perhaps you’ve heard me explain before,
to leave it there is explanatory malpractice. The Republican government was aided by a consortium
of leftist organizations, international volunteers, and depended on support from Stalin’s Soviet
Union as the war progressed. While writers and journalists sympathetic
to the Republican cause like Ernest Hemingway debauched in the nightlife of Madrid just
miles from the front lines, more serious persons like George Orwell came from abroad and fought
alongside native Spaniards to help, as he put it, a democracy finally standing up to
fascism. For their part the Nationalists did count
fascists among their ranks, as well as conservative Catholics, industrialists, landowners, and
those sympathetic to the ‘strong man’ politics playing out in other parts of Europe. They, like the republicans,received financial
and military aid from abroad. Franco’s largests benefactors were Germany
and Italy. While the Italians and Germans had strategic
interests in having another fascist European state (not to mention one that would be indebted
for their help), the Spanish Civil War also served as a staging ground for military tactics
used in upcoming conflicts. Though not for the first time, one of those
newer tactics would be carried out to its macabre end in Guernica, the Basque capital
near Bilbao. In the center of Guernica stood a large oak
tree. It served as the location for the swearing
in of officials of the new Basque government, but more importantly, it was considered a
sacred heart of the Basque people, a place of rights and heritage spanning generations
(1,101). On April 26, 1937, its watering would have
an ichorous character. On market day in late afternoon, church bells
warned of an approaching aircraft, a solo German bomber, which assaulted the city center
(2,_). As civilians and some retreating soldiers
began to leave shelter, more planes arrived, these more aggressive, bombing and flying
low, using machine guns against anyone regardless of gender or age, soldier or not (1,620). They strafed, fired, rounded, repeated until
100,000 pounds of explosives were dropped over three hours (2,_). Though accounts vary, somewhere between over
a hundred and over a thousand died (4, 289). Many of those assphyxiated in the shelters,
deprived of oxygen by the raging fires. While nationalist authorities tried to lay
blame at the feet of the ‘reds’ who they claimed burned the city in some form of retreat,
the sheer number of eye witnesses to the bombing as well as the bomb craters in the ground,
made such obfuscation a wasted effort (4,287). Though it wasn’t the first bombing of a civilian
target (5), it was unique. As Paul Preston wrote in his book on the Spanish
Civil War : “That Guernica was destroyed by the German Condor Legion is no longer open
to any doubt. Moreover, it is this fact which gives the
event its military significance, for the town was the first in the world’s history to
have been entirely destroyed by aerial bombing” (4,288) The intent was clearly the intimidation of
a people, a terror tactic carried out indiscriminately. While there were legitimate military targets
in and around Guernica, the mowing down of fleeing civilians in a field was certainly
not part of targeting them. The Times and the New York Times published
an account of correspondent George Steer which described the “demoralization of the civil
population and the destruction of the cradle of the Basque race.” (3) Though his sympathies clearly lay with
the Basque nationalists, his general account of the scene was mostly reliable. The world’s attention turned towards the plight
of the republicans once more.p A nation away, in Paris, Pablo Picasso read
Steer’s account of the planes plunging “low…to machinegun those of the civilian population
who had taken refuge in the fields.” (3) Already under commission by the Spanish
Republic for the international exhibition in 1937, Picasso shifted what had been his
artistic focus since January (1,623). Now, early in May, he would paint the suffering
at Guernica. “In the panel on which I am working,”
he said. “which I shall call Guernica…I clearly
express my abhorrence of the military caste which has sunk Spain in an ocean of pain and
death.” (6) Overhanging the entire image is a bright light,
the burning bulb of a bomb or the sun; the Spanish words for bulb, ‘bombilla’, being
very close to the word for bomb, ‘bomba’. Picasso would have read about the ‘thousand
firebombs’ on the front page of French newspapers (6). Women outnumber men in the image, presumably
because most men of fighting age would be conscripted and out of town when the bombing
occurred, making women the premiere victims. Three women appear on the right side of the
painting, one appears trapped in fire, arms outstretched. Another drags a swollen leg while gazing towards
the light. A third enters carrying a lamp, perhaps looking
for loved ones in the smoke and rubble. There is a fourth woman in Guernica, more
striking than the rest due to the fact she holds a dead infant in arms, lost to asphyxiation. On the ground is a dismembered soldier, his
body and sword in pieces. Though his agony dashes the hopes for the
Republic, the flower growing from his sword hilt reveals a chance at victory over the
fascist rebels (6-12). Most prominent, but less easy to interpret
are the bull and the horse. The horse, pierced by a spear, might represent
the wounded democracy. Just as possibly, it represents the many animals
killed by bombs that afternoon in April. The bull, a quintessential Spanish image,
may be the contorted reaction of Picasso himself (he often used a bull to depict his ego),
but it may also represent Franco’s fascism, a rampaging animal out of control (6-12). After exposition in Paris, Guernica went on
tour in Europe, raising awareness of the plight of civilians in the civil war, and earning
the piece’s reputation as one of the most powerful antiwar and anti-fascist ever created
(8&10). Picasso’s
condemnation may have been specific to the bombing of April 1937, but his imagery was
a universal testament to the terror of war. Though Guernica was a major propaganda victory
for the Republic, the civilian bombardments never stopped. Madrid and Barcelona became major targets
in a prominent strategy to weaken Republican strongholds under siege. Franco’s forces toppled Madrid, and thus
the Republic, in 1939. Fearing Nazi invasion of France, Picasso sent
Guernica to the United States Museum of Modern Art in New York. The painting, he demanded, was not to reside
in Spain until democracy was restored. The move was prudent. Paris was occupied in June 1940. A German gestapo officer, rummaging through
Picasso’s studio came upon a photo of Guernica’s creation process. “Did you do this?” the officer asked. Picasso’s reply, perhaps apocryphal, is
that of legend. “No. you did” (13&14). The juxtaposition is one that defines the
politics after the great war, when the feckless center fell out of European politics, the
radicalization of a continent, when kings ceded to Marchers, shops became Judenfrei,
and churches burned in the countryside. Like a biosphere in a jar, the Spanish Civil
War came to encapsulate those political canyons. A staging ground for world war II, where European
fascists supported nationalists, the Republic by communist international, and imperial democracies
like Britain and France became self-imposed neutrals, eunuch spectators of the violence
in villages like Guernica. Picasso’s Guernica, then, was a further
distillation of this reality. The Civil War being a microcosm of conflicts
between European governments, Guernica presented the suffering of civilians because of that
conflict, the logical gruesome endpoint of the clash of great ideologies, the annihilation
of an entire town condensed into twisted forms on a black and grey palette. I have a message for you. And this message isn’t a solicitation of
anything ‘YouTubery’. It is simply to say ‘thank you’. Thank you for being a viewer, thank you for
being a subscriber, if you are- a patron- whatever capacity you’re involved with this
channel, or even if you just stumbled on this video. Sometimes I get to make really cool videos
and share them with the world. This is one of those times, and for that reason
I am very thankful. And I just wanted to say to you: ‘Thank
you’.

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