I made a pilgrimage to the historic town of Guernica on my first visit to Spain in 1981. But I’m embarrassed to admit I’d never yet made the journey to see Pablo Picasso’s painting, created in response to the first aerial bombardment of civilians on 26 April 1937. It would have been easy enough: the painting came home to Spain from New York, first to the Prado in 1981 and then to the Reina Sofia Museum in 1992. But my visits to Madrid are rare, and when I was there last November, I went to see the Prado’s astounding collections of Goya, Velazquez, Zurubaran and El Greco.
But as luck had it, I was invited back to Madrid in May, and I resolved, this time, I must see the painting. And even luckier, my visit coincided with a special exhibition to mark the 80 years since Picasso was commissioned by the Spanish Republican Government to create a painting for an international show in Paris, setting it in its broader historical and artistic context.
So there was much to pore over before I reached the room where the painting itself is shown: film clips of the Paris exhibition with statues of idealised workers at the pavilion of the Republic’s only ally, the Soviet Union; the letter of commission to Picasso from the Republican Culture Minister; photos and magazine reports about the painting on its first appearance in the Spanish pavilion.
There’s also a sequence of paintings, drawings and sketches showing how Picasso’s artistic development had moved far from his early blue and rose period through the distortion of Cubism to a cruel world of weeping women and fearsome monsters. His world view was dark and Hobbesian long before the rise of Hitler in Germany made others fear for the future.
The painting itself is surprisingly simple. When you see it on its large canvas in black, white and grey, the disorder and chaos seem almost orderly: the monumental figure of the bull top left, beneath him the weeping woman carrying her dead child, to their right the trampling panicked horse, beneath its hooves the fallen warrior’s dismembered fist holding a broken sword. To their right, the witnesses come upon the scene, a hand holding up a lamp, the large faces shocked, confused, a woman screaming on the far right.
As I looked at the painting for the first time, I began to weep myself. Was I crying for the young women killed and mutilated in Manchester earlier that week? For the children bombed in Aleppo by the Assad regime? The picture to my eye speaks, shouts out man’s inhumanity to man across the decades. And indeed across the centuries: it evokes the black paintings of Francisco Goya which depict another war that tore Spain apart in the early 1800s, when ordinary people, the original guerillas, took up arms against Napoleon’s armies. They are hard to look at too, showing lives destroyed and bodies tortured.
I had dried my eyes and was examining Picasso’s preparatory sketches (one showing a raised fist with hammer and sickle, discarded perhaps as too narrowly political?) when the first of three groups of schoolchildren came in and sat cross legged in front of the painting. My tears flowed again seeing their innocence – the first group can’t have been older than 5 – raising their hands to answer their teacher’s questions, their excited treble voices sweet in the air.
In one of the final rooms there is a short clip of then Labour leader Clem Attlee speaking in Whitechapel where the painting was shown in London in 1938. A fierce opponent of prime minster Neville Chamberlin’s appeasement of Hitler, he warns that the barbarity in the picture was coming closer to the whole of Europe. He was right: The German Air Force perfected bombing and strafing from the air on Spanish civilians in Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia and elsewhere, and then used the same techniques on French refugees and citizens of London, Coventry and a myriad other cities.
But Guernica is a painting with a global message about what humans do to each other: the Japanese tour groups must see Hiroshima and Nagasaki, older Germans Dresden and Hamburg. I saw 9/11, Syria and the Manchester Arena, as well as the small Basque town where the story began. My visit was overdue but it was not too late.
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