Pablo Picasso’s 1937 masterpiece Guernica is a righteously angry reaction to the horror of war, depicting the impact of violence on the innocent, and in it’s fury lies the power of art to inform the world.
Even by the standards of Picasso’s Cubist breakdown of imagery, Guernica is brutalist in the extreme. The painting explodes out at the audience in a mess of pain and violence. It’s monochrome palette renders the angular forms even more conflicted and aggressive. At first glance it appears to be an unholy melange of screaming shapes, before the eye picks out the details of the horror.
On the left a bull is on fire, beneath it a woman holds her dead baby, below her a man lies stretched out in agony, his sword blade broken into jagged shards, trampled by a horse writhing in pain in the middle of the composition, speared possibly by the lunging, falling figures to the right. On the far right a woman howls, arms raised upwards, engulfed by flames that look like the mouth of a demonic beast swallowing her. From the ceiling of this hellish room a lightbulb illuminates the trapped, twisted figures, its beams of lights represented by spikes. It is a vision of Hell, wholly man-made.
At the time, Spain was being torn apart by civil war. Pablo had not returned to his native land for three years, enjoying the profitable life of a world-renowned artist in Paris, when he was commissioned by the Republican government to produce a picture for display at the World’s Fair. It was not a project he had much interest in, and initial sketches were of a mundane (by his standards) nature. However, the bombing of Guernica changed that.
Guernica was a town in the Basque region of Spain, seen by Franco’s Nationalist army as a cultural centre to the Republican movement rising against them. Hitler supported Franco and sent the warplanes of the German Condor Legion to bomb the town for two hours, reducing the buildings to rubble. As the men were away fighting for the resistance, the population was mainly comprised of women and children, slaughtered in the devastation. It was a massacre of the innocent, and awoke in Pablo an anger he could only expel through his art.
He worked furiously using oil paints on a vast canvas 3 ½ metres by 7 ¾ metres. The resulting mural premiered at the Paris International Exposition, in the Spanish Pavilion funded by the Republicans, but after that began an extensive world tour, first around Europe, and then America. Money raised was sent to aid the Spanish people.
Picasso did not want the painting to be returned to Spain until it was free from Franco’s bloody regime, so for many years it hung in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. During the Vietnam war, it represented for many the perfect anti-war expression, and formed the basis of peaceful protest vigils. Pablo would not live to see his masterpiece displayed in his homeland, as he died in 1973, two years before the dictator Franco. Eventually, MoMA granted the work back to the free Spanish people in 1981.
Guernica is a howl of rage, a magnificent testament to an artist not rendered impotent by his anger, but empowered by it. He did not fight the brutal fascist regime which had slaughtered his fellow countrymen with guns or fists, but with a paintbrush, the greatest weapon he had, with all the skill he could muster. That power is timeless, and renders the work as pertinent today as it ever was.