April 26 – The Basque city of Guernica was firebombed by the Condor Legion of the Nazi Luftwaffe sixty-eight years ago today prompting Pablo Picasso’s painting “Guernica”. The fascist states of Germany and Italy had provided men and military aid to the forces under Franco who were trying to wrest control of Spain from the democratically elected government.
“A painting is not thought out and settled in advance. 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.”
- Pablo Picasso
News of the firebombing of Guernica reached Paris on April 27th in a broadcast by Radio Bilbao. Within that week, Picasso abandoned his initial ideas for a painting destined for the Spanish Pavilion at the soon to open World’s Fair. On May 1st he began a series of graphite on paper studies for a new painting, which would become “Guernica”.
In a burst of creativity, Picasso molded his personal artistic themes into a universal declaration against war. Picasso’s companion, the photographer Dora Maar, had access to the work in progress and recorded the development of the painting in a series of black and white photographs.
The painting’s final state depicts a world where interior domestic life has literally been blown into the streets. By deftly combining cubistic space with classical art references and newspaper reportage, Picasso created a political painting that harked back to Goya’s “Third of May” while depicting a new type of total war. The enemy who has laid waste to Guernica is nowhere to be seen. This unseen enemy’s violence is created offstage as in a Greek tragedy and his weapons are thrown down wantonly upon an innocent populace.
This painting has also played a part in our new war. On February 5, 2003, United Nations officials covered up a tapestry reproduction of Picasso’s “Guernica” during US Secretary of State Colin Powell’s presentation of the American case for war against Iraq.
One cannot help but think of a small man, behind the cloth hiding the painting, pleading, “Do not look behind the curtain.” Picasso pulled the curtain back on the destruction of Guernica and unveiled the small men hiding behind their armies. Let’s hope there is another painter out there willing to pull the curtain back on today’s injustices.