Sixty-six years ago, on Monday, April 26, 1937, the Basque market town of Guernica was destroyed by aerial bombardment conducted by the German air force, then allied to the right wing insurrection led by Francisco Franco. One hundred thousand pounds of explosives were dropped on the town by about 25 bombers of the German Condor Legion.
One-third of the town’s population, or 1,600 people were killed that morning. A small arms factory and the town’s railroad station were not hit; the target was civilian life itself.
On April 26, 1937, Pablo Picasso was in Paris, 600 miles from Guernica; he did not see the bombardment, but the story was out three days later in the Parisian newspaper Ce Soir. Full black-and-white photographs appeared in that newspaper on April 30. The next day, he started the drawings. Within a few days it was on a white canvas, 3.5 by 7.5 meters, which divided his atelier in half at 7 Rue des Grands-Augustins. In early June 1937, only four weeks after it had been begun, the painting was transported to the Spanish pavilion of the Exposition Internationale des Arts et Metiers de la Vie Moderne.
It remained there until the end of the Expo, which coincided with the end of the Spanish Republic. The painting migrated to the United States, where it was displayed at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and now is housed in the Reina Sofia gallery in Madrid.
If any work of art captures the moment, and provides a nearly instantaneous artistic statement about catastrophe, it is the “Guernica” of Picasso. Where did it come from and what has it come to mean?
Picasso was a polymath, and a world figure in painting from the time of the First World War. In 1935 and 1936, his staggering artistic production diminished: this means that his pace slowed down to reach merely superhuman levels: he produced “merely” 80 works in 1935; 40 in 1936. At this time he started to write plays, which reflected his interest in both he Parisian and the Spanish artistic world, in which poster art and ambulatory theatrical productions played an important role. In January 1937, he wrote a pamphlet titled “Dreams and lies of Franco” and illustrated it with 14 watercolors showing the Caudillo as absurd or terrible. These images had some of the features of a comic strip, yet again prefiguring elements absorbed into the Guernica painting. Here is a sample of Picasso’s verse in “Dreams and Lies of Franco”: “cries of children cries of women cries of birds cries of flowers cries of buildings and stones cries of bricks cries of beds and chairs and curtains and casseroles and cats and papers cries of smells that scratch cries of smoke –” The Guernica is therefore an extension of ideas with which Picasso was engaged at the time — the poster, the newsreel, the satiric simplification of form are all there. But the painting is more complex than that, and shows the way Picasso juxtaposed the very old alongside the very new. His distinct figuration paralleled and reproduced the dismemberment of the human body in war, just as Picasso’s poem in “Dreams and Lies of Franco” dismembered sentences into fragmentary cries.
His art in Guernica is both realistic and filled with myth. The painting is dominated by the precise and allusive use of images referring back to the grand myths of history: the bull, the minotaur, the mithraic eye. The bull and the minotaur have a host of familiar Iberian and Mediterranean echoes; less generally accessible is the use of the light bulb possibly to suggest the mithraic eye. In this appropriation of a symbol of eastern mysticism, the Sky has an eye in the form of a long solar ray that penetrates the world?cave. Is the eye a mystic presence or a simple light bulb, an inert and unfeeling witness simply illuminating the horror? ÊIs the gaze that of some unifying divinity or a blank solar stare? Is it a satiric comment on the feast of electricity displayed in the 1937 Paris exhibition of the arts and techniques of modern life, the Spanish pavilion of which provided the commission which Picasso fulfilled by painting this mural?
ÊWe do not know, but the very questioning of the gaze in the painting is significant for our sense of what point of view to adopt when viewing these events.
In effect Picasso is mixing elements of immediacy — the dashes on the horse for instance suggesting newsprint or the newsreel — and of eternity.ÊBut what is less straightforward in the painting is the Christian reference. To be sure, on the left hand side of the painting is a pieta; the mother grieving over the child is palpable. Below this ensemble and to the right is the cruciform figure of the dead male figure, with a broken sword and severed arm on one side an outstretched hand on the other.
What is missing in this account of catastrophe is any indication or sign of hope. Religious references are not so much absent as reconfigured. And by doing so, both artists suggest the remoteness of our world from that which breathed in the air of sacred ritual and reference. In a post-Christian age, the phenomenon of war and the destruction it brings in its wake cannot be reconfigured in Christian symbolic terms.
The message of “Guernica” is deeply unsettling. There are possible reference to a divine eye, but such suggestions are ambivalent and unstable. It is precisely at such moments that Picasso is forcing us to ask the question how to look, where to look at disaster: from a balcony, from afar? The eye of Picasso’s painting describes the predicament of seeing the horror of war.
What could be more important than looking hard at this painting, and the way it makes us think about how to see war. Now, after Sept. 11, and after the onset of another war in which civilians are again under aerial bombardment, what could be more important than learning how to use our eyes? What an urgent task that is, and how important it is once more to contemplate the art of Picasso, especially now, when the bombs are falling again.
Jay Winter is a professor of history. He teaches courses in military history and modern British history.