Friday, May 18, 2012

Picasso and The Death of Guernica

Art And History - The Death of Guernica
How a Painting Kept the Destruction in Guernica in the Popular Mind
A searing portrait of the destruction of a small Spanish town is kept alive by a painting by Picasso.
In April of 1936, a small undefended town in Spain was bombed back into the stone age. In November of 1975 a merchant freighter was lost in a terrible storm on Lake Superior. And in April of 1789, the crew of a British naval/merchant vessel mutinied. These three events would all be nearly forgotten but for one thing: all were the subject of an artistic portrayal. For if you put the names of Pablo Picasso and Guernica with the bombing, Edmund Fitzgerald with the freighter, and if you put the name HMS Bounty with the mutiny, most people would light up with recognition. A searing portrait, a mournful song and a book along with a trio of Hollywood movies have brought what would otherwise be footnotes into the sunlight of popular memory.

The True Story of the Destruction of Guernica

The Civil War which engulfed Spain in the summer of 1936 was a fight between the Loyalists, supporting the elected Spanish government, and those backing an insurgent Army officer, one Francisco Franco. As Franco was a fascist, he was able to draw support from Adolf Hitler in Germany, and Benito Mussolini of Italy, both dictators looking to use the strife in the Iberian peninsula, as a theater in which to test their weapons of war.
The small town of Guernica was chosen as a target because it was in the Basque region of the country which was, and remains to this day, a hot-bed of separatist sentiment. Thus, as a potential challenge to Franco's rule, it's destruction would set an example. The bombing on April 26 began at the busiest hour of the day, when the streets could be expected to be filled with citizens going to the market. For three hours, German and Italian warplanes pounded and strafed the helpless village with over 100,000 lbs. of conventional as well as incendiary bombs. The town was ravaged with flames which lit up the sky for fifteen mile around and was left a smoldering ruin, with over 1600 civilians were killed.

George L. Steer Reports on the Spanish Civil War

The New York Times correspondent George L. Steer reported to a horrified world what amounted to the first instance of modern war directed specifically at a civilian population. No military target was even considered he wrote. "A factory producing armaments lay outside the town and was untouched." he wrote. "So were two barracks some distance from the town....the object of the bombardment was seemingly the demoralisation of the civil population, and the destruction of the cradle of the Basque race."

Pablo Picasso Paints Guernica

The 1937 World's Fair was being held in Paris at that time, and the Spanish cubist artist, Pablo Picasso was working on a mural which was to be a main feature of the Spanish exhibition. Picasso had been uneasy with the commission, as he had been unable to settle his mind on an appropriate source of inspiration. But on May 1, the newspapers were filled with lurid and detailed reports of what had happened to Guernica. May Day protesters filled the streets, and Picasso who was horrified by the photos he saw in the papers immediately decided on what he wished to show the world about his homeland. While the reaction of the time was cool to say the least, Picasso's painting has endured as one of the most powerful indictments of the atrocities of war ever produced. Long after the specific events of the Spanish Civil War, long after even the name of Franco himself has faded from the public consciousness, Picasso's painting remains to remind us.
"Guernica And Total War" by Ian Patterson, Harvard University Press, Cambridge Mass., 2007.
"The Battle for Spain: The Spanish Civil War 1936-1939." by Anthony Beevor, Weidenfield & Nicolson, London, 2006.
"World War II" by C.L. Sulzberger, American Heritage Publ. Co. Inc., 1966, pp. 20 - 41.

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