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Eighty years of Picasso’s Guernica

Major new exhibition at Madrid’s Reina Sofia museum sheds new light on painting of aerial bombing of Basque town during the Spanish Civil War

  • Pablo Picasso’s Guernica measures 3.5 by 7.8 meters, and was the artist’s very personal response to the bombing in April 1937 of Guernica, a small, undefended and strategically unimportant town in Spain’s Basque Country. The painting was commissioned by the government of Spain’s Second Republic – then engaged in a bitter Civil War against the forces of General Francisco Franco – with officials wanting the artist to produce something to adorn the Spanish Pavilion at the International Exposition in Paris.
    1Guernica (1937) Pablo Picasso’s Guernica measures 3.5 by 7.8 meters, and was the artist’s very personal response to the bombing in April 1937 of Guernica, a small, undefended and strategically unimportant town in Spain’s Basque Country. The painting was commissioned by the government of Spain’s Second Republic – then engaged in a bitter Civil War against the forces of General Francisco Franco – with officials wanting the artist to produce something to adorn the Spanish Pavilion at the International Exposition in Paris.
  • When Picasso, then based in Paris, first received the commission from the government of the Second Republic, he was unsure what to paint. His work had, until that time, been unpolitical. However, after the bombing of Guernica –which he learned about from newspaper articles – the Malaga-born artist had found his subject matter. Picasso had never been to Guernica and would never visit the town, but he was profoundly moved by news of the killing of innocent civilians in Spain, as he was by such deaths in any conflict.
    2Still Life with Skull and Vase (1940s) When Picasso, then based in Paris, first received the commission from the government of the Second Republic, he was unsure what to paint. His work had, until that time, been unpolitical. However, after the bombing of Guernica –which he learned about from newspaper articles – the Malaga-born artist had found his subject matter. Picasso had never been to Guernica and would never visit the town, but he was profoundly moved by news of the killing of innocent civilians in Spain, as he was by such deaths in any conflict.
  • After Guernica appeared at the International Exposition in Paris, the painting began a long world tour which took it to countries including the United Kingdom, the United States, Brazil, Norway and Italy. However, in the 1970s, Picasso asked for Guernica to be given a home in New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) until Spain returned to democracy. In September 1981, almost six years after the death of the dictator Francisco Franco, and following a 42-year stay at the MoMA, Guernica arrived in Madrid.
    3Figures by The Sea (1932) After Guernica appeared at the International Exposition in Paris, the painting began a long world tour which took it to countries including the United Kingdom, the United States, Brazil, Norway and Italy. However, in the 1970s, Picasso asked for Guernica to be given a home in New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) until Spain returned to democracy. In September 1981, almost six years after the death of the dictator Francisco Franco, and following a 42-year stay at the MoMA, Guernica arrived in Madrid.
  • Spain is marking the 80th anniversary of the painting of Guernica with The Pity and Terror: Picasso’s Path to Guernica, an exhibition at Madrid’s Reina Sofia museum, which runs from April 5 to September 4. The Reina Sofia exhibition – described as the “most comprehensive ever” by the museum’s director – includes 60 paintings by Picasso as well as a large number of drawings from museums around the world. There are around 180 works in total and the exhibition also highlights the high-precision restoration work carried out on Guernica since 2012, which has involved robots repairing damage caused to the giant canvas on its many travels.
    4The ‘Woman in the Garden’ sculptures (1929–1930) Spain is marking the 80th anniversary of the painting of Guernica with The Pity and Terror: Picasso’s Path to Guernica, an exhibition at Madrid’s Reina Sofia museum, which runs from April 5 to September 4. The Reina Sofia exhibition – described as the “most comprehensive ever” by the museum’s director – includes 60 paintings by Picasso as well as a large number of drawings from museums around the world. There are around 180 works in total and the exhibition also highlights the high-precision restoration work carried out on Guernica since 2012, which has involved robots repairing damage caused to the giant canvas on its many travels.
  • The exhibition is curated by British art historian and writer T.J. Clark, who argues the painting’s genesis took place long before Picasso learned of the bombing in the Basque Country. Clark argues that Picasso’s Guernica was a response to the horrors of World War I but also to a private life that was proving difficult to manage as he negotiated relationships with three different women: his wife Olga Khokhlova; his lover Marie-Thérèse Walter; and his latest muse Dora Maar. At the same time, the artist from Malaga was experiencing an artistic crisis, with the feeling he had done everything already.
    5Woman with a Hat on a Seat (1941–42) The exhibition is curated by British art historian and writer T.J. Clark, who argues the painting’s genesis took place long before Picasso learned of the bombing in the Basque Country. Clark argues that Picasso’s Guernica was a response to the horrors of World War I but also to a private life that was proving difficult to manage as he negotiated relationships with three different women: his wife Olga Khokhlova; his lover Marie-Thérèse Walter; and his latest muse Dora Maar. At the same time, the artist from Malaga was experiencing an artistic crisis, with the feeling he had done everything already.
  • Regardless of the personal inspiration behind the painting, there is no doubt that Guernica acted as a totem for resistance to Franco’s regime in Spain, with its return to the country presented as a symbol of the return to democracy after the dictatorship. The painting also continues to have meaning for new generations: one of the most representative images of the 20th century, it continues to possess its original moral change and acts as a statement against the horrors of war in general.
    6The Painter and his Model (1928) Regardless of the personal inspiration behind the painting, there is no doubt that Guernica acted as a totem for resistance to Franco’s regime in Spain, with its return to the country presented as a symbol of the return to democracy after the dictatorship. The painting also continues to have meaning for new generations: one of the most representative images of the 20th century, it continues to possess its original moral change and acts as a statement against the horrors of war in general.
  • One of the most interesting features of Picasso’s Guernica is that its production –the canvas was completed in a matter of just weeks – was documented in a series of photographs by his latest muse Dora Maar. The intensity of those weeks can be seen in the fact that the artist created 60 other artworks including drawing and oil paintings during the same period.
    7Head (1936) One of the most interesting features of Picasso’s Guernica is that its production –the canvas was completed in a matter of just weeks – was documented in a series of photographs by his latest muse Dora Maar. The intensity of those weeks can be seen in the fact that the artist created 60 other artworks including drawing and oil paintings during the same period.
  • The initial critical reception to Picasso’s Guernica centered on the tension between form and content – thus opening the door to an intense and ongoing argument on the relationship between art and politics. Marxist critics, including the art historian Anthony Blunt and the poet Louis Aragon, accused Picasso, sometimes without naming him, of failing to give up formal innovation in favor of the semantic efficiency of social realism.
    8A visitor at Reina Sofia Museum The initial critical reception to Picasso’s Guernica centered on the tension between form and content – thus opening the door to an intense and ongoing argument on the relationship between art and politics. Marxist critics, including the art historian Anthony Blunt and the poet Louis Aragon, accused Picasso, sometimes without naming him, of failing to give up formal innovation in favor of the semantic efficiency of social realism.
  • Among the many uses that the Guernica painting was put to, one of the strangest was by the German Army, which employed it as part of a recruitment campaign under the slogan “Hostile images of the enemy are the fathers of war,” according to Gijs van Hensbergen, who has written one of the best-received histories of the iconic painting.
    9Mandolin and Guitar (1924) Among the many uses that the Guernica painting was put to, one of the strangest was by the German Army, which employed it as part of a recruitment campaign under the slogan “Hostile images of the enemy are the fathers of war,” according to Gijs van Hensbergen, who has written one of the best-received histories of the iconic painting.
  • While Picasso refused to speak about the symbolism of Guernica, many sources of inspiration have been attributed to it – including a Hollywood movie. In 2011, Spanish cinematographer José Luis Alcaine pointed to a five-minute segment in Frank Borzage's film version of the 1929 Ernest Hemingway novel 'A Farewell to Arms' as the origin of the famous painting. The black-and-white sequence shows the nocturnal exodus of soldiers and civilians along a road that is being bombed by planes.
    10The new Picasso exhibition in Madrid While Picasso refused to speak about the symbolism of Guernica, many sources of inspiration have been attributed to it – including a Hollywood movie. In 2011, Spanish cinematographer José Luis Alcaine pointed to a five-minute segment in Frank Borzage's film version of the 1929 Ernest Hemingway novel 'A Farewell to Arms' as the origin of the famous painting. The black-and-white sequence shows the nocturnal exodus of soldiers and civilians along a road that is being bombed by planes.