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Picasso “Guernica” – Rick Steves’ travel blog


As I watch recent events in Afghanistan unfold in the headlines, I’ve been thinking about how important it is to humanize distant tragic events – and the unique ability of artists to do so.

Picasso’s colossal “Guernica” – over 25 feet wide – is a strong example of this. It is not only a piece of art but a piece of history, depicting the horror of modern war in a modern style.

The painting (redrawn, in this photo, on a wall in the same Basque market town of Guernica) depicts a specific event. On April 26, 1937, Guernica was the target of the world’s first saturation aerial bombardment of civilians. Spain was in the midst of the bitter Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), which pitted its democratically elected government against fascist general Francisco Franco. To suppress the defiant Basques, Franco gave his fascist confederation permission to Adolf Hitler to use the city as a guinea pig to pilot the new German air force. The raid devastated the city, causing devastation unheard of at the time (although by 1944, it would be a common occurrence).

News of the bombing reached Pablo Picasso, a Spaniard living in Paris. Terrified by what was happening in his homeland, Picasso immediately set out to paint scenes of destruction as he imagined them…

Bombs are falling and crashing the quiet village. A woman howls in the sky, horses scream, and a man falls to the ground and dies. The bull – the symbol of Spain – contemplates everything, watches a mother and her dead child … a modern “pita”.

Picasso’s abstract, cubist style reinforces the message. It’s as if he picked up the bomb-smashed pieces and glued them to a canvas. The black and white tones are as gritty as the newspaper photos reporting the bombing, creating a gloomy and disgusting mood.

Picasso chose universal symbols, making the work a commentary on all wars. A horse with a spear in its back symbolizes the surrender of humanity to brute force. Fallen knight’s arm cut off and sword broken, more symbols of defeat. The bull, which is usually a proud symbol of strength, is helpless and afraid. A frightened dove of peace can’t help but cry. The whole scene is illuminated from above by the bright light of an open lamp. Picasso’s painting highlighted the brutality of Hitler and Franco. Suddenly, the whole world was watching.

The painting first appeared at the Paris Exhibition in 1937 and caused an immediate sensation. For the first time, the world could see the destructive power of the rising fascist movement – a precursor to World War II.

In the end, Franco won the Spanish Civil War and ended up ruling the country with an iron fist for 36 years. Picasso vowed not to return to Spain under Franco. So Guernica was shown in New York until Franco’s death (1975), when it ended decades of exile. Picasso’s masterpiece now stands in Madrid as a national piece of Spain.

With each passing year, the painting seems more and more prophetic – not just a tribute to the thousands who died in Guernica, but the 500,000 casualties in Spain’s bitter civil war, 55 million from World War II, and countless more recent wars. Picasso put a human face on what we now call “collateral damage”.





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