This past Thursday the 26th of April marked the 75th anniversary of the bombing of Guernica. Guernica is a beautiful town in northern Spain, very close to the Bay of Biscay and about an hour’s drive from the French border. It was then and is today the heart and soul of Basque society.
That fateful day in 1937, a Monday, was a market day when the town was filled with people, a street market and local farmers. At around 4:30 PM German dive-bombers of the Condor Division, in support of the Fascists forces of General Franco, began to strafe and bomb the village. They first destroyed the roads and bridges sealing off all routes of escape. The result was a bloodbath with great loss of life.
Hitler used his support of Franco to test his war machinery and the tactics of Blitzkrieg that he would soon deploy across Europe. The Spanish Civil War ended in April 1939, and a few months later Hitler invaded Poland. Franco eventually prevailed against the second attempt at a Spanish democracy and with his victory established a 40-year dictatorship, many of whose wounds remain unhealed today. They won the battle and the Spanish Civil War, but they lost Spain.
Responses to the atrocity of Guernica were varied. One was to feed the arguments of the extreme Basque terrorist group ETA. ETA is credited with killing 829 men, women and children since 1968. They have been able to exist in no small part because of the perception among many of the Basque people that they have been a marginalized and persecuted ethnic group. To this day they point to the bombing of Guernica to support that claim.
Still, without a doubt most of us would never have heard of the bombing of Guernica had it not been for Pablo Picasso. Picasso channeled his sense of outrage into the 11 foot x 25.5 foot painting that we know today as “Guernica”. It is arguably his most famous and emblematic work. Picasso started on it soon after the bombing took place and completed the painting in June of 1937 (mid-Spanish Civil war) It was displayed in the Paris International Exhibition a month later. The painting now resides in the Museo de la Reina Sofía in Madrid, just down the street from the Prado Museum.
I have been to the Reina Sofía many times. And I have never seen “Guernica” that I did not observe people deeply moved by it and quite often to tears. Even quite abstracted art can be content driven. When passion, content and technical genius comes together, master works are created. At some point in your artistic career, you must visit Spain and when you do, Guernica is a must see.
Content driven, dare I say “prophetic” art is quite represented in the Spanish artistic tradition. Goya’s best work (in my opinion) was born from the atrocities of Napoleon’s occupation of Madrid a century earlier. The most famous of his series, “los Desastres de la Guerra” (the disasters of war) is the execution of Spanish patriots on the 3rd of May. This is on display in the Prado Museum in Madrid.
Art has the amazing ability to connect with people at a deeply emotional level. How strange that the most well know relic of the Spanish Civil War is this large black, white and gray, abstract painting. In fact "Guernica" continues to inspire controversy. Spain had to sue MOMA to regain the painting. (Picasso was paid by the Spanish Republican Government for it but Franco prevailed and it was never shipped to Madrid.) Today the Basque people regard it as theirs and are suing for its relocation from Madrid to the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao (Basque Country).
Picasso also paid a huge price for the painting. For most of the rest of his life he lived in exile unable to return to the Spain of Franco.
I read an article in a Spanish newspaper a few years back titled: “Artists: Prophets of the XXI Century”. 75 years after the bombing of Guernica, Hitler is despised, every trace of Franco’s legacy has been erased from contemporary Spanish society (street names, statues, etc.) and Picasso is revered as one of the greatest Spaniards who ever lived. What a testimony to the power of one artistic and yes, prophetic voice.Comment on or Share this Article →