In 1937 Spain was in the midst of a civil war which had begun in 1936 between the left-wing government of the Second Republic (made up of a coalition of Socialists, Republicans, and reformists) and its supporters, and right-wing insurgents, known as Nationalists. With the active help of Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, and aided by French and British indecisiveness, Spanish Nationalist generals, with their head, General Emilio Mola, mounted a new offensive, directed against civilian targets, on 31 March 1937. A German Luftwaffe squadron known as the Condor Legion, under the command of the future Marshal Wolfram von Richthofen, carried out the attacks: one by one, the cities of Guernica, Bilbao, and Gijón were destroyed, leaving the Basque Country in ruins. The bombing of Guernica on 26 April 1937, which killed mostly women, children, and the elderly, stunned the world.
In response to a command issued by the Spanish Republican government, in June 1937 Pablo Picasso (1881–1973) presented, at the Spanish Pavilion of the Paris International Exposition, a painting laden with a mere three somber tones: black, gray, and white. Its title was Guernica (782 × 351 cm), a canvas unsigned, undated, and unframed, painted in Ripolin, an industrial paint. More than just a masterpiece, Guernica expresses the suffering and barbarity of war. Guernica has remained a tour de force because Picasso was so successful at signifying the meaning of a historical event by overlaying autobiographical elements onto allusions to the massacres and to death itself. However, in its depiction of the upheaval of an entire society, Guernica does more than merely mark an event. This canvas, completed just days after the bombardment of the Basque village Guernica by the Junker 52s and Heinkel 51s of the Condor Legion, gave Picasso the opportunity to pick up his brushes again in a way that synthesized his recent output with earlier exploratory works such as La Corrida (1933) and Minotauromachy (1935).
The point of departure for these pieces was Picasso's desire to construct a personalized mythological iconography that conveyed highly readable meanings through shapes that bordered on the irrational. Guernica was the result of a long process that transpired through numerous preparatory works, in particular the two series of etched engravings entitled Dream and Lie of Franco, I and II (1937). The detailing and positioning of the figures on the canvas is arranged into eight stages completed between 11 May and 4 June 1937, documented with the aid of photographs taken by Picasso's companion Dora Maar (1907–1997). Picasso chose not to literally retranscribe the massacre—there are no planes or bombs, but the name he chose belies any alternate interpretation of its subject. In this way he transferred the event into a more complex space insofar as its plot unfolds in the interval between inside (the light fixture, the window, and the door) and outside. The tragedy occurs in an intermediary place where animals and women are icons of universal suffering. Picasso played with lighting in order to dramatize his composition, which was founded on nuances of gray that work together to forge a differentiation between planes and volumes. This is why the principal characters are bathed in bright light, including the bull, the horse, the warrior, and the four women: the woman with the child, the woman falling, the fleeing woman, and the woman by the lamp. These figures contrast with the remaining elements, which are darker, each assuming a place within a central triangle, on both sides of which two other triangles are drawn, encased within two white vertical stripes.
Guernica has elicited numerous interpretations, most notably concerning the symbolic significance of the characters and about the canvas's chromatic oppositions, which appear to be an attempt to re-create photographs that appeared in the press. Picasso avoided saying anything explicit in this regard in public, remaining content to reaffirm his support for the Spanish Republic. The author Michel Leiris, however, summed up the message and importance of Guernica in a few simple lines: "In a black and white rectangle like the appearance of a Greek Tragedy, Picasso is sending us our letter of mourning: Everything we love is going to die, and this is why it was necessary that everything we love be encapsulated, like the effusion of some grand adieux, in something unforgettably beautiful" (Leiris, p. 128; translated from the French).
After World War II, Picasso produced numerous paintings, lithographs, posters, and ceramic sculptures, but created just one solitary work connected to the war. As he himself would say: "I did not paint the War because I do not belong to that class of painters who go out in search of a subject like a photographer does" (Daix, p. 280; translated from the French). He did nonetheless finish one painting entitled Le Charnier (Mass grave), dated 1945, following the discovery of the concentration camps, which utilizes the same underlying assumptions as those used to produce Guernica. Le Charnier is not about depicting the horror of the camps, but instead concerns transposing this reality into the iconography of a painter in search of the universal. The painting's expository context was also the focal point for numerous polemics. Many other of Picasso's works, such as L'Aubade (The dawn serenade) from 1942, contained underlying allusions to World War II. However, in 1951 Picasso produced a much more explicit painting based on the famous execution scenes by Francisco de Goya (1746–1928) and Edouard Manet (1832–1883) and titled Massacre in Korea, but it did not enjoy to the same success as Guernica.
Guernica's destiny echoed the political turmoil of the era—it was shown in Norway, then in London, after which it spent time in New York, before coming to rest in the Prado Museum, the venue Picasso himself had wished for it. Guernica 's travels were not limited by geography, however—its trek continued on film, when it became the primary object of an eponymous movie directed by Alain Resnais and Robert Hessens in 1950.
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