Pablo Picasso was feeling uninspired. The world’s most famous artistic genius had been commissioned to do a painting for the Spanish Pavilion at the Paris World’s Fair in 1937, but all he had come up with in three months were some preliminary sketches that he didn’t like very much. With the deadline approaching Picasso needed a creative shot in the arm.
Perhaps his artistic funk had something to do with the turmoil taking place in his homeland of Spain. Picasso was troubled by the civil war between the newly elected Republican government and the revolting Fascist forces led by General Franco and backed by Hitler’s Nazi Germany. However throughout his career, Picasso had overtly avoided using politics in his art and was hesitant to use the war as the subject of his latest piece.
On April 27th 1937, a squadron of German bombers fighting for Franco’s army bombed the small Spanish town of Guernica. In what was a trial run of Nazi blitzkrieg tactics, Guernica was bombarded for three hours that left the town burning for days. In total, over 1600 people, mostly women and children, were killed. In Paris, when Picasso read an eye-witness account of the bombing in a newspaper, he could no longer stay silent. He decided to scrap his previous concept for the commission and began work on a new idea in response to the tragedy. After a furious burst of creativity over the next five weeks, Picasso was done, his masterpiece Guernica was complete. Measuring a whopping 3.5m x 7.6m, Guernica is a visceral and sobering slap in the face to anyone who sees it up close.
When the mural was unveiled at the World’s Fair, reaction was underwhelming. Most of the spotlight was on Germany’s and Russia’s monstrous towers built to depict the might of Nazism and the Soviet Union. A German critic called Guernica “a hodgepodge of body parts that any four-year-old could have painted.” After the Fair, the mural toured Europe and America to raise funds for the Spanish cause and slowly gained acclaim. Today it is one of the most well-known images in the world and has become an iconic symbol of anti-war protest. It’s funny, Picasso avoided politics in his work his whole life and the one time he decided to really express his anger at what was happening to his home country, he ended up creating his most well-known work and what many agree is the most important piece of art of the 20th century.
Sometimes you just have to take a stand.
Guernica was kept on display at New York MoMa for decades while also touring the world as part of many exhibitions. Picasso wished for it to be given to Spain ONLY when the fascist government was removed and the country was returned to a Republic. It was finally moved to Spain in 1981, the year of Picasso’s 100th birthday and is now on display at the Museo Reina Sofía in Madrid. It’s on my bucket list to see it in person.