Picasso's Guernica, at the Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid. My picture
The painter had been asked to produce a mural by the Republican Government in Spain. This would help raise awareness of the civil war being fought against the fascists under Francisco Franco. Not long after that, Franco asked the Nazis to help his cause by bombing a town in the Basque country called Guernica. This they did. Guernica burned; civilians died.
Most of the town’s men were away fighting. Those who remained were, overwhelmingly, women and children. They bore the brunt of the attacks; their homes burned around them. Some who took refuge in nearby fields were machine-gunned by fighter aircraft. Picasso was horrified. He made Guernica the subject of his mural; just 35 days later, he had finished the work.
From the Wiki entry, this is part of what is depicted: “The scene occurs within a large room. On the left, a wide-eyed bull, with a tail suggesting rising flame and smoke as if seen through a window, stands over a grieving woman holding a dead child in her arms. The woman's head is thrown back and her mouth is wide open. A horse falls in agony in the centre of the room, with a large gaping hole in its side, as if it had just been run through by a spear”.
“A dead and dismembered soldier lies under the horse. The hand of his severed right arm grasps a shattered sword, from which a flower grows. The open palm of his left hand contains a stigma, a symbol of martyrdom derived from the stigmata of Christ”. Moving along to the right.
“To the horse's upper right a frightened woman's head and extended right arm reach through a window. As she witnesses the scene she carries a flame-lit lamp in her right hand, and holds it near the bare bulb. Below her a woman in shock staggers from the right towards the centre while looking into the blazing light bulb with a blank stare”. Blazing light from the sky.
Francisco Franco, another fascist untroubled by human suffering
“To the bull's right a dove appears on a cracked wall through which bright light from the outside shines. On the far right of the room there is a fourth woman, her arms raised in terror. Her wide-open mouth and thrown back head echo the grieving woman's. She is entrapped by fire from above and below, her right hand suggesting the shape of an aircraft”.
Most of those suffering are women and children. The soldier carrying a sword is unable to protect them. Those ordering and carrying out the bombings and machine-gunning in Guernica did not have to see any of the human death and suffering they had unleashed, and so they did not.
That is not to say that to receive and comprehend the universal humanist message of Picasso means the recipient is supporting one side over another in any of the conflicts in progress as 2023 moves into 2024. Death, suffering, the inhumanity of warfare, all made worse by advances in technology, do not depend on any particular culture, tradition, ethnicity or religion either to deliver them, or be delivered into them. Innocent civilians are just that.
Guernica was exhibited for many years at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, whose management was most reluctant to let it go. But go it had to do, to Picasso’s native Spain. It can now be viewed on permanent exhibition at the Museo Reina Sofia, in central Madrid, just across the road from the palm house at the Estacion Puerta de Atocha.
Pablo Picasso died 50 years ago, while other wars were raging. There have been other conflicts since he painted Guernica; hardly has there been any time during which arms dealers have not been marching in lockstep with politicians and the military, while not concerning one another with the women and children who form that euphemistically termed Collateral Damage.
Have a peaceful New Year. And don’t forget the real sufferers of warfare.
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