85 years ago, during the Spanish Civil War, General Franco’s allies virtually destroyed the town of Guernica. This war crime inspired Pablo Picasso to his main picture. Yegor Mikhailov believes that decades later, the history of “Guernica” is the best answer to the question of whether art is possible in the conditions of military special operations.
On Monday, April 26, 1937, Ivan Bunin and Vladimir Nabokov read stories by Yevgeny Zamyatin at an evening in his memory in Paris. In Texas, legendary FBI agent Melvin Pervis, the storm of the underworld, suddenly canceled his wedding to actress Janice Jarratt – the cake was half done. And in the sky over the town of Guernica-Lumo in northern Spain, bombers appeared – first German, then Italian – and in three hours and fifteen minutes actually wiped the city off the face of the earth.
By that time, the Spanish Civil War had been going on for almost a year and was far from over. Two battalions of republican troops were stationed in Guernica, and a large arms factory operated in the city. But the nationalist supporters of the Francoists did not only fight for military purposes. They dropped incendiary and fragmentation bombs on the city, destroying three-quarters of the city. And the bombers were followed by fighters mowing down the survivors with machine gun fire. Ironically, the objects of military infrastructure suffered the least.
The bombing of Guernica
© History / Universal Images Group / Getty Images
Thanks to the work of journalists, the whole world learned about the tragedy in Guernica the next day. Estimates of the number of victims varied greatly – from several hundred to several thousand people with a population of five thousand. Faced with fierce condemnation, the Francoists for a long time denied the very fact of the raid. “We did not burn Guernica. Spain Franco does not burn anyone “, – wrote they are accusing the Republicans of setting fire to the city themselves.
Guernica became a symbol of senseless and ruthless military cruelty – but not the last tragedy of this kind, even that war. In November of the same year, the Condor Legion (the same as in Guernica) dropped bombs on the Catalan city of Lleida. Hundreds of people were killed, including 48 students and teachers at a local school. Nine years later in Nuremberg, Luftwaffe chief Hermann Goering said that helping the Francoists was a way for him to test the strength of the young German military aviation.
Pablo Picasso lived in Paris in those years and, after reading about the bombing of Guernica, immediately set to work. He wrote “Guernica” for a month and a half, and on June 4 the canvas was ready – black and white, like newsreel footage, filled with distorted figures of suffering. Dying horse; a hand clutching a broken sword; a mother mourning a dead baby; and in the midst of all this chaos is a bull, as if indifferent to what is happening. Art critics are still debating what exactly his figure symbolizes, but Picasso himself claimed: “… This bull is just a bull, and this horse is just a horse… If you give meaning to certain objects in my paintings, then maybe you are right, but I do not put that meaning.”
“Guernica” in the Municipal Museum of Amsterdam, July 12, 1956.
© Herbert Behrens / Anefo / commons.wikimedia.org
Perhaps this is the strength of Guernica. This is not a complicated statement, but the horror of war imprinted on an eight-meter canvas. No more, but no less.
However, not all visitors to the 1937 World’s Fair in Paris, where Guernica was presented, were impressed. Some Spaniards were shocked by Picasso’s style: they preferred Horacio Ferrer’s painting “Madrid 1937 (Black Planes)”. Your claims presented and Marxists: according to them, Guernica lacked much hope for a bright future (and specifically for the victory of the proletarian revolution). The distorted figures of the victims of the bombing must have offended many, as they did the other day offended Zakhar Prilepin’s “Big Mother” by Oleg Kulik. In 1937, the struggle against modernism was popular. Four months after the bombing of Guernica, the famous exhibition “Degenerative Art” opened in Munich. At it, the German authorities showed the citizens which artists were unworthy to exist in the world of victorious fascism. Along with Kandinsky and Klee, Picasso’s works were also presented there.
But the main claim was the same as we hear to this day: can tragedy be a raw material for art? And in general, is art appropriate during war? As is often the case with art, the answers to these questions were given by time.
In the 1970s, Americans protested against the war unleashed by their country in Vietnam – and with their posters stared the dead look of the Guernica soldiers. In 2010, a resident of South Africa embroidered his version of Guernica, depicting not the horrors of war but the HIV epidemic. In 2015, the Bulgarian Yovcho Savov created “Aegean Guernica”: Basque citizens became Syrian refugees in a boat in the middle of the sea. “Guernica” can be found in one of the paintings by Ukrainian artist Anton Logov, depicting a “special operation”. And in 2011, Canadian Eric Lakert staged playwhere the characters of “Guernica” come to life in Picasso’s studio.
American Ron English has created more than fifty variations on the theme of “Guernica”, finally proving that this is not just a painting, but one of the main works of the century. According to the Italian art critic Philippe Daverio, Picasso’s painting “embodies the twentieth century to the same extent as the Sistine Chapel – the Renaissance.” Voznesensky agrees with him: “If he had written only Guernica, he would have been the artist of the century.”
Guernica was not the only anti-war masterpiece by Picasso. In 1944, he began writing in Nazi-occupied Paris “Basement”, a kind of sequel “Guernica”, dedicated to the Holocaust. According to legend, the officer’s question “Did you do that?” Picasso defiantly replied, “No, you did.” (According to another version, the conversation was about “Guernica”.)
A few more years passed, and Picasso created “Dove” – a biblical image that has become a symbol of peace. The simple and airy pattern contrasts especially with the oppressive canvas “Guernica”, reminiscent of the simple credo artist: “I stand for life against death; I stand for peace against war. “
Now Guernica has been rebuilt: squares, restaurants, tourists – the usual European town. Only a copy of Picasso’s canvas on one of the city walls is reminiscent of what happened eighty-five years ago, like a skull in an old still life. Both the fate of the city and the fate of the painting say: three thousand incendiary bombs are a huge destructive force, but art is stronger than any war.