Guernica in Britain: The art of war

No artwork left its mark on the 20th century as emphatically as Guernica. And Picasso's monumental painting remains as controversial as ever. As the UN's famous replica comes to Britain, Gijs van Hensbergen dissects its awe-inspiring power
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The Independent Culture

On 3 November 1998, Kofi Annan, Secretary-General of the United Nations, stood up to address the International Council of New York's Museum of Modern Art (Moma): a world élite of tastemakers and guardians of culture. Referring to the Guernica tapestry, a copy of Picasso's original painting, that was hanging in the corridor outside the Security Council chamber room, Annan declared: "The world has changed a great deal since Picasso painted that first political masterpiece, but it has not necessarily grown easier. We are near the end of a tumultuous century that has witnessed both the best and worst of human endeavour. Peace spreads in one region as genocidal fury rages in another. Unprecedented wealth coexists with terrible deprivation, as a quarter of the world's people remain mired in poverty."

It was a grimly realistic analysis of how far the world had progressed since 1937, when Picasso reacted so powerfully to the catastrophe of the bombing of the Basques' spiritual capital, but also of how far we were from achieving that elusive goal of the UN mandate for enduring world peace. Annan's statement to Moma's International Council also recognised Guernica's unique position in the history of art, elevated as it had been to the status of moral exemplar; a universal icon, warning that unless we studied its lessons, history was doomed to repeat itself.

Just over four years later, in the last week of January 2003, in the wake of the twin towers tragedy, a blue shroud was thrown over the Picasso tapestry to hide it from public view.

Considering the central role Guernica had played in the UN's education programme, it was a strange and highly symbolic decision. According to Fred Eckhard, a UN spokesman who had been given the impossible task of playing down the significance of the action, it was merely that blue was a more appropriate colour as a backdrop for television cameras, in contrast to Picasso's visually confusing mixture of blacks and whites and greys. Other observers, however, were quick to draw their own conclusions. It wasn't colour or shape that was the problem; what the picture showed up was the embarrassing contradiction of presuming to take the moral high ground while simultaneously campaigning for war.

On 5 February, the US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, shadowed by George Tenet, director of the CIA, had been scheduled to brief the United Nations Security Council in a last-ditch attempt to win UN approval for the war with Iraq that would start, according to military analysts, with a massive aerial bombardment of Baghdad that was to receive the chilling codename "Shock and Awe".

That same week, Hans Blix was expected to report back on either the discovery, or, as seemed more likely, the lack, of any concrete evidence proving that Saddam Hussein had been stockpiling weapons of mass destruction. On an almost daily basis, John Negroponte, US ambassador to the UN, had come out into the corridor to brief the world's press, while hovering in the background over his shoulder, the viewer could easily make out the mutilated bodies and screaming women of Picasso's painting. The presence of Picasso's Guernica was, it seemed, confusing the viewer. Painted as a passionate protest against senseless violence, it was once again succeeding only too well, illustrating perfectly the truism that we never seem to learn from our own mistakes.

Defiantly, in response to the cover-up of the painting, Laurie Brereton, a UN delegate representing Australia, pointed out: "Throughout the debate on Iraq, there has been a remarkable degree of obfuscation, evasion and denial, and never more so than when it comes to the grim realities of military action. We may well live in the age of the so-called 'smart bomb', but the horror on the ground will be just the same as that visited upon the villagers of Gernika [the Basque spelling of the town]... And it won't be possible to pull a curtain over that."

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It was obvious that from the day of its creation, Guernica has never lost its power to shock. Even when reproduced, in tapestry, or in poster form, it still continues to mirror the horror of war and throw a harsh spotlight on our propensity for cruelty. Subtly, over the years, Guernica has reinvented itself and changed from being a painting born out of war to one that speaks of reconciliation and the hope for an enduring world peace.

In 1937, on Monday 26 April, as Franco's Nationalist forces pushed north to cut off Bilbao and take control of the Basque Country, the decision was taken to crush resistance with an overwhelming show of force. At 4pm, and for the next three hours, 60 Italian and German planes rained incendiary bombs down on Gernika, reducing it to a burning wreck. Nothing like this had been seen in Europe before. And no single act was so prescient of what the world would soon come to understand as the appalling reality of total war, where innocent people are bombed indiscriminately, or strafed by machine-gun fire as they escape from the carnage in towns up into the hills. The newspapers reported graphically on the tragedy, and the shockwaves circled the globe.

In Paris, on 1 May, Pablo Picasso, who was by then the world's most famous living artist, started to give concrete form to his powerful sense of revulsion, jotting down at lightning speed some initial ideas. Over the next fortnight, preparatory sketches, drawings, and paintings poured out with a feverish passion.

By late June 1937, Picasso was ready to put the finishing touches to a painting that had been executed on such a scale that he had been forced to jam it in at an angle in his enormous studio on rue des Grands Augustins. The canvas, which had acquired the title Guernica, was covered with what at first sight seems a chaotic jumble of animals and contorted human bodies drawn out in an austere palette of blacks, whites and scumbled greys.

Photographs taken by Picasso's new lover, Dora Maar, show the artist reaching forward from the top rung of a stepladder, stretching out to make a quick addition at the top of the canvas. Sweating, almost manically absorbed, Picasso paces up and down the painting's length, feeling and reading its almost palpable presence and testing out, again and again, the suffocating pressure of its interior space. Torn paper was pasted on to the canvas to try out possible changes and then quickly removed. Ideas and doodles were torn out of the ether, built up and overlayered, one on top of the other, as they were drawn into the painting's creative vortex and hammered into shape. Desperately short of time, Picasso had covered the almost 30 square metres of canvas in little less than six weeks. By any standards, it was an extraordinary achievement.

Out of the chaos, Picasso had managed to give shape to an arresting and profoundly disturbing image. There was nothing that specifically alluded to Gernika, or the terror that rained down from the skies. Instead, Picasso had resorted to employing images whose simplicity and meaning could travel across every cultural divide. At the base of the painting, decapitated, splintered and crushed, lies the corpse of a dead warrior, strangely reminiscent of a classical bust. Above him the weight of a horse, contorted with pain and clearly in its death throes, threatens to collapse to the ground.

On the right of the picture, three women in various states of distress look in upon the scene. In the background, barely discernible at first, a cockerel is crowing up at the skies from the top of a table. Most poignant of all, at the extreme left edge, the picture is anchored and framed by the tragic image of a mother with the limp body of her dead child held in her arms, who in turn is overshadowed by an impassive bull. Only the ghost of a wind blows across the canvas to lift the beast's tail.

At first sight, there seems to be no clear relationship between cause and effect. There is no easy way in to read the story or discover exactly at what point we have joined the narrative. But among the shattered walls, blind doorways and roofs, we come to a growing realisation that something terrible has happened here.

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When first shown at the Paris Exposition in 1937, the painting's reception was strangely muted. In fact, considering the coolness with which it was initially received, particularly by the official Basque delegation, it would have been reasonable to assume that Guernica might end up rolled and stored in the back of Picasso's Paris studio, like Les Demoiselles d'Avignon; left to collect dust and haunt those who had seen it with ever fainter echoes of a drama that had long since played itself out. Awkward and difficult to transport, this was perhaps the most likely outcome. After all, in the remaining Republican strongholds of Madrid, Barcelona and Valencia, the most obvious venues for showing the work, it would have served only to demoralise the militiamen who were witnessing daily what was painted out so graphically across Picasso's large backdrop.

During the Second World War, however, and particularly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Guernica's imagery became more recognisable, indeed painfully familiar. City after city in Europe was bombed. Finally the catastrophic lessons of Hiroshima and Nagasaki brought the stark realisation that the world would never be the same again. With no hint of irony, the President of the United States, Harry S Truman, announced sombrely: "I fear that machines are ahead of morals by some centuries, and when morals catch up, there'll be no need for any of it.' Guernica had been horribly prescient. What it depicts is modern mass slaughter only faintly disguised behind the ancient rituals of death. Every community in the world that has suffered an appalling atrocity has become synonymous with Guernica the painting and Gernika the town, the brutalised spiritual heartland of the beleaguered Basques.

As the prolonged sound of air-raid sirens boom out across a threatened city somewhere far away, each new conflict, each new bombing, each act of total devastation, begs the question: shall this be the Gernika of our age? Warsaw, Coventry, Dresden, Rotterdam, Hamburg, Stalingrad, Hiroshima, Stalin's Gulag Archipelago, Pol Pot's Cambodia and, closer to us today, Rwanda, southern Sudan and Srebrenica. Iraqi Kurdistan has its Halabja. Recently, during the Balkan crisis in Kosovo, Serbs attempted to liquidate the Kosova Liberation Army. Each and every example has been cited as the Gernika of its day.

On 23 September 1998 in Washington, DC, Senator John McCain took to the Senate floor, declaring: "We have not lacked for rhetoric, but we have proven woefully inadequate at backing up our words with resolute action... Mr President, prominently displayed in the United Nations building in New York is Picasso's famous and haunting Guernica. That painting symbolised for the artist the carnage, the human suffering on an enormous scale, that resulted from the Spanish Civil War as a prelude to the Second World War. Perhaps it is too abstract for those countries in the United Nations that oppose the use of force to stop the atrocities that have come to symbolise the former Yugoslavia, or that believe the war in Kosovo is the internal business of Serbia."

Just as Anne Frank's story has become symbolic of all the Jewish children lost in the extermination camps, and Auschwitz shorthand for the apocalyptic horror of the Holocaust, Guernica has become synonymous with indiscriminate slaughter in whatever corner of the world such tragedy takes place.

On any given day, somewhere in the world, in parliaments, council chambers and in open debate, Guernica is cited to add a sense of moral suasion and urgency to the argument. Picasso's Guernica is the image that draws our constant attention to the proximity of catastrophe. Reproduced by the million, copied by other artists, reinterpreted by even more, Guernica remains, nonetheless, inviolate and unspoilt.

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The extraordinary thing about Guernica is that it refuses to yield and drown under the weight of its own ubiquity. It is still an image that can awaken the nightmares of our historical past while painting a terrifying scenario of what has yet to come. Despite the marketing and the myriad psychological, sociological, historical and art-historical interpretations – enough to fill a library – it can still be guaranteed to stun the viewer into silence as he witnesses it afresh. Guernica has, and this is even more unusual, the capacity to speak intimately to the individual while also remaining a universal symbol that is understood by all.

From Paris in 1937 to the United Nations today, much of the painting's meaning has lain beyond Picasso's reach and control. Guernica has its own life, forging a relationship with its audience that has often been entirely separate from the life of the genius who brought it into our world. Over the years, that audience and historical circumstances have continued to change. And Guernica, as is inevitable, has become stylistically dated.

But while the fabric of the painting has become increasingly fragile, as a work of art it has nevertheless been ageing well. It has never lost its relevance, nor its magnetic, almost haunting appeal. From its first showing in Paris to its arrival in Spain 44 years later, it has witnessed and helped to define a century. That its lessons have still not been heeded or learnt makes it as relevant and iconic today as it ever was. Guernica, for better or for worse, more than any other image in history has helped to shape the way that we see.



Extracted from 'Guernica: The Biography of a Twentieth-Century Icon', by Gijs van Hensbergen, published by Bloomsbury (£10.99). To order a copy for the special price of £9.89, plus free post & packing, call Independent Books Direct on 0870 079 8897. The Guernica Tapestry will be on display at the Whitechapel Gallery, London E1, from 5 April 2009 to 18 April 2010 ( www.whitechapel.org )

'While I work, I leave my body outside the door'

For art historians keen to search out Guernica's ancestors in art, the painting has proved a minefield. Picasso had often stressed the need for the modern artist to be a visual kleptomaniac, and with Guernica he didn't disappoint.

He had raided the store cupboard of art history and drawn from myriad sources: from Roman funerary sculpture to David's Oath of the Horatii; from the 10th-century St Sever Apocalypse in the Beatus de Liébana codex, to Catalan primitive art; from the classical Winged Victory of Samothrace to Bartholdi's Statue of Liberty; from Grunewald's Isenheim Altarpiece to Delacroix's Massacre at Chios; from Gericault's Raft of the Medusa to Rubens's Horror of War in Florence's Pitti Palace; from Guido Reni to Poussin; from Pierre Paul Prud'hon to press photographs in L'Humanité and Ce Soir; from Rogier van der Weyden's Descent from the Cross to Goya's Third of May and his horrific Desastres prints. One recent theory suggests inspiration also came from an anonymous Catalan fresco, The Triumph of Death, in Palermo's Palazzo Abatellis.

All these were absorbed, metamorphosed and transformed. Picasso also used his own earlier motifs; in Guernica we find passages from Songe et Mensonge and Minotauromachy, of course, but the Crucifixion, Three Dancers, Vollard Suite, early bullfight juvenilia and hundreds of other echoes, faintly remembered gestures, similar compositions and the employment of his habitual techniques are there too.

It mattered little that Picasso sourced so readily from elsewhere; what mattered was his capacity to come up with something shocking and new. He had performed a kind of visual alchemy in which the immediate power of the propaganda poster sits side by side with something as ancient and atavistic as the Altamira bull. On 12 July 1937, the Paris Exposition's Spanish Pavilion opened and the public could study Guernica and decide for themselves.

Few artists in history, excepting Goya, whose Second and Third of May were produced in just two months, have been capable of imagining and bringing to resolution such a complex and ultimately convincing work in such a short time. Physically, as well as intellectually, it was a remarkable feat.

Françoise Gilot, continually surprised by Picasso's extraordinary stamina, wondered at the physical cost of such an obsessive drive. "I asked him if it didn't tire him to stand so long in one spot. He shook his head. 'No,' he said. 'That's why painters live so long. While I work I leave my body outside the door, the way Muslims take off their shoes before entering the mosque.'" GvH

The Spanish Civil War: 1936 to 1939

Fighting broke out after a group of Spanish army generals, Franco among them, rebelled against the government of the Second Spanish Republic, which came to power in 1931 following the abdication of King Alfonso XII.



The conflict attracted worldwide attention as a struggle between left and right, with the elected Republicanos, or Popular Front, backed by the Communist Soviet Union, and Franco's Falangistas supported by Fascist Germany and Italy.



The military coup began in mid-July 1936. In early November, the Republican government fled Madrid for Valencia. Germany and Italy recognised the new regime and sent support before the year was out.



In addition to the civilian casualties of the horrific bombing raids that inspired 'Guernica', historians estimate that up to 50,000 people were executed on both sides, including the poet and dramatist Federico García Lorca.



The Falangistas won the war in 1939, and Franco began his bloody 36-year rule. Over the next 12 years, his supporters murdered at least 100,000 Spanish citizens. Republicans were subjected to constant persecution.



Although photographers and reporters had covered earlier wars, the Spanish Civil War attracted an unprecedented level of foreign attention because of developments in media and communications. Ernest Hemingway, Martha Gellhorn and George Orwell famously wrote dispatches from Madrid and a variety of front lines, illustrating the human cost of war.



The photographer Robert Capa covered the war with his partner, Gerda Taro. His 'Falling Soldier' picture, alongside 'Guernica', is the most memorable representation of the war. Purported to depict the moment a Republican soldier took a fatal bullet, 'Falling Soldier' is held up as an example of how propagandistic photography can shape the image of a war internationally. Capa went on to found the Magnum photographic agency. He was killed by a landmine while covering the war in Indochina in 1954. Sophie Morris

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