Arts: Victory in defeat

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"In Guernica, and in all my recent works of art, I clearly express my abhorrence of the military caste that has sunk Spain in an ocean of pain and death."

With these words, spoken at the installation of Guernica at the Paris World's Fair in July 1937, Pablo Picasso made public his support for the Republican cause and confirmed the political tenor of a painting that has become an icon of 20th-century art. Yet, its title apart, there is no obvious connection between Picasso's Guernica and the Nazi bombardment of the ancient Basque capital 60 years ago today. It was the photo-journalists who recorded the horrors of that day: the twisted bodies of mothers and children strafed by the Luftwaffe were captured on film where they fell.

So what precisely does Guernica portray? The clues to its meaning are at best enigmatic: there is a speared horse in its death throes, an impassive bull, a howling woman cradling her dead child. A fallen soldier, sword in hand, lies, mouth agape, beneath the horse. Another anguished woman holds out a lamp, while an astonished female witness gazes on the mayhem. Behind these women, and unseen by them, a plummeting figure bursts into flames.

The meaning of Guernica has intrigued art historians for decades, all the more so given Picasso's notorious reticence about his work. Most interpreters regard Guernica as an anti-war protest expressed in open, universal terms. Spanish historians, for their part, maintain that Guernica has a concrete, if elusive, symbolism related to the Civil War, a view lent credence by Picasso's comments on joining the French Communist Party in October 1944, when he referred to Guernica's "deliberate sense of propaganda" and remarked that "the bull represents brutality, the horse the people".

I would like to propose a new reading of Guernica that brings to light the lost allegory behind the painting: the Siege of Numancia. This famous Spanish legend recounts how the people of Numancia, the sacred town of the Iberian Celts, committed mass suicide rather than surrender to the Roman general Scipio Aemilianus in 133 BC.

The example of Numancia stirred Spanish pride during the reign of Philip II and again during the Napoleonic invasion in 1809. The Republicans appropriated the legend as their own during the Civil War and, with Franco's Nationalist forces inexorably gaining ground, eventually saw the fate of Numancia as an analogy to their own hopeless situation. Republicans even began calling themselves "Numantinos".

In Guernica - created for display at the 1937 Paris World's Fair, in a pavilion funded by the Republican government as part of a desperate propaganda effort - Picasso enlarges on the legend, weaving into the story his own esoteric symbolism.

Picasso first accepted the commission in January 1937, six months into the war. The weeks that followed were a grim, uncertain time for him, and inspiration was slow in coming. In a poetic journal, he recorded the anguish he experienced as he searched in vain for a suitable subject for the mural, while the anxious organisers met him every night at the Cafe de Flore in the hope of some progress.

What finally galvanised Picasso into action was news of the bombing of Guernica on 26 April. True to himself and to the ideologically riven mood of the 1930s, he painted a work that reflected the moral ambiguity of the time, as well as contemporary political and philosophical issues and their bearing on representation and the artist. He chose to work by way of allusion because the truths he wanted to convey would have been unpalatable to many hard-line Republicans. What he alluded to, but dared not overtly express, was the inevitable victory of fascism and the overthrow of humanist values, not only in Spain, but across all of Europe.

By the spring of 1937, democracy was widely believed to have failed, the French Popular Front had fallen apart, and there seemed to be no way forward for society. The bombing of Guernica on 26 April finally extinguished all hope of a positive outcome for the Republican movement and exile to Mexico or the Soviet Union was anxiously negotiated by government leaders.

Four days before the bombing, there had opened in Paris a French version of Cervantes' 1580 play, The Siege of Numancia. Picasso knew those involved with the production - including the director Jean-Louis Barrault, future star of Les Enfants du Paradis - and, whether or not he attended a performance, it seems more than coincidental that the programme for the play contained a reference to the Iberian town as a symbol of "the persistence of the spirit of freedom in a given place". If, when La Numance opened on 22 April, Numancia could be seen as a beacon of hope for the Republican struggle, by 28 April, when the news of the destruction of Guernica broke on the front page of L'Humanite, it had turned into a symbol of the Republicans' heroic defeat.

In Guernica, on a canvas resembling a theatrical backdrop, Picasso alludes to the most dramatic moments in Cervantes' play, the scenes depicting the mass suicide of the Numantinos. As they prepare to die, the defiant townspeople set their town alight, determined to deprive General Scipio of trophies to parade at his triumph in Rome. Meanwhile, despite their initial resolve, the women and children who are to die first, at the hands of their own soldiers, become hysterical when the fateful moment arrives, and some of the mothers try to escape with their children in their arms.

In Picasso's mural, a walled town goes up in flames, as fire leaps from a tower on the right-hand side; on the extreme left of the picture, we see a mother and child as innocent victims, killed, not by bombs, but by swords (an early sketch emphasises a sword protruding from the child's gaping wound); while, to the extreme right, Picasso makes reference to the final scene of Cervantes' play, in which a boy named Bariato, the keeper of the keys to the city and the last of its citizens to die, plunges to his death from a flaming rooftop (only Picasso portrays this figure as female). Note, too, that in one of the earliest sketches, dated 1 May 1937, the trampled swordsman of the finished picture wears an ancient, Roman-style helmet.

Picasso reinforces the idea of sacrifice through the centrality of the speared horse, part of a related allegory often referred to in his writings and etchings of the mid-1930s. In these works, a bull and a disembowelled horse signal the end both of classical representation and of humanism. The young female lamp-bearer, who resembles Picasso's lover Marie-Therese Walter, holds the torch of truth and classical values over a dark world. The erotically tinged symbolism of Picasso's personal sexual and creative allegorisation here caused dismay among certain Republican officials, some of whom attempted to have the mural replaced by a more suitable work, with a more positive tone.

After the dissolution of the anti-fascist movement early in 1937, Picasso, like some of his avant-garde associates, followed a radical political and aesthetic agenda. A mythicised, primitive form of utopian community was projected: not a society of individuals, but a kind of leaderless socialist community in which all were equal. For Picasso, Numancia was the epitome of just such a community - a community in which the people are united through sacrifice - and it is this notion that he tried to symbolise in his Guernica.

Picasso's ambiguous and controversial response to the bombing of the Basque capital proved a disappointment to those Republicans who had looked to the artist for a clear directive. But he had clearly struggled over his commission, producing 45 sketches over a five-week period, and transforming the work through seven states. Photographs documenting the work's progress show that he had originally conceived a more leftist, Republican mural, before changing the central image of a raised fist clutching a sheaf of wheat and reaching up to the sun (the raised fist being, of course, the Republican salute) into the more baffling symbol of an electric arc lamp similar to the one in his own studio - a detail that shifts the picture's emphasis away from the political towards the private and esoteric. And, while the photo-journalists captured the victims of the bombing in black- and-white clarity, Picasso employed a more problematic grisaille.

So, despite his public proclamations and the picture's enduring fame as a symbol of anti-war protest, Guernica ultimately inhabits a greyer area - as a statement not simply about the impossibility of representing a human tragedy like the Nazi bombing of Guernica, but about the impossibility of representation itself.