'Guernica' tussle reignites row between Madrid and Basques

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Basque MPs in Madrid have demanded that Picasso's anti-war masterpiece Guernica be shown in the Basque country to mark this year's 25th anniversary of the painting's return to Spain.

The request revives a tug-of-war with Madrid that flared nine years ago when Bilbao's Guggenheim Museum opened and Basques campaigned in vain for the painting to be shown in the region that inspired it. Many believe Guernica's rightful home is near the village pounded by Nazi bombers in 1937, the massacre that prompted Picasso to create his best-known work.

Pressure has increased since last week's ceasefire by the militant separatist group Eta, but Madrid still refuses to let the canvas travel. The Senate's cultural committee urged the government last week to transfer Picasso's painting to Bilbao for an exhibition this autumn. The conservative Basque Nationalist Party, the Left Basque party, and the Popular Party all backed the proposal. Only the ruling Socialists objected.

The Culture Minister, Carmen Calvo, told parliament's upper house that "many technical reports" advised against the move, because the canvas was too big and too fragile.

This is no art row; this is a power struggle. Basques have deep affection for Picasso's homage to their spiritual capital. They recall that throughout Franco's 40-year dictatorship, hanging a copy of Guernica in their home amounted to a subversive act.

They believe the state-run Reina Sofia fears losing the jewel in its crown if Guernica travels to Bilbao.

When the Bilbao Guggenheim opened in 1997, the president of New York's Solomon Guggenheim Foundation, Thomas Krens, campaigned furiously for Guernica to form the heart of the inaugural exhibition.

The highest, longest gallery of Frank Gehry's futuristic building was said to have been designed to house Guernica. Locating the Guggenheim in an industrial wasteland off the tourist track made sense only in the expectation that Guernica would be a top attraction.

Juan Ignacio Vidarte, Guggenheim Bilbao's director at the time, said then: "This transcends technical considerations. To say it is too fragile is to insult our intelligence. We can provide a special frame, a special vehicle."