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ISR Issue 52, March–April 2007

Picasso’s Guernica


What do you think an artist is? An imbecile who has nothing but eyes if he is a painter, or ears if he is a musician, or a lyre at every level of his heart if he is a poet, or nothing but muscles if he is a boxer? Quite the contrary, he is at the same time a political being, constantly aware of what goes on in the world, whether it be harrowing, bitter, or sweet, and he cannot help being shaped by it. How would it be possible not to take an interest in other people, and to withdraw into an ivory tower from participation in their existence? No, painting is not interior decoration. It is an instrument of war for attack and defense against the enemy.1—Pablo Picasso

MANY WORKS of art have cried out against injustice, but few have been so powerful that those guilty of the crimes it condemns avoid appearing next to it. Such was the case in February of 2003, when then-Secretary of State Colin Powell appeared before the United Nations (UN) to gain approval for the coming war in Iraq. Behind him hung a blue shroud—but behind that hung a tapestry of a world-famous antiwar painting. UN officials hid this display of Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, a portrayal of the aerial destruction of a Basque town by fascists during the Spanish Civil War, claiming that it would be too visually confusing for television viewers.2

Reports of the attempt to hide Guernica have, ironically, led to a revived interest in the painting. Around the world, images copied from and inspired by it have appeared on placards, fliers, and t-shirts to protest Bush’s war on Iraq. After the U.S. bloodbath in Fallujah in 2004, Pepe Escobar of the Asia Times wrote that “Fallujah is the new Guernica,” and journalists Jonathan Steele and Dahr Jamail referred to the siege as “Our Guernica.”3 Not to be outdone, prowar hack Christopher Hitchens wrote that “Abu Ghraib isn’t Guernica,” going so far as to compare the Iraqi insurgency with the Spanish fascists.4
That the painting has such an effect speaks volumes to its continuing power today. Seventy years after its creation, it has remained, unfortunately, timeless. But while the mural portrays the innocent victims of war, the story of Guernica—and its creator—is also about the struggle for their liberation.

Guernica—destruction and creation

In January 1937, Picasso was asked by Republican Spain to produce a painting for the Paris World Exposition. It would be his first commissioned work and—somewhat unusually for him at the time—would be overtly political. Picasso’s role as a representative of his native Spain was meant to bring the world’s attention to the coming danger of fascism—the country’s future hung in the balance as General Francisco Franco and his fascist army threatened to defeat the Spanish Republic and take over the country. Nonetheless, with weeks left before he was to deliver, Picasso remained without inspiration. That changed on April 27.

For three hours the town of Gernika—as it is known to its native Basque population—was destroyed by dozens of German and Italian bombers on loan to Franco. More than 1,500 civilians were killed in a savage act of war unparalleled in European history. The purpose, as Times of London correspondent George Steer would report, was clear:

Gernika was not a military objective. A factory producing war material lay outside the town and was untouched. So were two barracks some distance from the town. The town lay far behind enemy lines. The object of the bombardment was seemingly the demoralization of the civil population and the destruction of the cradle of the Basque race.5

Franco’s propagandists denied responsibility for the massacre, claiming the weather was too poor for an air raid on that day, and blamed the Basque people for destroying their own town in order to gain international sympathy. Few were fooled.

It was immediately clear to Picasso that Guernica would be his subject for the Paris Expo. The work he produced over the next two months would be an enormous, devastating display of the horrors of war in stark black and white, measuring eleven feet high (twice Picasso’s height) by twenty-five feet long—so large that Picasso had to attach his paint brushes to long sticks to complete it. Missing are signs of hope and resistance—a prominent raised fist, for example, was removed from early versions of the painting. Instead, the scene is filled entirely with horror and death—from clearly defined suffering individuals to subtly placed hidden images reinforcing the overall destruction.

At the center is a horse—a strong, noble animal, probably representing the Spanish people—with a spear driven through it, recoiling in horror. But within the image of the horse is another image of a skull, with the round rear and underbelly of the horse forming the cranium and the horse’s bent front-right leg forming the jaw. The spear then protrudes from the eye of the skull, which winces and screams. Death, it seems to imply, does not stop the pain and suffering.

To the left of the horse is a woman weeping over the body of her dead child. This is one of the more universal images of Guernica in its portrayal of the ultimate tragedy of war. But the woman’s body also forms a skull—with the dark, round area encircled by her body and the bull forming an eye, the woman’s skirt forming the nose, and the fallen soldiers arm stretched out below her forming the jaw. At the other end of the painting is a person crying out from within a burning house—who also appears to be being eaten alive by a monster. This home will provide no sanctuary from the attack.

The bull on the left is a most mysterious figure whose posture both mimics the horse—their bodies and heads are both positioned in the same direction—and contrasts it—while the horse recoils and screams, the bull stands mostly still, with a slight look of alarm on its face. It has been said to represent such widely divergent subjects as the Spanish people on the one hand and Franco on the other. A more convincing argument is that this figure—standing aside from the action, not directly affected but responding to it—represents Picasso himself, especially in light of the very personal portrayals of bulls in many of his other works.

The use of iconic images rather than naturalistic reproductions strengthens the power of the painting. No horse could ever look so contorted and terrified as the one in Guernica. As the Marxist art critic John Berger writes:

Picasso did not try to imagine the actual event. There is no town, no aeroplanes, no explosion, no reference to the time of day…. Where is the protest then? It is in what has happened to the bodies—to the hands, the soles of the feet, the horse’s tongue, the mother’s breasts, the eyes in the head. What has happened to them in being painted is the imaginative equivalent of what happened to them in sensation in the flesh. We are made to feel their pain with our eyes. And pain is the protest of the body.6
Picasso’s images remove us from the specifics of the devastation of Guernica to the more general and universal suffering inflicted by war. Neither spears, nor horses, nor bulls can be found in the battlefields of Iraq, but that does not stop these images from retaining their relevance and immediacy.

An instrument of war

Guernica was displayed in the summer of 1937 to mixed reviews. While some recognized its brilliance, it was also attacked from both the Left and the Right. On the one hand, the official German guidebook encouraged visitors to the Paris Expo to avoid the exhibit of “red” Spain and included Hitler’s denunciations of modern art. This was a part of a campaign by Nazi Germany that included a “Degenerate Art Exhibition” in Munich, placing the works of modern German artists next to artwork by children and the mentally ill, daring the viewer to differentiate them.7 On the other hand, there was a left critique, as well:

Edouard Pignon, son of a miner and member of a communist trade union, wrote [about Guernica]…“As for the working class, in fact, it never saw it.” Others, like Paul Nizan, a close friend of Jean-Paul Sartre, argued that Picasso’s art was both ivory tower and effete, and suggested that all attempts to bourgeoisify the workers with the art of the masters would fail.8

Nonetheless, Guernica became a means to rally people to the anti-fascist cause. In January 1939, the painting was displayed in Whitechapel Art Gallery in London’s working-class East End. In the first week, 15,000 viewers attended, raising £250. Additionally, the price of admission to see the painting included the donation of a pair of boots to be sent to the Spanish front. “Each pair of proffered boots was placed on the Whitechapel floor beneath the enormous canvas and the collection of boots grew into the thousands by the time Guernica came down and the boots were crated and shipped to Spain.”9 Later, an American tour was organized with the support of Albert Einstein, Ernest Hemingway, Theodore Dreiser, and other notable American writers, which raised money for Republican forces and helped refugees from the war. At the Washington, D.C., stop of the tour, 100 people paid $5 to attend a gala fundraiser with Eleanor Roosevelt and Simon Guggenheim, and 2,000 people paid a fifty-cent donation to Spanish refugees during the three-week exhibit.10

Like much of Picasso’s work, it provided limitless inspiration to a new generation of artists. Willem de Kooning called it “staggering.” Lee Krasner—the wife of Jackson Pollock and a significant artist in her own right—described her first encounter:

Picasso’s Guernica floored me. When I saw it first at the Dudensing Gallery, I rushed out, walked about the block three times before coming back to look at it. And later I used to go to the Modern every day to see it.

But the most lasting impression was on Pollock himself, who became a devotee of Picasso’s work. His biographers write:
Sometimes Jackson came alone [to see Guernica], sometimes with others, to be overwhelmed by the great, gray monolith of it. Eleven feet high and twenty feet long, it loomed in the modest gallery space like a ship run aground, its images enlarged to supernatural proportions.11

Picasso after Guernica

Guernica turned out to be an important moment in Picasso’s political development. Picasso lived through the First World War, which saw battles leading to massacres unparalleled in history. Many of his friends and even close collaborators were drafted into the French military. Nonetheless, Picasso produced nothing comparable to Guernica in this period—not even a failed attempt at a Guernica. His most important work during the Cubism period, which was carried on up until the eve of the war when his collaborators were dispersed, was virtually apolitical. On the contrary, the war appears to have turned him inward, as Berger writes:

Picasso was unconcerned about the war. It was not his war—another example of how tenuously he belonged to the world around him. Yet he suffered because he was left alone, and his loneliness was increased in 1915 by the tragic death of his young mistress.12

The threat of a fascist Spain, where Picasso’s family continued to live while he was in France, and the revolutionary struggle for an alternative, forced him to take sides in a way that the First World War did not.

The effects of the rise of fascism on Picasso were decisive. He not only agreed to paint Guernica, but actively supported the fight against Franco.

[H]e donated milk to the children of Barcelona. He signed numerous declarations in support of the Republic and became involved with several refugee relief organizations. He participated in fund-raising efforts such as exhibitions and actions to benefit Spanish refugees, and was particularly active in securing the liberation of Spanish intellectuals from French internment camps…. Picasso himself claimed that it took the experience of the Second World War to make him understand that he had to adopt a more militant attitude.13

Picasso would remain in France throughout the war and the German occupation. This was a dangerous decision, considering both his outspoken opposition to fascism and the Nazi’s hatred of modern art. His whereabouts were known to authorities, who harassed him from time to time, but he was never arrested. There is even a story of a Gestapo officer who searched his studio and, finding a copy of Guernica, pointed to it and said to Picasso, “Did you do this?” To which Picasso replied, “No, you did.”14

Within weeks of the end of the Nazi occupation, Picasso publicly joined the French Communist Party. He did so in spite of—or perhaps because he was ignorant of—the treacherous role of the Spanish Stalinists in demobilizing the revolutionary efforts of Spanish workers opposing Franco, or of Stalin’s crimes in the Soviet Union. His direct experience with communists was through close friends involved in the French Resistance against Germany, as he stated in an article titled “Why I became a communist”:

I have become a communist because the communists are the bravest in France, in the Soviet Union, as they are in my own country, Spain. I have never felt more complete than since I joined. While I wait for the time when Spain can take me back again, the French Communist party is a fatherland to me. In it I find again all my friends—the great scientists Paul Langevin and Frederic Joliot-Curie, the great writers Louis Aragon and Paul Eluard, and so many of the beautiful faces of the insurgents of Paris. I am again among brothers.15

Picasso’s relationship with the party was rocky. The Stalinist approach to art was dominated by socialist realism, a rigid theory dictated from above that artists ought to focus on portrayals of ordinary workers—and Stalin—in a “realistic” manner. Socialist realist paintings were only formally realistic—presenting muscular workers, smiling peasants, and benevolent Soviet leaders in glowing, exalted poses. This was antithetical to Picasso’s approach to art, a fact not lost on the Soviet Union’s official organ, Pravda, which denounced his work. He was often—though not always—shielded from criticism due to his importance as a celebrity. Nonetheless, his commitment was genuine and he consistently lent his name to support the cause:

[Picasso] headed the Communist contingent of the 1949 May Day parade... Picasso also repeatedly expressed his support for American Communists and lent his signature to petitions for their release when leaders of the American Communist Party were imprisoned. He was apparently among hundreds of artists, writers, and scientists who denounced the imminent imprisonment of the "Hollywood Ten."16
On top of this, he produced numerous works of art for the party and its various campaigns, most notably a dove which became an international symbol of the peace movement. He would remain a committed member until his death almost thirty years later. While one cannot help question his silence in the face of Stalin’s crimes, his commitment to the struggle against capitalism is admirable. After the war, he could have easily hidden his political sympathies and surrounded himself with the admiration of the decadent bourgeois art scene. Instead, he accepted their derision and remained committed to his ideals of a better society, in spite of the lack of an alternative to the USSR.

Guernica, Picasso’s most important political painting, has remained relevant as a work of art and as a symbol of protest. Though the obliteration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki would eclipse the destruction of Guernica, Picasso’s painting kept the memory of the Basque town’s nightmare alive. In the postwar years, it would hang next to Da Vinci’s The Last Supper on the walls of many Spanish households as a form of silent dissent against Franco. Today, it continues to enrage and inspire opponents of imperialism. It is this that makes Guernica “an instrument of war”—for our side.

Scott Johnson is a member of the International Socialist Organization in the Bay Area.

1 Picasso, writing in 1945, quoted in Wilhelm Boeck, Jaime Sabartés, Picasso (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1955), 505.
2 Gijs van Hensbergen, Guernica: The Biography of a Twentieth-Century Icon, (New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2003), 2. Claudia Winkler disputes the Bush administration’s involvement in the shrouding in the neoconservative Weekly Standard, Winkler dismisses this “Guernica Myth” as “too good to check,” that is, too convenient a story to verify with an independent source. She demolishes the “myth” by quoting a “spokeswoman for the U.N. Secretariat”—hardly an independent source. Her writing shows no irony when her thinly veiled disgust for this institution seeps through later in the article.
3 Pepe Escobar, “From Guernica to Fallujah,” Asia Times, December 2, 2004, and Jonathan Steele and Dahr Jamail, “This is
our Guernica,” Guardian (UK), April 27, 2005.
4 Christopher Hitchens, “Abu Ghraib isn’t Guernica,”, May 9, 2005, For no apparent reason, Hitchens demands the reader appreciate the “potency” of the painting, “even if you agree with the Marxist and Third-Worldist art critic John Berger, in The Success and Failure of Picasso, that it was one of the master’s crudest works.” Unsurprisingly, Berger says no such thing in his excellent overview of Picasso. Hitchens would do well to avoid concocting lies about art and stick to regurgitating lies about the Iraq War.
5 Russell Martin, Picasso’s War: The Destruction of Guernica, and the Masterpiece That Changed the World (New York: Plume, 2003), 51.
6 John Berger, The Success and Failure of Picasso (New York: Pantheon Books, 1965), 169.
7 Martin, 118–19.
8 Gijs van Hensbergen, Guernica: The Biography of a Twentieth-Century Icon (New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2003), 72.
9 Martin, 38.
10 Ibid., 149–51.
11 Quoted in van Hensbergen, 169–70. For an overview of Picasso’s influence on these artists, see Michael Fitzgerald, Picasso and American Art (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 2006).
12 Berger, 83.
13 Gertje R. Utley, Picasso: The Communist Years (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), 25.
14 Utley claims that this widely reported story is apocryphal, but van Hensbergen quotes an interview with Picasso in which he claims this episode did occur.
15 Utley, 43.
16 Ibid., 105–06.

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