The story behind ‘Guernica’, the popular work of Pablo Picasso

  • They had commissioned him to paint a work for the Spanish Republican pavilion, but he could not decide; One day he received a visit from the Spanish poet Juan Larrea, who asked him to denounce the bombing of Guernica.

Guernica is perhaps Picasso’s best-known painting, a cry against war and fascism whose gestation and symbolism are more complex than it seems.

The painting, on display at the Museo Reina Sofía, represents a “radical innovation on many levels, even for Picasso,” explains Hugh Eakin, author of the recent book Picasso’s war (2022).

After extensive research in archives in France and the United States, Eakin discovered that Guernica went virtually unnoticed when it was hung in the Spanish pavilion of the republican government at the World’s Fair in Paris in July 1937, at the height of the Civil War.

Little political commitment
The bombing of Guernica by German aviation had occurred on April 26 of that year and had left hundreds dead, according to different counts.

“Contrary to what has been written about the artist (…), there is very little evidence of his political commitment during the first nine months of the war,” Eakin writes. Picasso was at the time embroiled in one of his numerous love affairs.

He was married to the actress Olga Jojlova (whom he would never divorce), but he had two lovers, Marie Thérèse Walter and the photographer Dora Maar.

Picasso had not painted for months, overwhelmed by family tension. He had been commissioned to paint a work for the Spanish republican pavilion, but he couldn’t make up his mind.

One day he received a visit from the Spanish poet Juan Larrea, who asked him to denounce the bombing of Guernica. The painter from Malaga initially rejected that request.

The American collector Marga Barr, wife of what was to be the director of the New York Museum of Modern Art, visited him at that time and remembers him totally lost, Eakin says in the book. Guernica was like an electric shock.

After seeing the photos of the massacre in the French press, Picasso began to draw dozens of sketches. Dora Maar captured the feat: in just over a month, Picasso managed to finish the enormous painting.

“The most surprising thing is that, in effect, there was a ‘story’ to which the mural and its symbolic figures referred, but it was not an objective story, but a subjective one,” wrote the essayist and professor of Spanish Aesthetics Félix de Azúa in 2010. .

Picasso mixed his own emotional storm with his indignation at the war.

silence in the press
The French press of the time, which spoke almost daily about the Spanish war and the Universal Exhibition, ignored the painting. L’Humanité, the organ of the French Communist Party, mentions it in a “glacial” way, says Eakin.

It is the time of Soviet realism, far removed from modern art. Nor does the public seem to understand this work in white and gray tones, with tortured characters and runaway animals.

The architect Josep Lluis Sert, author of the pavilion, explained that people “passed by”. The Frenchman Le Corbusier said that the work “repelled”. Worse still, “the Spanish republican government and Basque leaders rejected it,” recalls Eakin.

The author of Picasso’s war particularly highlights the confusion surrounding the important magazine Cahier des Arts, which published a special issue on the painting.

For decades it has been believed that this number came out in the summer of 1937, that is, that the work had quickly shocked the great experts of the moment.

But in reality it was months later, as he was able to verify in the historical archives of the magazine in Paris.

Guernica was sent to the United States to raise funds for the Spanish Republic, about to fall.

“In Los Angeles just over 700 people saw it,” says Eakin.

The painting landed in New York, until it was returned to Spain, after the dictatorship.

«That is what there is: animals, exterminated animals. As far as I’m concerned, that’s it. And the public has to see what they want to see”, Picasso explained on one occasion.

“In a few years, American commentators made the mural ‘the masterpiece of the 20th century’, a very American way of selling the most important piece in the most important museum in the most important city in the most important country in the world,” explains Félix de Azúa. .