Pablo Picasso’s Guernica is to the horror of war what Edvard Munch’s The Scream (1893) is to the agony of private terror. Its influence can still be felt everywhere in our culture, undiminished after more than 80 years.
On 26 April 1937, Italian and German planes – supporting Francisco Franco’s Nationalist forces – subjected the town of Gernika (to use the Basque spelling) in the north Spanish province of Biscay to pulverising aerial bombardment, on a scale never before seen in Europe. The bombing was reported around the world (though Kim Philby, the English KGB agent working undercover as a right-wing journalist, expressed scepticism in the Times that the damage was all the work of air attacks).
In Paris, Picasso began work on his masterpiece only five days later, sketching, preparing draft sections of the final image, frantically seeking to capture the spirit of atrocity on a canvas of 137.5 by 306 inches. As if to echo the grainy aesthetic of newsreels, he painted in black and white oils.
Guernica is both time-specific and mythic. It portrays a moment of historic carnage in timeless symbols, from the mournful image of a mother with a child in her arms to the oddly impassive bull, the horse pierced by a javelin, and the corpse of a fallen soldier on the ground.
In the evolution of figurative art, it represents an end, rather than a beginning. As the late critic Robert Hughes put it in The Shock of the New, it “was the last great history-painting”. The task of capturing the visual reality of war was now delegated to movie directors: Ford, Pontecorvo, Kubrick, Coppola.
But as an act of political intervention the painting had an extraordinary impact, and was sent on tour as a form of cultural shock therapy for a world slowly awakening to the brutal reality of fascism.
In 1939, it was displayed in venues around England – including the wall of a former Ford showroom in Manchester – to raise consciousness of the Republican cause against Franco. Though he had painted what was to become one of the most famous images in the history of art, Picasso regarded it as, first and foremost, a banner.
In this respect, its power endures. In January 2003, during the countdown to war with Iraq, a blue shroud was thrown over a tapestry copy of Guernica at the United Nations. Officially, this was done to provide broadcasters with a simpler, more telegenic backdrop. But it was hard to avoid the suspicion that the real reason was that Colin Powell, the US secretary of state, and George Tenet, director of the CIA, would shortly be making the case to the UN Security Council for the bombardment of Saddam Hussein’s regime – and that the harrowing imagery of Picasso’s visual prophecy of “shock and awe” might undermine everything they were saying.
According to the artist’s wishes, the original painting was not returned to Spain until after the restoration of democracy. Today, the painting hangs in the Museo Reina Sofía – but its primal psychic force is still felt around the world wherever shrapnel and fire do their bloody work.
Illustrations by Phillipa Warden Hill