Saturday, October 27, 2012

5 Minutes of Art and History: Guernica

Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) was born in Spain but spent most of his adult life in France, his first trip to Paris being taken in 1920.

In 1937 the German Luftwaffe, assisted by the Italian Fascist Aviazone Legionora, bombed the Basque town of Guernica in Spain.  A focal point of Basque culture, it was also an area of Republican sympathy during the Spanish Civil War. The attack by planes of the German Condor Legion supported both Nationalist advances in the area and Franco’s forces already in place. The bombing caused widespread destruction and killed a large number of defenceless civilians. Some commentators have argued that Guernica was an early example of terror bombing, the deliberate targeting of civilians to psychologically demoralise the enemy, a conscious policy of the Luftwaffe; others maintain that high civilian casualties were collateral damage from bombing of military and strategic targets. Whatever the policy, raid after raid bombed Guernica from the air, a town that had remained distant from the civil war and which had no air defences. The attacks took place on a Monday when most of the population was at the markets. After 8 waves of carpet bombing raids, a forerunner to the later German blitzkrieg, planes strafed the roads in and out of the town.


According to The Times’ journalist George Steer (above):

Guernica, the most ancient town of the Basques and the centre of their cultural tradition, was completely destroyed yesterday afternoon by insurgent air raiders. The bombardment of this open town far behind the lines occupied precisely three hours and a quarter, during which a powerful fleet of aeroplanes consisting of three types of German types, Junkers and Heinkel bombers, did not cease unloading on the town bombs weighing from 1,000 lbs. downwards and, it is calculated, more than 3,000 two-pounder aluminium incendiary projectiles. The fighters, meanwhile, plunged low from above the centre of the town to machinegun those of the civilian population who had taken refuge in the fields."
The number of dead has been debated, numbers varying from 126 to 3,000.

Photographs of the destroyed town of Guernica after the bombing:


Why did the Luftwaffe support Franco? According to Reichsmarschall Hermann Goring at the Nuremburg Trials:
"I urged him [Adolf Hitler] to give support [to Franco] under all circumstances, firstly, in order to prevent the further spread of communism in that theatre and, secondly, to test my young Luftwaffe at this opportunity in this or that technical respect."

It was through George Steer’s article that Picasso found out about the tragedy of Guernica in the country of his birth.

Picasso had been commissioned by the Spanish Republican government to create a mural for the Paris International Exposition at the World’s Fair, to be held in Paris in 1937. He became aware of the tragedy of Guernica from reading Steers’ article and immediately abandoned what he had been working on without enthusiasm for months, instead painting Guernica, an oil in black, white and grey, on canvas. Its images are stark, horrific, poignant, but I will save analysis of the painting for a future Bytes.


 Some details:


Picasso painting Guernica (also photo at very top):
To give an idea of size and scale of the work:

It attracted little attention at the time. Today it is regarded as one of the greatest symbols against war and Picasso's most famous work.

In 1968, Franco expressed interest in having Guernica return to Spain. Picasso refused, stipulating that before Guernica returned to Spain, the country had to be a republic, with public liberties and democratic institutions. Picasso died in 1973, Franco died in 1975, the painting was delivered to Spain in 1981.

During World War 2, Picasso remained in Paris. He did not exhibit, his artistic style being frowned upon by the Nazis.  He nonetheless continued to paint despite being continually harassed by the Gestapo. There is a story that a Gestapo officer, having observed a photograph of Guernica in Picasso’s apartment, asked Picasso with disgust “Did you do that?”  “No,” responded Picasso, “you did.”




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