As recent events in Afghanistan unfolded in the headlines, I wondered how important it was to humanize distant tragedies – and the unique ability of artists to do so.
Picasso’s commemorative painting “Guernica” – more than 25 feet wide – is a powerful example of this. It is not only a part of art but also a part of history, capturing the horrors of modern warfare in a modern style.
The painting (which has been recreated, in this photograph, on a wall in the Basque market town of Guernica) depicts a specific event. On April 26, 1937, Guernica was the target of the world’s first saturated air-bomb attack on civilians. Spain was in the midst of the bitter Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), which pitted its democratically elected government against the fascist General Francisco Franco. In order to suppress the hostile Basques, Franco allowed his fascist Confederate Adolf Hitler to use the city as a guinea pig to test Germany’s new air force. The expedition flattened the city, causing destruction that was unheard of at the time (although by 1944, it would be commonplace).
News of the bombing reached Pablo Picasso, a Spaniard living in Paris. Terrified by what was happening in his own country, Picasso immediately began sketching a scene of destruction as he imagined …
Bombs are falling, lonely villages are being destroyed. A woman screams in the sky, a horse screams, and a man falls to the ground and dies. A bull – the symbol of Spain – thinks it all, keeps an eye on a mother and her dead baby … a modern “pieta.”
Picasso’s abstract, Cubist style reinforces the message. It looks like he picked up the bombs and pasted them on a canvas. The black-and-white tones are as disgusting as the newspaper pictures that reported the bombing, creating a depressing, unhealthy mood.
Picasso chose universal symbols, making the work an all-war commentary. The horse with the spear on its back is a symbol of suicidal humanity to the brutal forces. The fallen rider’s arm is severed and his sword is broken, further symbolizing defeat. The bull, usually a proud symbol of strength, is masculine and fearless. The dove, afraid of peace, can do nothing but cry. The whole scene is illuminated from above in the intense light of an empty bulb. Picasso’s paintings shed light on the brutality of Hitler and Franco. And, suddenly, the whole world was watching.
The painting debuted at the 1937 Paris Exhibition and created an instant sensation. For the first time, the world sees the destructive power of a growing fascist movement – a role in World War II.
Eventually, Franco won the Spanish Civil War and ruled the country with an iron fist for the next 36 years. Picasso vowed that Franco would never return to Spain. So “Guernica” appeared in New York until Franco’s death (1975), when it ended his decades of exile. Picasso’s masterpieces now stand in Madrid as Spain’s national art.
With each passing year, the canvas seems more predictable – honoring not only the thousands who died in Guernica, but also the 500,000 victims of Spain’s bitter civil war, 55 million in World War II, and countless others in the recent war. Picasso has a human face that we now call “collateral damage.”