On the afternoon of 26 April 1937, the air force of Nazi Germany’s Condor Legion, working on behalf of the Spanish Nationalists led by General Franco, sent its bombers over the ancient Basque town of Guernica. It was a Monday – market day – and the centre was packed with people going about their everyday business, as they had for generations.
The first bombs began falling around 4.30 in the afternoon. Within four hours, hundreds (possibly thousands) were dead and wounded, and the town had been destroyed.
The brutality of such a deliberate terror attack on a civilian population shocked Spain and the rest of Europe. George Steer’s report in The Times the next day stated: ‘At 2am today, when I visited the town, the whole of it was a horrible sight, flaming from end to end. The reflection of the flames could be seen in the clouds of smoke above the mountains from ten miles away…’.
It may have been this account, translated into French in the newspaper L’Humanité, that Picasso read shortly after, and his response was swift and direct. It is widely thought that he began sketching for the masterpiece that became Guernica that very day.
Almost six weeks later, the vast mural was complete, and it was displayed in the Spanish pavilion of the World’s Fair in Paris in July 1937.
Eighty years on, the picture has lost none of its extraordinary widescreen power – and its significance as a symbol not only of Spain’s agony in the Civil War, but of the effects of modern industrialised warfare in what Gabriel Kolko called ‘a century of war’.
Picasso himself insisted that Guernica should not be exhibited in Spain until Franco relinquished power and democracy was restored, a refusal that was to keep the painting out of the country until 1981. Visiting it today, one is struck by the reverence in which it is held, with attendants at Madrid’s Reina Sofia Museum sternly admonishing groups of startled school pupils to be silent as they noisily enter the specially constructed gallery in which it is housed.
At almost 8m wide, Guernica’s sheer size means that on first sight it engulfs the viewer in its monochrome world of pain and suffering. Eschewing the emotion of colour (which surely would have saturated the scene in the red of blood), Picasso instead chose black and white to construct his contorted forms, lending the work the immediate air of the reportage of a newspaper photograph – perhaps inspired by those that had already been published.
The figures in the composition, both human and animal, convey the terror and suffering of the event with startling impact: their eyes, all except those of the dead child cradled by its mother (far left), are wide with terror. Their mouths gape open, with piercing daggers for tongues, as they lurch forwards to escape the flames. The fear of the fugitives and the broken bodies of the dead and wounded are illuminated in stark, spiky brightness by the single light bulb that hangs in the top centre of the picture.
An appalling episode in 20th-century history, captured for all time. If Guernica had a sound, it would be a shriek not a sob. .
The exhibition, Pity and Terror: Picasso’s Path to Guernica, is at the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid until 4 September 2017 (THIS EXHIBITION IS NO LONGER RUNNING).
Text: Maria Earle