I belong to the Pelican Pens Writers’ Club, which offers its members a weekly prompt to spur our imaginations and hone the craft. Last week, it was suggested that we write a story or poem about a famous painting. Pablo Picasso’s Guernica came to mind. While I did a little research, Nina did, too.
My consciousness of the painting was born in my college days, but my grasp of it arrived in 2011 when my husband, Bob, and I coursed through the galleries of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) to absorb Picasso’s glorious complexities.
The VMFA had scrambled to host the only East Coast stop on a seven-city international tour of 176 works that Picasso had curated to shape his legacy. Interest was high, and tickets were limited.
Although I was hobbled at the time by a broken shoulder, I was not going to miss this opportunity to see, in person, what I had studied in college. I not only admired Picasso’s creativity but also his productivity marked by a modus operandi to, “Only put off until tomorrow what you are willing to die having left undone.”
We had trekked more than a hundred miles to spend an afternoon with the cubist. His explosive and multi-faceted depictions of humanity, cultivated during the 1910s and 1920s, spoke anew to college students in the early- to mid-1970s. They reflected the fractured ethos of a generation.
While I stood in awe in the first gallery to absorb the overall magnificence of the exhibit, Bob stepped as close as possible to one painting to call attention to the visible fine lines of the master’s paintbrush. It was as if Picasso himself had entered the room to demonstrate his prowess. Each of these masterpieces was inspired by creative genius and executed with the fundamental effort of putting paint on canvas one single brush stroke at a time.
In this fashion—macro- and micro-focused—we wandered through the Blue and Rose Periods; cubism, classicism, and surrealism; prints, drawings, and photographs. At the entrance to Gallery 8, I halted and inhaled sharply.
Gobsmacked by Guernica, I was.
Nearly 12 feet high and 26 across, the mural depicts the April 26, 1937, bombing of Guernica, a Basque town on the inland port of Suso on the Urdaibai estuary. Established in 1366, it is reputed to be the first Basque town to recognize democracy under the Tree of Guernica. By ancient tradition, Basques assembled under an oak to discuss community matters. Around the tree grew a marketplace for Guernica’s people, who were engaged in agriculture, crafts, and trade. Monday was—and still is—Market Day.
On Monday, April 26, 1937, the marketplace swarmed with thousands of women and children from Guernica and the surrounding villages—the men were off fighting against General Francisco Franco’s Nationalists. After all means of egress were destroyed, Franco authorized a three-hour air attack by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. Although Guernica was behind the battle front, Franco used it as a means of intimidating his foes; Adolf Hitler used it as an opportunity to test his weapons and tactics.
Triggered by the horror he learned about in newspapers, Picasso went from sketches to finished masterpiece in less than two months. I stood agog at the result.
Arguably the most moving and powerful anti-war painting in history, it struck a note with a generation trying to make sense of Vietnam. According to Pierre Daix, in his book Picasso, the work is “the first historical picture painted for men consciously in the act of making their own history. It is the mirror image of a world of atrocity and bestiality from which it is man’s duty to emerge.”
Although I had studied Guernica in college, nothing prepared me for the impact of its heart-stopping mammoth and monochromatic sweep of gray, black, and white. I approached with reverence the chaotic scene I had known only in textbooks—flames falling from an artificially lit sky, an intact bull and a gored horse, dismembered bodies, screaming women, and a dead child.
Adopting Bob’s fascination with minute details, I nosed as close as the guards would allow, my slinged arm ironically integrating me into the landscape. I needed to smell the oil and varnish, redolent of war; to feel the bombs; to hear the wails. But it was what I saw that stunned me—the fine texture of a single brushstroke, a colorless score by a master who never put off anything he wasn’t willing to leave undone.
Although the 2011 exhibit was unique, Guernica’s appearance in the United States was not. After General Francisco Franco’s victory in Spain, Guernica was sent to the U.S. to raise funds and support for Spanish refugees. It was displayed first in San Francisco and then in New York.
Fearing Franco’s government and the Nazi occupation of France, Picasso was adamant that Guernica remain in the U.S. until Spain re-established a democratic republic. Guernica toured the U.S. and elsewhere until 1981.
After Picasso’s death in 1973 and Franco’s in 1975, Spanish negotiators brought the mural to Spain. It resides today at Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, in Madrid, in defiance of Picasso’s expressed wish to have the painting placed among the great pieces of Madrid’s Prado Museum.