One of my BFFs and her daughter are traveling to Europe in January, and will be spending eight short days in Spain and Portugal. My friend and her teenage artist phenom both love art, so I am very excited for them to see one of my favourite paintings in person on their upcoming trip.
There are many reasons I have an immense love of Spain, not the least of which is its art. And while there is a veritable cornucopia of beautiful and meaningful paintings to indulge in throughout the country, there is little doubt that its most famous artwork is Pablo Picasso’s Guernica.
For those fortunate enough to visit Spain, you will wrestle with where to visit in your (presumably) short time there. That is completely understandable. However, if you miss out on visiting the Reina Sofia, where today Guernica is housed, then you should immediately consult a brain surgeon, as your corpus callosum has clearly been severed.
A Quaint View of Guernica
Although just a blip on the map with its population of around 16,000 people, the town of Guernica now holds the infamous distinction of being the victim of mankind’s first aerial carpet-bombing campaign in history on April 26, 1937. (While some assert that distinction lies with Barcelona in 1938, evidence seems to support Guernica being the first civilian population bombed in this new and horrific style from the sky.)
On that day, after Hitler had responded to Franco’s request to send some aerial firepower to Spain in a bid to help him bring an end to the Spanish Civil War, Hermann Göring’s Luftwaffe led the charge, attacking the spiritual capital of the Basque people by dropping 100,000 pounds (45,000 kg) of bombs on the tiny town over a period of three hours.
The Aftermath of the Bombing of Guernica
The result was devastating. Picasso, who at the time was living in Paris and working on a painting for the Spanish Pavillion at the upcoming Paris International Exhibition, heard about the bombing of Guernica shortly after it happened and was horrified. He immediately did away with what he was working on and began creating what was to become his most celebrated artwork. In fact, Picasso is said to have worked frantically on the painting for 35 days, finishing it on June 4, 1937.
Guernica is now housed in the Reina Sofia, which, along with the Prado and the Thyssen-Bornemisza, makes up one-third of Madrid’s Golden Triangle of Art — one of the most illustrious pieces of art real estate in the world. And at 3.49 meters (11 ft. 5 in) in height and 7.76 meters (25 ft 6 in) in width, it is nothing if not daunting to absorb visually when you see it for yourself in person.
There are endless tales associated with this painting, from the work Picasso put into it nearly a century ago, to its role as a political tool/bargaining chip in the years it hung in New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), to its safe return to Spain in 1981. There are of course many books written about Guernica as well, one of which I read and enjoyed thoroughly was Gijs van Hensbergen’s Guernica: The Biography of a Twentieth-Century Icon.
Today, when thinking about Guernica and its long-lasting effect on the world as a whole, I go back to March 1945. As World War II was drawing to a close, Picasso said something to the French journalist Simone Téry in an interview which could very well be the perfect description of his most iconic work: “No, painting is not made to decorate apartments. It’s an offensive and defensive weapon against the enemy.”