When history and art meet

Re-viewing, analysing and interpreting ‘Guernica’ in an entire exhibition dedicated to it in Paris

When history and art meet

On a recent visit to Paris, we were keen to visit the National Picasso Museum, unaware of the fact that it has dedicated an entire exhibition (from 27 March 2017 to 29 July 2018) to only one painting -- ‘The story of the famous Guernica’, created 81 years ago. Having seen the original masterpiece in its permanent location in Madrid, Spain several years ago, we were intrigued by this show.

‘Guernica’ is a true scream of Pablo Picasso’s (1881-1973) heart as he saw his country embroiled in an insufferable war. On 26 April 1937, German Nazis and Italian fascist troops bombed the ancient Basque town Gernika (as the Basque spelled it). The town wasn’t armed at all to defend itself against the sixty planes that attacked it with bombs. Over the course of three hours, they destroyed three-quarters of Gernika, killing and wounding hundreds.

The monumental Guernica was painted in 1937. It is an anti-Franco, anti-fascist symbol, as the infamous Spanish dictator, General Francisco Franco was an ally of Adolf Hitler and he led his Nationalist forces to victory against the Republicans during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) that killed hundreds of thousands of his own countrymen.

In the Paris show, the genesis of Guernica is presented in the first section of the exhibition that looks at the mural’s origins; with various sketches and studies, including works commencing from Picasso’s bullfights from the 1930s such as the "Death of a Toreador" (1933). In this, Picasso graphically lays out a horse and a bull, and a dying matador, with the horse’s intestines spilling out of its body. When you view the etching "Minotauromachy" (1935) there is a bull-headed Minotaur (Picasso’s alter-ego throughout the 1930s) that he seems to have adapted two years later in the form of Guernica.

In January 1937 Picasso had accepted commission for a painting in the Spanish Pavilion of the Paris Exposition. After the attack on the Basque town, Franco’s troops had occupied it, and the May Day demonstration in Paris saw the largest march in the city’s history, whereby protestors marched against that attack. The next day, on May 2, Picasso all but locked himself in his studio on Paris’ rue des Grands Augustins, and began his outrage for the bursting of the Spanish Civil War. He made several preliminary drawings and in the next ten days he was ready to draw on the huge 11-and-a-half-feet tall by 25-and-a-half-feet wide canvas. Around mid June, Picasso delivered the completed black-and-white ‘Guernica’ to the Spanish Pavillion. It showed the suffering of people and animals being gored or burned. History and art thus met each other.

We discovered a set of works throughout the exhibition dedicated to the painting’s influence and posterity, evoking how Guernica would have been perceived by other artists. There were large-scale spinoffs by contemporary artists. Hanging over the museum’s main staircase, is a large rendering of Guernica made in 2009, with dripping paint and slightly smeared symbols by the contemporary German painter Tatjana Doll. The British group Art & Language, which started in the late 1960s, and is a shifting collaboration among conceptual artists, has created a work called ‘Picasso’s Guernica in the style of Jackson Pollock’, which takes up an entire wall of black-and-white paint splatters. There is also American painter and sculptor Robert Longo’s version, and that of French artist Damien Deroubaix.

Another interesting part of the show has 28 photographs by Dora Maar of the Guernica masterpiece being created by Picasso. Henriette Theodora Marković, better known as Dora Maar met Picasso in 1936 through the French poet Paul Eluard. A surrealist photographer of Croatian origin and anti-fascist militant, she encouraged him to make a public political commitment and captured the making of the mural from start to finish. Apparently, Picasso thought of it as capturing the metamorphosis of a painting rather than simply recording the stages.

The publisher Christian Zervos commissioned Dora Maar’s photographs of the successive stages of Guernica in anticipation of a special issue of the Cahiers d’Art journal devoted to the future masterpiece. Cahiers d’Art was a unique journal with striking typography, lots of photographs and arresting layouts, with writers such as Ernest Hemingway and Samuel Beckett also often contributing to it. From 1930 until World War II it concentrated, among others, on the work of Calder, Matisse, Braque, Giacometti and Picasso. Copies of the journal were also on display.

Picasso portrayed very few religious scenes. However, he did create a crucification series at the beginning of the 1930s. With its loud use of colour and contorted shapes, this small panel and the preparatory studies that can be seen in his sketchbook reveal some of the essential elements found in Guernica: triangular composition, screaming mouths, women’s howling faces and dead bodies lying in the foreground.

Has Guernica, Picasso’s oeuvre of madness and violence transcended boundaries of art and instead become an embodiment of peace, as claimed by some critics? Then how would one read into some of Picasso’s later works? I was struck by his 1939 oil on canvas, ‘Cat catching a Bird’ for example, which seems like a premonition of even worse things to come. The work has allegorical resonance as Picasso turned to ferocious and menacing expressions of the tormentor animal -- the cat -- holding a bird in its jaw.

When history and art meet