Painting the end of the world

  

Painting the end of the world

Pablo Picasso had already accepted a commission to create a work for the Spanish Republican Pavilion at the Paris World Fair in 1937 when news arrived of the assault by the German Condor Legion of the undefended Basque town of Gernika. 
 
In the latest addition to the Landmark Library series, James Attlee offers an illuminating account of the genesis, creation and many-stranded afterlife of Picasso's most lasting legacy. He explores the historical context from which it sprang; analyses the painting itself and the meanings that art historians, museum curators, politicians and anti-war protestors have ascribed to it; traces its travels across Europe and the Americas from the late 1930s to its arrival in Spain in 1981; and speaks with key artists, art-world figures and cultural commentators about its all-pervasive presence today.
 
In 1937 Guernica sounded a warning of what was to come: with demagogic politicians once more stalking the stage, Attlee argues its message is just as relevant today. 
 
 
Pablo Picasso’s painting Guernica has always been at the centre of things: a magnetic attractor of attention, discussion, eulogies and argument in equal measure. Created in 1937 for display at an international exhibition in Paris, it was born onto a world stage, a position it has never relinquished. After it left Paris, it remained outside Spain for the first forty-four years of its life, its location as much a statement as its subject matter. Wherever it has been shown it has stirred debate. Critics have seen it as either its creator’s career masterpiece or his fall from grace; the route by which he reconnected with his social conscience or the moment he lost his way. Politicians have praised it and railed against it, both in print and in the forums provided by the very different nations they inhabit. Artists have had to face up to its challenge, absorbing its lessons or overthrowing it in an Oedipal struggle, in order to make their own way forward. On its final arrival in Spain in 1981, it became the only painting in history to be widely associated with the transition of a nation from dictatorship to democracy. 
 
Inspired by a specific event, the bombing in April 1937 of an undefended Basque town during the Spanish Civil War by the Ger­man Luftwaffe, it contains nothing that refers directly to that place or the people who suffered there. Instead it features fig­ural elements and themes that have already resonated through­out Picasso’s career and will continue to do so: a bull, a tortured horse, a woman holding up a lamp, another woman weeping over a dead child. Over the past eighty-odd years, these and other symbolic motifs that haunt Guernica, as well as the setting in which they are placed, have been variously interpreted by some of the world’s leading art historians and by countless other commentators. Much that has been written has focused on Picasso’s biography in an attempt to decode the painting’s meaning in a manner that does not always add to our understanding.
 
When considering a work as overtly polemical yet stubbornly opaque as this one, it is essential to know something of the historical moment that gave birth to it; an atmosphere still adheres to its visibly aged surface, the electrical energy of a gathering storm that was soon to engulf the world. Guernica was born out of a fratricidal civil war Picasso never saw with his own eyes, but to which he was connected through bonds of friendship, family and identity. It raged in his psyche, just as a few hundred kilometres away it was playing out in reality, sinking Spain into what he described, in a famous letter to The New York Times, as ‘an ocean of pain and death’. Information travelled in a different way in 1937 to the way it does now. News of the war in Spain reached Picasso through personal letters, newspaper articles, pamphlets, posters and conversations with displaced Spanish officials, artists, poets and friends. Despite his exile, he was a combatant. Untrained in the use of a rifle or in aerial combat, the weapons he deployed were borrowed from his artistic forebears in the Prado Museum or learnt while watching the corrida de toros in the bullrings of his homeland. To trace these wellsprings back to their source is to enrich our response to the painting itself. 
Guernica: Painting the End of the World is available now in hardback and ebook.