Three Wars and an Artist
Pablo Picasso’s signature work, among his thousands of paintings, sculptures, prints, drawings and ceramics, was the monumentally-sized and monumentally-important, Guernica [pronounced “gair-NEE-ka”].As with everything so outstanding, there is a backstory that leads to a deeper understanding and consequently, deeper appreciation of the work.
During the period 1936 to 1939, Spain was embroiled in a civil war. The opposing sides included the Nationalists, who fought to overthrow the government and the Republicans, who wanted to maintain the status quo, comprising the left-leaning, anti-monarchy, democratic government. The Nationalists, led by General Francisco Franco, eventually won the war, but certainly not the hearts of the Spanish. Franco formed a totalitarian state which remained in place until his deathin 1975. Picasso was an ardent supporter of the democratically-elected Republicans, and therefore an opponent of Franco. Picasso died two years before Franco. Picasso and Franco remained mortal enemies throughout their lives.
In the heart of the Spanish Civil War, January 1937 to be precise, Picasso began a series of works, known as the Dream and Lie of Franco,which was meant as both an anti-war and anti-Franco statement. Picasso had become an avid reader of American political cartoons, and as a result used vignettes to make his attacks. Initially he intended to sell each separately as postcards, using the proceeds to fund the Spanish Republicans. Fourteen of the scenes were done very quickly in a burst of creativity, but the last four waited for about five months until he was engrossed in his Guernica masterpiece. While the first group were done with aquatint, the remainder were strictly line drawings, heavily utilizing his Guernica imagery and style.
The works are not overtly narrative, instead attacking Franco (shown as a polyp), the Catholic Church, and the Spanish military caste system.
More than anything, Picasso intended to show the horrors and uselessness of war.
Yet it was those very horrors that became manifest just a few months later that enraged everyone aligned with the Spanish Nationalists, including Picasso. No General seeks to lose, and each will do whatever it takes to avoid defeat. During the Spanish Civil War, and even during World War II, General Franco was aligned with the fascists in Germany and Italy, from whom he received military support, while the Nationalists were aided by the communists of the Soviet Union and Mexico. The northern region of Spain is Basque, which has steadfastly maintained its desire to be independent. During the civil war, Guernica was a stronghold for the existing Republican government, and the center of all things Basque.
Franco wanted the region to be conquered and sought assistance from Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini to do so. As a result, Germany’s air force, the Luftwaffe, and Italy’s Regia Aeronautica Italiana were unleashed on the Spanish city of Guernica on April 26, 1937. The city was decimated, with some 85% of its buildings having been destroyed. No official death toll has ever been established, though it is widely believed that more than 1,000 people died. Almost all were civilians who had no military importance. The purported target, a main bridge, was left intact.
The Republican government commissioned Picasso to complete a work for the upcoming 1937 World’s Fair (Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Moderne), to be held in Paris. Two months after the bombing, the massive (25 feet long x 11 feet high) painting was completed. It does not actually show the bombing at all, nor does it place blame. It instead shows the aftermath of the bombing—the resultant carnage. It is anti-war, and this has been its agreed-upon theme through the decades. Among its figures, it depicts a wounded horse, a decapitated soldier, a woman screaming as she is trapped by fire, and a woman holding her dead baby.
The painting was sent on a global tour after the World’s Fair in an effort by the Republicans to showcase the atrocities of Franco. For years it resided in New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), which the artist relished as it was out of Franco’s reach while still protesting the dictator, who steadfastly maintained that there was no bombing, but rather a leftist terrorist act. The masterpiece was well-known to the Germans, who confronted Picasso in occupied Paris, where Picasso rode out the Second World War. Upon entering into his studio, the raid’s senior German officer demanded to know if Picasso did Guernica, to which he replied, “No, you did.”
Picasso refused to allow the work to return to Spain until after freedom was restored. Picasso died in 1973. Franco died in 1975. Two days after Franco’s death, the Spanish monarchy was restored with the ascension to the throne of Juan Carlos. Democratic freedoms were gradually restored.
In 1981, Picasso’s Guernica finally returned to Spain, where it resides today.
Of course, both Hitler’s Germany and Franco’s Spain were fascist, and both brought misery into Picasso’s life. As Paris was liberated in 1944, Picasso became a staunch communist, to the point that he painted a portrait of Joseph Stalin—although he was censured by the Parisian Communist Party for painting it in a way that was insufficiently reverent.
He did remain a communist for the balance of his life. His pro-Russian stance also meant that he was anti-West, at least in his political and governmental views.
An event, which Picasso viewed as similar to the war crimes in Guernica, was an alleged massacre of civilians in Sinchon, now part of North Korea. There is still great debate about who was responsible, the Americans, South Koreans or even the North Koreans, or some combination. The numbers of deaths alleged varies wildly, up to 50,000. In any event, the outright communist Picasso was outraged and blamed the American army for the atrocity.
He brought forward a Francisco Goya work, The Third of May, 1808, which showed, in a very historically-inaccurate manner, the Napoleonic army’s massacre of Spanish civilians and others, during an uprising protesting the naming of Napoleon’s brother, Joseph, to the Spanish throne. Picasso’s 1951, Massacre in Korea showed a group of children and pregnant women being slaughtered by the Americans.
The truth of Sinchon has never been verified and history may never know precisely who did what. On the other hand, what is thoroughly known and understood is that Picasso was a pacifist, through and through. He died as he lived, with a profound hatred of war.
Francisco Goya, The Third of May, 1808 (1814)
Picasso, Massacre in Korea (1951)
Richard P. van Pelt, Ph.D. • March 10, 2020