Attack on Guernica painting by Picasso, an anti-war symbol

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At 11 feet tall and 25 feet long, Pablo Picasso‘s mural Guernica is one of the biggest and most important works by the modernist master. But the work has been considered more than just a treasure of art history by many. Painted in response to the bombing of a Basque town in 1937, Guernica has also become a powerful symbol of the horrors of Picasso’s painting entitled Guernica was made in 1937 in the city of Guernica, a village in northern Spain. The painting was created for the 1937 World’s Fair in Paris.

Copyright Francisco Seco/Copyright 2017 The AP. All rights reserved.
Copyright Francisco Seco/Copyright 2017 The AP. All rights reserved.

Picasso took up the Nazi aerial bombing of the ancient Basque town of Guernica in April 1937 as the subject for the mural. Though historians believe Picasso’s engagement with newspaper reports and photographs of the events in Guernica influenced the content of the mural, the painting, which depicts splayed bodies and horrified faces, features no specific allusions to the event. The work is widely understood to represent the universally catastrophic toll of war.

Map cover for the 1937 World’s Fair in Paris.
Map cover for the 1937 World’s Fair in Paris.

Pablo Picasso said: “Art is an instrument in the war against the enemy.”

Due to its size, the black and white painting, which was made from traditional materials made of canvas and oil painting, looks like a mural.
Picasso decided on the size of the canvas to cover up the viewer in the scene. The painting is eleven feet high and twenty -five and a half feet high and is visually dramatic due to the lack of colour. The lack of colour should remember a photo. Picasso used the bull and the horse, important figures in Spanish culture, as symbols to represent the onslaught of fascism and the people of Guernica. Picasso, aware of the powerful link between art and social commentary, understood the artist’s responsibility to choose their message and anticipate the viewer’s interpretation. Through Guernica, Picasso made a powerful condemnation of the war and the devastating bombing of this innocent town.
The Guernica painting, part of the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art, has a tapestry version hanging in the United Nations (UN) building in New York. The tapestry is located on a large wall and serves as a backdrop for diplomats during their press statements. The carpet was controversially covered with a blue tarp when Secretary of State Colin Powell made a statement about the Iraq War in 2003. This was not the first time the painting had faced intense political activism. In the 1960s and 1970s, the original artwork was the subject of a petition and an act of vandalism. Four hundred artists signed a petition asking Picasso to remove the painting from the United States until after the Vietnam War, and in 1974 Tony Shafrazi spray-painted the words “Kill Lies All” on the painting to protest the American “war.” actions at My Lai.

References and Sources

Cousen, B. (2009). Memory, power and place: where is Guernica? Journal of Romance Studies, 9(2), 47-64.
Simonton, D.K. (2007). The creative process in the sketches of Guernica de Picassos: monotonic improvements compared to non-monotonic variants. Creativity Research Journal, 19 (4), 329-344.

“Guernica” travelled to the United States two years later.

The painting went on a European tour, excluding Spain, and was then sent to the U.S. as part of an effort to raise funds for the Spanish Refugee Relief Campaign. It was first displayed at the now-defunct Valentine Gallery in New York in 1939. Then it visited the Stendhal Gallery in Los Angeles, the San Francisco Museum of Art, and the Chicago Arts Club before returning to New York for a Museum of Modern Art Picasso retrospective. Over the next year, the show travelled to major museums in Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, New Orleans, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, and St. Louis.

The painting “Guernica” received mixed reviews in the United States.

The first American publication to print a large-scale reproduction and description of “Guernica” was the New York World-Telegram in 1937, two years before it arrived in the U.S. An article about the painting described it as “incomprehensible to most people who see it.” A review in the Springfield Republican in 1939 stated that viewing the painting is “a half-dollar well spent, for it symbolizes the passage from isolation to social identification of the most gifted painter of our era.”

During the outbreak of World War II, Picasso asked MoMA to protect Guernica.

The artist requested that MoMA keep Guernica when war once again took hold in Europe in 1939. Guernica was exhibited at Harvard University’s Fogg Museum on two occasions in the early 1940s and displayed at several other institutions in the United States. In the early and mid-1950s, Guernica travelled to various cities including Milan, São Paulo, Paris, Munich, Cologne, Stockholm, Brussels, and Amsterdam. Along with around 95 other pieces, Guernica was under MoMA’s care until 1958 when it was exhibited in the show “Picasso: 75th Anniversary.” Following the exhibition, Picasso asked that Guernica and its preparatory drawings stay at MoMA on indefinite loan until Spain established a democratic government.
In 1947, the artist Ad Reinhardt created a cartoon that was published in P.M., an American publication known for its left-wing politics.
The cartoon was part of an article called “How to Look at a Mural,” in which Reinhardt analyzed various elements from Guernica, including the bull, the contorted limbs, and the shrieking mother. The spread in P.M. can be seen as Reinhardt’s attempt to convey the significance of the mural. In the introductory text accompanying the illustration, he describes the work as not just “a simple poster or banal political cartoon” that can be easily understood and forgotten, but as a design that depicts our entire present dark age.

Students demonstrating with Guernica posters in 2017 in Barcelona as part of the Catalan independence campaign.
Students demonstrating with Guernica posters in 2017 in Barcelona as part of the Catalan independence campaign.

Guernica became a lasting symbol of protest during the Vietnam War.

When the Vietnam War started, activists viewed Guernica in a new light. The Art Workers’ Coalition, an art group that opposed U.S. colonialism and racism, used the painting on posters in the 1960s and 1970s. One poster featured the phrase “Stop the war in Vietnam now!” alongside a detail from Picasso’s mural showing a slain man. In 1970, after the My Lai Massacre in Vietnam, the Art Workers’ Coalition, including notable art figures such as artists Louise Bourgeois, Donald Judd, and Robert Smithson, demanded in an open letter that Picasso remove the work from the Museum of Modern Art. They argued that displaying Guernica in the museum implied a moral superiority while ignoring the country’s own wrongdoing. In recent years, the painting has become a symbol for protesters in Rome, Barcelona, and various other locations worldwide.

The masterpiece was vandalized a year after Picasso’s death.

In February 1974, one year after Picasso’s death, Guernica sustained an attack while on view at MoMA. The artist and activist Tony Shafrazi, who later became known as a dealer of works by giants like Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, Andy Warhol, and Francis Bacon, spray-painted the phrase “Kill Lies All” on the mural. “I’m an artist and I wanted to tell the truth,” Shafrazi told the New York Times the day of the incident. Shafrazi was arrested at the scene and later charged with “criminal mischief,” according to the Times‘s report. The painting was not permanently damaged.

February 28, Shafrazi
February 28, Shafrazi
“Tony Shafrazi in Custody by NYC Police for Vandalism (Picasso's Guernica)”, Press Photo, 1974
“Tony Shafrazi in Custody by NYC Police for Vandalism (Picasso’s Guernica)”, Press Photo, 1974
Museum of Modern Art employees clean Guernica after a man spray painted the work in 1974.AP/SHUTTERSTOCK
Museum of Modern Art employees cleaned Guernica after a man spray-painted the work in 1974.

The first public exhibition of Guernica in Spain attracted large crowds.

After being on loan to the Museum of Modern Art in New York for 42 years, Guernica finally travelled to Spain in 1981. It was displayed at the Casón del Buen Retiro, an annexe of the Museo del Prado in Madrid, where it was publicly showcased in Spain for the first time, on the 100th anniversary of Picasso’s birth. It remained there until 1992 when it officially became part of the collection of the Museo Reina Sofía. Along with its preparatory drawings, Guernica is now exhibited in a gallery dedicated to art associated with conflict.

Thousands of people in Madrid lined up to see Guernica when it went on view in Spain in 1981.
Thousands of people in Madrid lined up to see Guernica when it went on view in Spain in 1981.

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