The story has been told before many times, but always deserves a retelling. In the years of the German occupation of Paris between 1940 and 1944, Gestapo officers stationed there made a habit of dropping by Pablo Picasso’s studio on Rue des Grands Augustins. This was the same studio in which, in 1937, the artist had painted Guernica for the Paris International Exhibition of Art. The work had been commissioned by the Spanish Republic, during the time of the Spanish Civil War in 1937, after the firebombing by the German Luftwaffe of the Basque city Guernica. (The painting itself was not in Paris by the time of the occupation. It had been nestled safely at the MOMA in New York since 1939.) The Gestapo pretense for the visits to Picasso was always the same: the officers claimed to be aficionados of contemporary art, and they were merely interested in observing what he was up to. They, of course, considered his work to be tasteless and decadent, but they had heard much about the legendary Spanish artist and would stroll by on their time off. One day, the story goes, a Gestapo officer entered the studio who seems to have sincerely prided himself on being an authority on art. He too was curious to see if Picasso was worth all of the fuss. As the officer browsed through the studio gazing at many of the artist’s unfinished pieces, he noticed a postcard on a table with the image of Guernica embossed on it. Picasso once said that he often gave them out as souvenirs. Pointing at the postcard, the officer turned to the artist. “Did you do this?” he asked dryly in French. While Picasso was not unused to such visits, he generally refrained from making his feelings felt. This, however, was one of those opportunities he could not pass up. “Non,” he said back calmly, “vous l’avez fait.” (“No, you did.”)
Given the frequency of the visits over the years, the artist was well aware of the purpose of Germans’ supposed interest in his work. It was only a cover for their real motive: they were checking-up to see to see if they could find evidence of Picasso’s support for the French resistance. During one such visit, out of apparent frustration of never finding the evidence they wanted, a group of Germans officers became enraged. They started calling him “a degenerate, a communist, and a Jew.” They proceeded to kick in several of his canvasses and threatened to return and do worse. Picasso’s cultural status in Paris, internationally, and was great enough to provide him with some protection in the years of occupation, as long as he did not openly contest the Germans. The truth was that Picasso, a bitter foe of the Franco dictatorship in Spain, was probably far safer in Paris than he would have been back under the dictatorship. But what is also clear is that Picasso did, in fact, with the constraints put upon his travel and the vigilance of the Gestapo, manage to make his voice heard. “I have not painted the war,” he once said referring to his work in this period. “But I have no doubt that the war is in these paintings I have done.”
And first and foremost of all his work, of all the work of art done by Europeans, done in the West, and possibly in the history of art itself, no painting, no depiction so encapsulates the horror and the degradation of humanity brought on by war as does Guernica. But even further, with its images of that horror, in its tones of gray, blue, white and black, with its combination of cubism, surrealism and abstraction spanning twentieth century art to that point, with its planned chaos, hand raised in protection and defiance, Guernica shouts-no, screams- at the total hubris of Western Civilization. From the conquests of Cortés to that grand perversion of Darwin’s theory by Spenser that marked the positivist claims of the late nineteenth century in Europe, with its 1937 prescience of what was still yet to come, Guernica has helped wake humans up from that Western illusion. What Guernica symbolizes, morally, ethically, and categorically, in one enormous canvas is the grand failure of that Western project.
This year upon the eightieth anniversary of the debut of the work in the Second Spanish Republic’s pavilion of the Paris Exhibition of Art is the perfect moment to look back on the influence of this incredible work. The fame of the artist along with that of Guernica itself, have gone beyond the bounds of reputation. Both have become institutions unto themselves. No single artist so represents an era of artistic expression as does Picasso, and no work so represents the wide breadth of that artist’s expression as does this painting. But it is so much more. Those who come to see Guernica today at its home in the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia in Madrid-thousands make the pilgrimage yearly- witness an atmosphere of somber reverence. One friend referred to the first impression of this experience as that of “having walked into a church by accident on a Sunday morning and all of a sudden realizing there is a worship service going on around you.” But the ramifications of the work, on its most primal level, probably lie elsewhere. In a century of violence, the most horrific in human history, caused by among other things, the political and social chasms that had opened between the left and the right in Europe of the twentieth century, Guernica is a revelation and an apotheosis. Its imagery, carefully worked out by the artist piece by piece, points a warning hand to that struggle between human desire for aggrandizement and the social conscience born out human responsibility to each other. The work represents a challenge to all humanity to engage in that debate peacefully.
Even the history of the circuitous route of the painting since it was first displayed in Paris in 1937, is a monument to its universalism. Picasso’s desire was that the painting end up in Spain, but not, he insisted adamantly, until the regime of Franco had fallen and Spain again became democratic. So it was that in May of 1939, the painting was shipped out of Europe threatened by war to safety at the MOMA in New York City. It remained in the United States until 1981, six years after Franco’s death and after the approval by the Spanish people of a new democratic constitution. And, abiding by the wishes of the painter, it resided in the Prado in Madrid until 1992. That year a controversy broke out in Spain over the government’s wish to move Guernica across the Paseo del Prado to the Reina Sofia. Picasso had assumed the Prado, where the great Spanish works of art up until the twentieth century were installed, would be the home for his massive work. Some in the Basque Country of Northern Spain, however, insisted that the painting should be brought to them, since its subject matter was the carpet bombing of the Basque city of Guernica by the Nazi allies of Franco during the Spanish Civil War. And, there those who wanted the work housed exactly where it was in the Prado as per Picasso’s wishes.
To Catalan artist Antoni Tàpies, who grew up during the Spanish Civil War, who was arguably the most well-known twentieth century artist besides Picasso, Miró, and Dalí, Guernica represented something fundamental to contemporary art. The Prado with its huge collection of Spanish art from Velásquez’s Las Meninas-a work Picasso had to reproduce in studies there as a young student-to the black paintings of Goya, was not short on great works. Tàpies saw the placement of Guernica at the Reina Sofia as helping to focus not only the work, but the whole collection. Picasso’s masterpiece was a continuation of that great past of the Prado, but a major break with that past as well. Tàpies put it this way. “In the Reina Sofía, Guernica will be the star piece that makes sense of all the rest of Spanish contemporary art. It’s as if, finally, contemporary art is back in the presence of its father.”
In reality, its final resting place in the Reina Sofia, and the attention to modern art that the museum affords, plus the fact that Guernica is a stone’s throw from the Prado in an area that has become one of the art centers of the world, has guaranteed the work a lasting stage. All of this contestation over this one work of art, speaks volumes about not only what Guernica is, but what it means, and for that matter what the power of modern art means as artistic expression in the world today.
Bob Long received his Ph.D. in modern European history from the University of California, San Diego, in 2014. He has also been a jazz pianist for forty years. He first recorded in Chicago with the jazz fusion band Streetdancer in 1974. He and his friend saxophonist Brian Gephart have had their quartet together in Chicago for over twenty-five years, recording five CDs for the Birch Tree label. Bob has performed at the JVC Jazz Festival in New York, the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland, the North Sea Jazz Festival in the Netherlands, and the Chicago Jazz Festival twice. He has also released two solo CDs on Birch Tree, Bird of Aragón and Retratos and is presently working on a CD of duos for release in the summer of 2016.