Spain's Icon of Democracy

Article excerpt

Byline: ADAM HOPKINS

Guernica: The Biography of a Twentieth Century Icon by Gijs van Hensbergen

TO BEGIN in brief where Gijs van Hensbergen starts in full in his enthralling book. It is the height of the Spanish Civil War. The Republican Government, fighting for its life against the insurgent generals of the ancien regime, decides to put up a pavilion at the 1937 Paris Expo as a fundraiser and an act of propaganda.

Pablo Picasso, Spaniard long resident in Paris, nearly 50 years of age, most famous artist in the world, agrees to contribute a painting to the cause. But nothing happens. He seems to have no ideas. Months later, on 31 March 1937, with the painter's dead-Bloomsbury, [pounds sterling]20) line looming, the German Condor Legion drops wave after wave of incendiary bombs on (Republican) Gernika, small city, sacred symbol of the Basques. By nightfall, little of Gernika exists.

What happens next is the forge on which van Hensbergen's book is hammered out. Recorded in photographs by Picasso's mistress, Dora Maar, and after some 50 preliminary works produced at enormous speed, the painting called Guernica (Spanish spelling of Basque Gernika) is violently and swiftly born.

Van Hensbergen, already ranging widely, spells out this part-familiar story within a valuable account of its political and artistic context, then traces the frequently amazing history of the painting subsequently, and the key part it has played in the development of modern art on the one hand, particularly in America, and on the other as a challenge and a provocation in politics.

The "rest of the story" opens with an almost lyrical account of the Spanish Pavilion in Paris in 1937, overshadowed as it was by the looming Nazi German Pavilion next door and the equally sinister - in Spanish terms - Pontifical Pavilion. Spain's was "a cool and rational space" where Picasso's desperation, despite the vast size of the canvas, could almost be lost to view amid the intensity of other artistic works and happenings, lifeblood of the dying Republic.

Reviews were mixed in France. Soon the painting went on tour in Britain, failing utterly in its propaganda objective of swinging the government behind the Republic and again securing mixed opinions. …