Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Cities under Siege: Guernica Remains One of the Most Potent Depictions of the True Horror of War. as the World Prepares for Another Conflict, Russell Martin Reconsiders the Lessons of Picasso's Masterpiece. (the Back Half)

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Cities under Siege: Guernica Remains One of the Most Potent Depictions of the True Horror of War. as the World Prepares for Another Conflict, Russell Martin Reconsiders the Lessons of Picasso's Masterpiece. (the Back Half)

Article excerpt

As the United States and Britain prepare to go to war against a madman, it is wise to remember another time when much of the world was in crisis, a time when people everywhere also eyed with deep suspicion a dark-moustached dictator who appeared bent on terror, death and dominion.

Fully three years prior to his 1939 invasion of Poland, Adolf Hitler had sent planes, tanks and troops into Spain in support of the Spanish generals, led by Francisco Franco, who were attempting to overthrow that country's popularly elected government. In January1937, Hitler personally had warned the citizens of Spain's Basque region that they should end their resistance to the generals or face annihilation. Then, on 26 April of that year, in the late afternoon of a busy market day in the town of Guernica -- home of the sacred oak tree beneath which Basque leaders and Castilian monarchs had sworn for centuries to uphold democratic rights -- Hitler's Luftwaffe began a relentless bombing and machine-gunning of businesses, homes and innocent inhabitants. Three and a half hours later, the village lay in ruin, its population decimated.

Hitler's act of terror and unspeakable cruelty -- the first intentional, large-scale attack against a non-military target in modern warfare -- outraged hundreds of thousands of people who previously had simply observed the machinations of the German leader with apprehension. Immediate condemnations were expressed around the world, yet not a single government was moved to change its policies toward Germany or come to the aid of the embattled Spanish Republic. The boldest reaction to the bombing, in fact, came when Pablo Picasso, at that time a Spanish expatriate living in Paris, responded with artistic fury. Reacting almost immediately to the devastation in his homeland, he began work on a massive canvas that would become his testament in opposition to the horrors of war, a mural that is widely regarded as the most important artwork of the bloody 20th century.

Although Picasso had read numerous newspaper accounts detailing the destruction of Guernica, not once did he experiment with images of airplanes, bombs or exploding buildings as he began to sketch. He had not been truly interested in any sort of visual documentation since before the turn of the century, regardless of its subject. More importantly, Picasso found himself interested not so much in what the bombing and burning of Guernica meant politically, but rather what they meant in metaphor, what they meant in the context of individual human lives. He wanted to address emotively the destruction of his beloved country, and he already possessed a personal visual language with which to do so, one anchored in the violence, suffering, and passion of the bullring, as well as in the centuries-old Spanish belief in the essential tragedy of life, one embodied by the figure of a grieving woman, La Llorona.

Guernica's visual imagery -- a screaming horse which had fallen, pierced by a lance; a wailing woman holding a dead child in her arms; another woman, her clothes on fire, attempting to escape from a burning building; the severed head of a soldier -- spoke not specifically to a terrible day in Spain. Rather, it spoke to the horrors that humans have visited on each other for millennia, and because of this the painting began to symbolise the reality of every war remarkably soon after its creation. And in the ensuing half-century, Guernica has become for people around the world visceral, visual evidence of the true nature of war, a perspective very unlike the heroic and optimistic one so often presented by politicians who have never seen war close at hand.

I was in Madrid on 11 September2001, observing Guernica and researching its history for a book, when, across the Atlantic -- and as had occurred in the town of Guernica 64 years before -- the city of New York fell under an utterly new kind of warfare. …

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