Guernica, the most ancient town of the Basques and the centre of their cultural tradition, was completely destroyed by insurgent air raiders. The bombardment of this open town far behind the lines occupied precisely three hours and a quarter, during which a powerful fleet of aeroplanes consisting of three types of German types, Junkers and Heinkel bombers, did not cease unloading on the town bombs weighing from 1,000 lbs. downwards and, it is calculated, more than 3,000 two-pounder aluminium incendiary projectiles. The fighters, meanwhile, plunged low from above the centre of the town to machinegun those of the civilian population who had taken refuge in the fields.”
It was through this article that Picasso was made aware of what had gone on in his country of origin. At the time, he was working on a mural for the Paris Exhibition to be held in the summer of 1937, commissioned by the Spanish Republican government. He deserted his original idea and on 1 May 1937, began on Guernica. This captivated his imagination unlike his previous idea, on which he had been working somewhat dispassionately, for a couple of months. It is interesting to note, however, that at its unveiling at the Paris Exhibition that summer, it garnered little attention. It would later attain its power as such a potent symbol of the destruction of war on innocent lives.
1937 Paris International Exhibition
Guernica was initially exhibited in July 1937 at the Spanish Pavilion at the Paris International Exposition. The Pavilion, which was financed by the Spanish Republican government at the time of civil war, was built to exhibit the Spanish government’s struggle for existence contrary to the Exposition’s technology theme. The Pavilion’s entrance presented an enormous photographic mural of Republican soldiers accompanied by the slogan:
We are fighting for the essential unity of Spain.
We are fighting for the integrity of Spanish soil.
We are fighting for the independence of our country and for
the right of the Spanish people to determine their own destiny.
The display of Guernica was accompanied by a poem by Paul Éluard, and the pavilion displayed works by Joan Miró and Alexander Calder, both of whom were sympathetic to the Republican cause.
After the Paris Exhibition, the painting went on tour, first to the Scandinavian capitals, then to London, where it arrived on 30 September 1938, the same day the Munich Agreement was signed by the leaders of the United Kingdom, France, Italy, and Germany. The London exhibition at the Whitechapel Art Gallery included preparatory studies and was organized by Roland Penrose with Clement Attlee addressing a public meeting. It then returned briefly to France; after the victory of Francisco Franco in Spain, the painting was sent to the United States to raise funds and support for Spanish refugees. At Picasso’s request the safekeeping of the piece was entrusted to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City. It formed the centerpiece of a Picasso retrospective at MoMA which opened six weeks after the Nazi invasion of Poland.
Between 1939 and 1952, the painting traveled extensively in the United States; between 1953 and 1956 it was shown in Brazil, at the first-ever Picasso retrospective in Milan, Italy, and then in numerous other major European cities, before returning to MoMA for a retrospective celebrating Picasso’s seventy-fifth birthday. It then went on to Chicago and Philadelphia. By this time, concern for the state of the painting resulted in a decision to keep it in one place: a room on MoMA’s third floor, where it was accompanied by several of Picasso’s preliminary studies and some of Dora Maar’s photos. The studies and photos were often loaned for other exhibitions, but until 1981, Guernica itself remained at MoMA.
While living in Nazi-occupied Paris during World War II, Picasso suffered harassment from the Gestapo. One officer allegedly asked him, upon seeing a photo of Guernica in his apartment, “Did you do that?” Picasso responded, “No, you did.”
During the Vietnam War, the room containing the painting became the site of occasional anti-war vigils. These were usually peaceful and uneventful, but in 1974, Tony Shafrazi — ostensibly protesting Richard Nixon’s pardon of William Calley for the latter’s actions during the My Lai massacre — defaced the painting with red spray paint, painting the words “KILL LIES ALL”; the paint was removed with relative ease from the varnished surface.
As early as 1968, Franco had expressed an interest in having Guernica return to Spain. However, Picasso refused to allow this until the Spanish people again enjoyed a republic. He later added other conditions, such as the restoration of “public liberties and democratic institutions”. Picasso died in 1973. Franco, ten years Picasso’s junior, died two years later, in 1975. After Franco’s death, Spain was transformed into a democratic constitutional monarchy, ratified by a new constitution in 1978. However, MoMA was reluctant to give up one of their greatest treasures and argued that a monarchy did not represent the republic that had been stipulated in Picasso’s will as a condition for the painting’s return. Under great pressure from a number of observers, MoMA finally ceded the painting to Spain in 1981. The Spanish historian Javier Tusell was one of the negotiators.
During the 1970s, it was a symbol for Spaniards of both the end of the Franco regime and of Basque nationalism. The Basque left has repeatedly used imagery from the picture.
A tiled wall in Gernika claims “Guernica” Gernikara, “The Guernica to Gernika.”
In 1992 the painting was moved from the Museo del Prado to the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, both in Madrid, along with about two dozen preparatory works. This action was controversial in Spain, since Picasso’s will stated that the painting should be displayed at the Prado.
However, the move was part of a transfer of all of the Prado’s collections of art after the early 19th century to other nearby buildings in the city for reasons of space; the Reina Sofía, which houses the capital’s national collection of 20th century art, was the natural place to move it to. A special gallery was built at the Reina Sofía to display Picasso’s masterpiece to best advantage.
When first displayed in Spain, the painting was placed at El Casón del Buen Retiro, an annex to the Prado that housed early nineteenth century paintings but had a large enough wall. It was kept behind bullet-proof glass and guarded with machine guns. However, since that time there has never been any attempted vandalism or other security threat to the painting. In its present gallery, the painting has roughly the same protection as any other work at the Reina Sofía.
Basque nationalists have advocated that the picture should be brought to the Basque country, especially after the building of the Guggenheim Bilbao Museum. Officials at the Reina Sofía claim that the huge canvas is now thought to be too fragile to move. Even the staff of the Guggenheim do not see a permanent transfer of the painting as possible, although the Basque government continues to support the possibility of a temporary exhibition in Bilbao.