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Guernica Undergoes Its Last Thorough Exam In Madrid

ARTDAILY.ORG

July 20, 2008

MADRID.- A painting is a living being. And Guernica, also, has privileges. That is why it is treated, it is cared for and it is examined constantly. It is permanently looked after. The technicians at the Museo Reina Sofia are making the last check up. An x-ray that will help deepen into its wounds, its genes, the details of its life. Guernica’s has been a long one, stellar and intense, not like other paintings. Spanish newspaper El Pais had exclusive access to the last thorough exam done on the masterpiece made by Pablo Picasso. The last exam was made ten years ago. It has suffered little damage since then apart from the normal passing of time. But the conclusion is clear: “It is stable under grave conditions”, says Jorge García Gómez-Tejedor, chief of the department of conservation and restoration at the Museo Reina Sofía, in Madrid.

Guernica is not just a painting. It is a symbol, a legend. A scream and an object more than sensible. The hopes of the new head of the museum, Manuel Borja-Villel, are that the painting has many powerful attractions to the museum. Guernica is a magnet. It irradiates the energy of great icons. It represents a whole emblem of which a whole new discourse has to be prepared, which this cultural representative has started to elaborate.

Guernica is a monumental painting by Pablo Picasso, depicting the Nazi German bombing of Guernica, Spain, by twenty-eight bombers, on April 26, 1937 during the Spanish Civil War. The attack killed between 250 and 1,600 people, and many more were injured.

The Spanish government commissioned Pablo Picasso to paint a large mural for the Spanish display at the Paris International Exposition (the 1937 World's Fair in Paris). The Guernica bombing inspired Picasso. Within 15 days of the attack, Pablo Picasso began painting this mural. On completion Guernica was displayed around the world in a brief tour, becoming famous and widely acclaimed. This tour brought the Spanish civil war to the world's attention. Guernica epitomizes the tragedies of war and the suffering war inflicts upon individuals. This monumental work has eclipsed the bounds of a single time and place, becoming a perpetual reminder of the tragedies of war, an anti-war symbol, and an embodiment of peace.

Guernica is of remarkable size, solely black and white, 3.5 metre (11 ft) tall and 7.8 metre (23 ft) wide, a mural-size canvas painted in oil. Picasso's purpose in painting it was not to create the non-representational abstraction typical of some of his contemporaries, such as Kazimir Malevich. Guernica presents a scene of death, violence, brutality, suffering, and helplessness without portraying their immediate causes. The choice to paint in black and white conveys the chronological nearness of a newspaper photograph and the lifelessness war affords.

Guernica depicts suffering people, animals, and buildings wrenched by violence and chaos.

The overall scene is within a room where, at an open end on the left, a wide-eyed bull stands over a woman grieving over a dead child in her arms.

The centre is occupied by a horse falling in agony as it had just been run through by a spear or javelin. The shape of a human skull forms the horse's nose and upper teeth.

Two "hidden" images formed by the horse appear in Guernica.

A human skull is overlayed on the horse's body.

A bull appears to gore the horse from underneath. The bull's head is formed mainly by the horse's entire front leg which has the knee on the ground. The leg's knee cap forms the head's nose. A horn appears within the horse's breast.

Under the horse is a dead, apparently dismembered soldier, his hand on a severed arm still grasps a shattered sword from which a flower grows.

A light bulb blazes in the shape of an eye over the suffering horse's head (the bare bulb of the torturer's cell.)

To the upper right of the horse, a frightened female figure, who seems to be witnessing the scenes before her, appears to have floated into the room through a window. Her arm, also floating in, carries a flame-lit lamp.

From the right, an awe-struck woman staggers towards the center below the floating female figure. She looks up blankly into the blazing light bulb.

Daggers that suggest screaming replace the tongues of the bull, grieving woman, and horse.

A bird, possibly a dove, stands on a shelf behind the bull in panic.

On the far right, a figure with arms raised in terror is entrapped by fire from above and below.

A dark wall with an open door defines the right end of the mural.

There are stigmata (the supposed marks on the hands of those who have "suffered as Jesus") on the hands of the dead soldier. Picasso was not religious, although he was brought up in the predominantly Catholic Spain, and these symbols are not to be interpreted as Christian identification. This, instead, reflects the idea that all of us suffer often without cause. Here Picasso is using a well recognisable image to demonstrate how we are all like Christ, in that we all suffer and eventually die.

Interpretations of Guernica vary widely and contradict one another. This extends, for example, to the mural's two dominant elements: the bull and the horse. Art historian Patricia Failing said, "The bull and the horse are important characters in Spanish culture. Picasso himself certainly used these characters to play many different roles over time. This has made the task of interpreting the specific meaning of the bull and the horse very tough. Their relationship is a kind of ballet that was conceived in a variety of ways throughout Picasso's career."

When pressed to explain them in Guernica, Picasso said, "...this bull is a bull and this horse is a horse... If you give a meaning to certain things in my paintings it may be very true, but it is not my idea to give this meaning. What ideas and conclusions you have got I obtained too, but instinctively, unconsciously. I make the painting for the painting. I paint the objects for what they are."

In "The Dream and Lie of Franco," a series of narrative sketches also created for the World's Fair, Franco is depicted as a monster that first devours his own horse and later does battle with an angry bull. Work on these illustrations began before the bombing of Guernica, and four additional panels were added, three of these relate directly to the Guernica mural.

Picasso said as he worked on the mural:

“ The Spanish struggle is the fight of reaction against the people, against freedom. My whole life as an artist has been nothing more than a continuous struggle against reaction and the death of art. How could anybody think for a moment that I could be in agreement with reaction and death? ... In the panel on which I am working, which I shall call Guernica, and in all my recent works of art, I clearly express my abhorrence of the military caste which has sunk Spain in an ocean of pain and death".

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 September 30, 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 organised by Roland Penrose with Clement Atlee 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 constitutional 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.

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. 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[10] 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.

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