Thursday, 8 September 2011

cries of children cries of women cries of birds in paint

Guernica, 1937
In April 1937, at the height of the Spanish Civil war, a terrible disaster befell the ancient city  of Guernica. As reported by George Steer, the London Times journalist, three quarters of the city was razed to the ground as a result of the bombing by allied German Luftwaffe "Condor Legion" and the Italian Fascist “Aviazione Legionaria”.

At that moment Picasso was working on a mural for the Paris International Exhibition to be held in the summer of 1937, commissioned by the Spanish Republican government. Or rather not working, since he could not find his creative inspiration, hardly overwhelmed by any patriotic feeling; however learning of Guernica massacre, on 1 May 1937 the artist  set off working fiercely. In 3 months he presented his Guernica to the world, a painting that would become iconic symbol of the war and its destructive power on innocent lives, as well as one of Picasso's most prominent works.  

Guernica bombing was one of the first rehearsals of blitzkrieg strategy, later widely adopted by Nazis where they would attack defenceless civil population, burn down cities and kill harmless. Hitler was warmly welcomed by Generalissimo Franco to try out blitzkrieg in Guernica which resulted in almost total destruction of the town and killing of 250 to 1654 civilians, according to varying data. At the time of the raid, Guernica represented a focal strategic point for the Republican forces. It stood on the way of Nationalists to seizure of Bilbao, crucial for Franco’s army to bring the civil war to a conclusion in the north of Spain.

However Guernica was not just a strategic target - the city has always been regarded by Basques as their historical and cultural centre, symbol of their liberty and national identity, thus making its destruction even more intimidating and painful. The bombardment came on a market day; a majority of the town's men were away as they were fighting on behalf of the Republicans, so it was women and children who became the main target of the attack. 

cries of children cries of women cries of birds cries of flowers cries of timbers and of stones cries of bricks cries of furniture of beds and chairs of curtains of pots of cats and of papers cries of odors which claw at one another cries of smoke pricking the shoulder of the cries which strew in the cauldron and of the rain of birds which inundates the sea which gnaws the bone and breaks its teeth biting the cotton wool which the sun mops up from the plate which the purse and the pocket hide in the print which the foot leaves in the rock

(Picasso, translated in Barr 1946, p.196)

In response, lamenting women have become a central image of the mural. In Guernica’s iconography Picasso identified Spain with suffering women, symbolizing suffering of the country and its innocent people.

Weeping woman, 1937

 Woman with a dead child

Women always played primary role both in Picasso’s life and art, providing him with creative impulse for work. The image of the weeping woman, central in Guernica, took on 
a life of its own well before completion of the painting. Picasso became obsessed with the motif and continued painting it in various media for almost six months after completing the mural. The principal model of the weeping woman became Dora Maar, his companion at the moment. References to his previous mistresses, Olga and Marie-Therese, are also apparent in some works. Thus it remains unclear whether Picasso was making a comment on the horrors of the Civil War, or on his own private life and his fraught relationships with numerous mistresses. 

Nevertheless, Guernica appears to be one of the of the few cases when Picasso seemed to get out of the bedroom to respond in paint to the social and political issues of the day, along with the other overtly political work he made for Paris Exhibition The Dream and Lie of Franco. 18 etchings satirise dictator Franco and show him destroying Spain and its culture. 

Dream and Life of Franco, 1937

Some other poignant political examples include  Massacre in Korea, 1951 which is seen as a criticism of American intervention in the Korean War,  and La Guerre et la Paix, 1952 - a monumental fresco painted in la chapelle de Vallauris in the south of France, 10 miles east of Antibes.

Massacre in Korea, 1951

While living in Nazi-occupied Paris during World War II, Gestapo has visited Picasso in his apartment. The rumour has it that one officer asked him, upon seeing a photo of Guernica on the table , "Did you do that?" Picasso responded, "No, you did."1


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