On the 5th February 2003, when the US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, took to the stage at the UN headquarters in New York to present America’s case for war against Iraq, one thing was missing, or at least appeared to be missing from the much-photographed press area outside the Security Council chamber. For concealed beneath a baby-blue banner containing the UN logo erected for the occasion was a tapestry reproduction which had hung proudly in its place for almost 20 years. Appropriate? Maybe, as the masterpiece carefully concealed is easily the most striking, anti-war demonstration ever created, a work which art historian Herbert Read described as “a cry of outrage and horror amplified by a great genius” and by the ‘genius’ himself as “an instrument of war against brutality and darkness”. The artist? Picasso. The masterpiece: Guernica.
Between 4:30 a.m. and 7:45 a.m. on the 26th April 1937, in the midst of Spain’s vicious Civil War, the Basque village of Guernica was brutally attacked by an unprovoked raid of German bombs and gunfire on the orders of the Nationalist leader, General Franco. One third of the population of the village, some 2300 people, were either killed or severely injured, and the old town was utterly destroyed. At 7:39 am on the 11th March 2004, the first of 10 bombs exploded in a train packed with Madrid’s early morning commuters. Almost 200 people were killed in this horrendous massacre, innocent lives destroyed, families ripped apart and Spain, targeted in this ‘second Guernica’ by an unprovoked attack of terrorist means. The similarities are striking. Both the fascist regime of Franco along with his Nazi and Italian fascist support and the terrorist organisation of Al Qaeda sought to intimidate and terrorise and take whatever innocent lives were necessary in pursuance of their iniquitous objectives, while both attacks have rendered Spain the victim of unspeakable horror and its attackers the subject of international abhorrence and outrage. So while Colin Powell and the advocates of the Iraqi war may have felt more comfortable in covering up this phenomenal anti-war masterpiece when they promoted a new war in which similar scenes of horrific slaughter would be an inevitable result, there can be no doubts of the unquestionable relevance which the painting has in today’s violent and nonsensical world.
In this post, I will begin by exploring Picasso’s use of intrinsically nationalistic themes in Guernica, which present such a powerful portrayal of the suffering not just in Guernica, but for the nation of Spain as a whole. Secondly I will go on to illustrate the continuing relevance of these nationalistic sentiments, highlighted most powerfully by the events of the 11th March in Madrid, which inspired my own interpretation of Picasso’s work, ‘Segunda Guernica’ .