I first heard about Guernica beneath the flowered canopy in the scorched back garden, as citrus scents from orange and lemon trees drifted through the air. In between fumbling with ser and estar (to be for a while or to be for eternity in Spain,) my politically-minded tutor talked about local boy Picasso
In occupied France, Nazis burst into Picasso’s studio, found the work and pinned him to the wall
“Did you do this?” they demanded.
“No,” Picasso replied. “You did.”
Though I struggled to confirm the details of that story, the essential points remain true: the painting Guernica reflects the bombing of the place of the same name in northwest Spain. The bombs came delivered by the Nazis (with Italian military support) to help Franco win the Spanish Civil War. The military dictatorship that followed continued in Spain through the Swinging Sixties and Punk Seventies elsewhere until the death of Franco himself in 1975.
And I recognised the picture, the jagged, ragged, displaced screams and torment of black, grey and white, women’s breasts, blood, babies and bulls.
But standing right before it, in the Reina Sofia in Madrid was another thing altogether.
The work is vast, which is the first surprise, as it sprawls from left to right and up and down across a purpose built wall.
It also, curiously, was produced not as an impassioned response to fury but as a commissioned piece of work to display at an international exhibition to further the rebels’ cause. In other words: propaganda (although I think we can all agree that the killing of babies is wrong.)
The Reina Sofia itself carries both a surreal beauty and a sense of unease, explained in part, I think, by its former role as a hospital with the rumoured ghosts that flit between the halls.
Amid the “usual” gallery features are well-educated helpers, fluent in many languages and keen to help visitors make sense of this colossal warren of art. My guide is one such example, a brilliant woman whose easy going yet well-informed touch has me enjoying contemporary art (quite possibly for the first time.)
It follows the decomposition (I’m sure that’s not the word but perhaps it should be) of art once photography arrived. Once photography completely subsumed the role of producing lifelike images, what was an artist to do but slide into impressionism, cubism, those funny grids and blank panels and then finally abandon 2D art altogether?
Since we can’t yet be teleported into an environment, how else to depict it? Moving pictures and words can do their best. So can photography and stills.
But it’s the arrival of 3D installations that appear to offer something new. They’re not necessarily beautiful (nor even, in many cases, that interesting) but every now and then, they do provoke a thought or two and I suppose that that’s the main thing.
Meanwhile, back in room 206, the crowd still stares at Guernica.
Black. Jagged. Grey. Ragged.
It’s a compelling, captivating piece of work.
But for me, the most interesting part lives behind it – and beyond it.
Behind it, the museum exhibits the rough sketches, the drawings, the, let’s face it, rubbish first drafts that fascinate me more. Here is the slightest glimpse at the inner workings of a genius – and it’s a glimpse that should give us all hope. It reveals not unthinkable, unworkable majesty, but the plottings and pressures of a man under a deadline. It echoes my thoughts on Toulouse-Lautrec, poster boy of Moulin Rouge fame, when I wrote about the secrets of success.
And I am grateful to both the museum and to Picasso for letting us witness these embryonic forms.
So that’s what lies immediately behind Guernica. Further behind still are the facts and interpretations about this real life event. How between 150 and 1600 men, women and children were killed over a period of hours. How this was one of, if not the first act of aggression whereby military planes rained down on civilians.
And beyond it?
There’s the legend, in case, like me, you didn’t already know. Picasso vowed that his most famous work should never travel to Spain until democracy was restored.
He died in 1973, Franco in 1975.
Guernica reached Madrid in 1981.
The crowds, they thronged and waited. And today they are thronging still.
I love Spain and have visited many times and even lived there for a while. On this occasion, I visited in partnership with iAmbassador and Madrid Tourism and stayed at the NH Palacio de Tepa (which, interestingly enough lives in a former 19th century palace in the literary quarter. )As ever, as always, I kept the right to write what I like. Especially when it came to my theories of success…
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