Guernica is the most famous painting of the 20th century. Pablo Picasso (Málaga, 1881 - Mougins, France, 1973) first unveiled the monumental piece to the public 80 years ago and to celebrate this anniversary, the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid has organized the exhibition Pity and Terror: Picasso’s Path to Guernica.
The exhibition focuses on the evolution of Picasso’s art – considered one of the greatest artists of all time, a genius of world painting and above all a great innovator – of which Guernica formed a crucial part.
Many have studied the wonderful anti-war work in a university classroom, during a lecture on Picasso, in an art book, but few have had the opportunity to contemplate Guernica in situ, in all its glory.
Pity and Terror brings together some 180 works by Picasso, dating from the 1920s to the mid-1940s, all of which are exhibited in the same gallery, on the second floor of the Reina Sofía Museum, where Guernica has been displayed since 1992, attracting two million visitors each year.
It is unlikely that any visitor passes through the spaces of the rich collections of the Madrid museum – in its garden alone there are sculptures by Calder, Chillida and Miró – without taking in this crowning work by Picasso.
The exhibition begins with a scale model of the Spanish Pavilion at the 1937 Paris World Fair, for which the immense mural-sized piece was painted, together with the sketches Picasso drew in a very brief and intense period. He painted the famous piece between the months of May and June, 1937.
The creative process is well documented, recalling that it was at the beginning of January 1937 when Picasso was visited by a Spanish delegation at his home in the Parisian Rue La Boëtie.
The piece was commissioned by the Second Spanish Republic to be exhibited in the country’s pavilion at that year’s Fair in Paris.
Photos and writings on display reveal that in order to undertake the enormous painting, which was too big for Picasso’s usual workshop, the photographer Dora Maar, who was intimate with the artist, secured him a workshop at No. 7 Rue des Grandes Augustins. Picasso rented the property, using its spacious attic as a studio.
The sketches dated April 18 and 19 reveal that Picasso had not yet found the inspiration for his work, but this would come on the fateful date of April 26, 1937.
On that day, Nazi Germany’s Condor Legion bombed the Basque city of Guernica; a location devoid of military interest, but which served to test the reach and power of its new weapons.
In a display case is a copy of the newspaper L'Humanité of April 28, featuring the news of the bombing. By May 1, Picasso had produced the first sketches for his painting.
Over a period of six weeks Picasso made a total of 45 sketches on paper and canvas, which are exhibited alongside Guernica, the first of which already feature what would be the central figures of the piece: the bull, the woman with the lamp, the soldier knocked down on the ground and the horse.
Picasso finished the painting on June 4, 1937. The exhibition reveals additional information provided by the Museum, including the response recalled by Josep Lluís Sert, the architect of the Pavilion – a student of Le Corbusier – on asking Picasso when the piece would be ready: “If it were not that you are to come and take it from me, I would never finish it!”
The exhibition is marked with arrows indicating the direction in which one should continue the visit, building up to the work that all have come to see. Here, a moment of pause to contemplate it, the impact of which is impossible to fully describe.
The first aspect to strike the spectator is the enormous dimensions of the canvas, measuring 3.5m by 7.8m, with its figures in the purest Cubist style.
The monochrome makes an immediate impact. It is clear that Picasso renounced the use of color, employing only a range of grays, whites and blacks, to accentuate the drama of what has become a mythical painting.
The exhibition closes as it begins, with spaces devoted to documentation, in this case regarding the 40 exhibitions, in 11 countries, in which the piece has featured in the 80 years since the Paris World Fair.
With the establishment of Franco’s military dictatorship in Spain in the 1940s, Picasso decided to let the Museum of Modern Art in New York safeguard the painting, although he expressed his wish that it be returned to Spain once democracy was restored.
Guernica finally returned to Spain in 1981. It was first presented to the public in the Casón del Buen Retiro of the Museo del Prado and in 1992 it became part of the Reina Sofía’s collection.
There is a well-known tale of a conversation between Picasso and a German officer in the occupied Paris of 1940: “Did you do this?” asked the German, in front of a photograph of Guernica. “No, it was you,” answered Picasso.
There is no doubt – and the previous anecdote attests to such – that Guernica is a masterpiece before which no one remains indifferent. To see the piece directly, up close, one can almost imagine Picasso’s hand tracing the bull, or the enigmatic arrow. It is a moment to treasure throughout one’s life. Guernica provokes an ineffable emotion.