History : May-Jun 2018
NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC HISTORY 13 WORK OF ART Basque city of Guernica. The attack be- gan around 4:30 p.m. and lasted for three hours as high explosives and incendiaries laid waste to the undefended town. As soon as news of the attack became known, war correspondent George Lowther Steer of the Times of London raced to Guernica and filed a report to alert the world: “At 2 a.m. today when I visited the town, the whole of it was a horrible sight, flaming from end to end.” Steer also identified that the raid was not carried out for military purposes but with the specific aim of terrorizing civil- ians: “A factory producing war material lay outside the town and was untouched. So were two barracks some distance from the town.” Art Strikes Back The day after the attack, Pablo Picasso was sitting in the Café de Flore, Paris, and read of the atrocity in the newspaper. With the appalling news from Guernica, Picasso knew he had his theme at last. Working at great speed, he filled a vast canvas with what would become the defining image of the horror of war. From its unveiling at the World’s Fair, where it caused a sensation, the paint- ing toured the world. It ended up in the United States where it would remain for the next 42 years. Housed in the Muse- um of Modern Art in New York City, it hugely influenced a generation of postwar American artists. Jackson Pollock, the great abstract artist, went to the museum every day just to gaze at it. Once, over- hearing a fellow gallery visitor express an unflattering opinion about the canvas, Pollock invited the man outside where he suggested they fight it out. Picasso had always said that he would not allow the picture to travel to his homeland until Spain was a republic. General Franco died in 1975—two years after Picasso—and Spain made the tran- sition to democracy as a constitutional monarchy. Even though this meant that Spain was not the republic that Picasso had dreamed of, “Guernica” was allowed to return in 1981 and was shown at the Prado Museum in Madrid. The paint- ing’s power to provoke had not dimin- ished over the years. Because the pas- sions of the Spanish Civil War had not faded, “Guernica” was displayed behind bomb- and bulletproof glass. In 1992 “Guernica” made its last journey, to the nearby Reina Sofía Museum in Madrid, where it is now visited by an average of 11,000 people every day. Today, in a world where warfare still threatens peaceful civilians across the globe, Picasso’s depiction of terror, ago- ny, and loss remains the strongest anti- war artwork of the ages. —Toby Saul MORE THAN JUST A PRETTY FACE DEATH FROM ABOVE UIG/GETTY IMAGES GUERNICA IN THE AFTERMATH OF THE BOMBING APRIL 26, 1937, was a Monday, a market day in Guernica. That after- noon, German and Italian bombers dropped 550-pound explosives to crush buildings so that fire would spread more quickly. They were fol- lowed by waves of planes dropping incendiaries that burned at 2500°C. By the evening most buildings in Guernica were uninhabitable. Although the death toll, at first thought to be thousands, was later revised down to between 200 and 300, it sent a terrifying message to the world: The fascist powers were prepared to unleash the new weapon from the sky on civilians, the prelude to the devastating carpet-bombing of European cit- ies during the Second World War.