Guernica was bombed on this day 70 year ago

Pablo Picasso’s painting has managed  keep the memory of Guernica alive but it is probably not his masterpiece.

Questions:

1. Could we now say what was the aim of this attack?

2. The symbol of the bombing is famous Picasso’s painting.  How important was this painting for world to recognize the scale of the tragedy?

Answers:

Martin Hurcombe, Senior Lecturer, School of Modern Languages, University of Bristol

1. As regards the aims of the attack on Guernica, firstly this can be viewed as a part of the Spanish Nationalists attempts to instill what the Nationalists themselves referred to as ‘salutary terror’ in those supporting the Republic. The Basques were particularly targeted, arguably, because, although largely Catholic, they chose to support the Republic, which offered a better chance of autonomy in the long term than a far-Right regime under Franco. The attack was carried out by the Luftwaffe, however, who used it as a means of testing carpet bombing and incendiary devices on civilian rather than strictly military targets. (Again, though, the intention here was to instill fear of the enemy as much as it was to destroy enemy infrastructure.) Guernica is where this technique (later employed on Britain by the Nazis and then by the Allies on Nazi Germany) is used for the first time. For the Luftwaffe it constituted a sort of experiment.

2. As for Picasso’s painting, this was shown in the Spanish republican pavilion at the the Paris International Exhibition in the spring/early summer of 1937, thereby drawing further international attention to the bombing. The bombing had already been reported in the pro-Republican press throughout Europe, but accounts of it were often disputed by the pro-Nationalist press which claimed Guernica had been torched by retreating Republican troops. The painting therefore helped to raise international awareness of the bombing, but is not solely responsible for this. In France, for example, most people already had a keen interest in the war (10 000 Frenchmen fought in the International Brigades) so many would already have been familiar with Guernica. What Picasso’s painting has managed to do is to keep the memory of Guernica alive when the Spanish Civil War more generally and its many horrors have been dwarfed in European memory by the Second World war.

Anthony Geist, Professor of Spanish and Comparative Literature, Chair of Spanish and Portuguese, University of Washington

1. The Spanish Civil War was the first armed conflict in history in which the civilian population was systematically targeted for bombardment.  Guernica is the most shocking example of a military tactic that has become tragically commonplace since then.

Guernica had no military significance whatsoever.  It was bombed for two principle reasons:

– As an opportunity for the Nazi airforce to test its new airplanes and bombs;

– To terrify the civilian population and break resistance to the fascist advance.  As with the Blitzkrieg in London a few short years later, it had the opposite effect.

2. Picasso’s famous canvas of the same name was painted for the Spanish Pavillion at the 1937 Paris Exposition.  It was –and remains today– a powerful denunciation of fascist barbarity.  However, it is often taken out of the specific context of the Spanish Civil War today and considered a statement against war, all war.  This is clearly not the case.  Nonetheless, “Guernica” is more or less a household word thanks to Picasso’s great masterpiece.

Tom Buchanan, University Lecturer in Modern History and Politics, Reader in Modern History

1. Most historians would now agree that the purpose of the attack on Guernica was to terrorise the civilian population and disrupt the Basque war effort.

2. The impact of the bombing of Guernica in Britain was immediate, long before Picasso had completed work on his painting. This is because the attack was widely reported in the British press – most famously by George L Steer in the Times – and caused both outrage and alarm. However, Picasso’s masterpiece ensured that the bombing of Guernica became an enduring international emblem of the horrors of modern warfare.

Lisa Florman, Associate Professor, Department of History of Art, The Ohio State University has answered also my questions about the significance of Guernica painting in the work of Picasso.

Questions:

1. Could we say Guernica is really one of the best Picasso’s piece or this painting is first of all political symbol?

2. Is Guernica in some way extraordinary and special in the framework of Picasso’s paintings?

Answers:

1. No, I would not say that Guernica is one of Picasso’s greatest paintings. (It certainly had nothing like the art-historical impact of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.) In many ways it seems hardly a painting at all — it’s more on the order of a political poster, designed to galvanize protest. Still, on those rather different terms, I think it succeeded brilliantly. And its power has dimished little in the 70 years since it was painted: witness the Bush administration’s insistence that the tapestry of Guernica hanging outside the United Nations Security Council meeting room be covered over when, in February of 2003, Colin Powell made his case for a U.S. invasion of Iraq.

2. Of Picasso’s overtly political works (including the Charnel House and Massacre in Korea), it is, to my mind, the most successful. If its imagery is still fairly didactic, it nonetheless is located close enough to the more nuanced and evocative imagery of Picasso’s prints of that era — I’m thinking especially of his 1935 Minotauromachy — that it avoids bombast.

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