Horror of city bombing writ in black and white
Picasso's Guernica remains one of the world's most potent anti-war protests, writes Ben Macintyre
April 28, 2007
PICKING through the still-smoking ruins of Guernica, exactly 70 years ago Thursday, George Lowther Steer came across a handful of bomb cases stamped with the German imperial eagle. Here was final proof that the planes that had rained incendiary bombs on the Basque town a day earlier - April 26, 1937 - were sent by Nazi Germany in support of Franco's Nationalists to crush Basque morale.
Steer's damning report exposing the lie of German neutrality in the Spanish Civil War ignited another sort of firestorm. "In the form of its execution and the scale of the destruction it wrought, no less than in the selection of its objective, the raid on Guernica is unparalleled in military history," Steer wrote.
Franco's fascist allies in Germany and Italy had deliberately targeted a defenceless civilian population, killing an estimated 1600 people. This was the first saturation bombing on European soil; the age of total war had arrived.
Far away in Paris, Pablo Picasso read the newspaper reports and saw the black-and-white photographs of Guernica's destruction. Outraged, revolted and looking for a subject to fulfil his commission for the international exhibition in Paris, within six weeks Picasso created Guernica, the huge black-and-white mural of death and terror that still stands as the most potent symbol of modern war's barbarity.
From Paris the great painting set off, like an international star, on a tour of Europe and the US to raise money for the Republican cause. At the Whitechapel art gallery in London, the price of admission was a pair of boots in reasonable condition to be sent to Republican soldiers at the front. Working men left the gallery barefoot, having placed their boots beneath the picture, as if at a shrine.
No artwork has achieved such a transformation so swiftly: from reality to journalism to art to worldwide celebrity in the space of just a few months. Franco made it a criminal offence to own a postcard of the picture. Guernica forged an instant mythology: it was said that when Paris was under Nazi occupation, a German officer visited Picasso's studio looking for evidence of resistance activity, and pointed to a photograph of Guernica on the wall. "Did you do this?" he asked. "No," replied Picasso. "You did."
The painting reflected the civilised world's revulsion at a new type of mechanical warfare. Picasso painted Guernica in a state of shock and wonder. To Steer, the journalist, surveying the devastation, the decision to kill civilians from the air seemed strange and horrible, a reversal of accepted military rules. Indeed, so improbable did the bombing appear that Franco denied it had happened and insisted that the Republicans had torched the town themselves.
From a distance of 70 years, however, the scenes that inspired Picasso seem grimly familiar. After Guernica came the London Blitz, Dresden, Hiroshima, Hanoi and Baghdad. The bombing of civilians is an accepted, indeed a central element of warfare, despite the euphemisms of strategic bombing and collateral damage. When the Luftwaffe's Condor Legion swept down on undefended Guernica, it was pioneering the use of shock and awe.
But if Guernica is a condemnation of war, it is also a peculiar symbol of peace. Having first offered it "to the Basque people" (an offer rejected by the president of the Basque country), Picasso stated that the painting should never return to Spain until fascism had been eradicated from his homeland. Sure enough, in 1981, six years after Franco's death, Guernica returned to a democratic Spain. Picasso declared that he had painted Guernica to "express my abhorrence of the military caste which has sunk Spain in an ocean of pain and death".
The painting has lost none of it power to embarrass the military caste. A tapestry copy of Guernica hangs in the UN building, outside the Security Council meeting room. In 2003, when Colin Powell came to the UN to make the case for war, the image was discreetly swathed in a blue shroud.
How could the US general make the case for bombing Baghdad with the most powerful indictment of aerial bombing openly accusing him a few yards away? A UN spokesman claimed the Guernica had been covered up because television cameras needed a bolder backdrop than Picasso's subtle greys.
The truth, however, is that Picasso's denunciation is still as black and white as it was seven decades ago.
Saturday, April 28, 2007
About the Gernika Bombing from Down-Under
One little detail though, democracy is yet to return to Spain, unless you can call democracy a state where torture, random detentions, banning of political parties and shutdowns of newspapers are the rule and not the exception. And on top, Franco's followers are still trying to crush the Basques.
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