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kottke.org posts about Iseult Gillespie

Why Is Picasso’s Guernica So Shocking?

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 05, 2019

Guernica is one of Pablo Picasso’s greatest masterpieces, and, like a lot of his other work, can be difficult to decipher. The painting is obviously anti-war, anti-fascist, and pro-Spain, but beyond that, art scholars have been puzzling over details for decades. In this TED-Ed video, Iseult Gillespie offers a short tour of the painting and its history. You might find this piece (and the list of works cited at the bottom) useful as well.

However, Picasso declared the inspiration for the painting was the aftermath of the 1937 attack of the Spanish town Guernica. On market day April 26, 1937, the citizens of Guernica gathered for their customary shopping and socializing; unfortunately, German war planes descended upon the town. The Nazis bombed Guernica and killed 1600 people; fires burned for three days and destroyed the town. Picasso captured the “la douleur et la mort” or “pain and death” of the aftermath. Yet, Picasso maintained his place that he did not assign meaning to the individual images. Nonetheless, this large-scale monochromatic painting encourages the inner critic to react, deconstruct, and create their own dialogue.

This account of the bombing shows how bloodthirsty and ruthless the Nazis were in 1937.

Besides celebrating the Führer’s birthday, the attack on Guernica served as a tactical military and aeronautical experiment to test the Luftwaffe’s ability to annihilate an entire city and crush the morale of its people. The Condor Legion’s chief of staff, Colonel Wolfram von Richthofen, painstakingly devised the operation to maximize human casualties, and above all deaths. A brief initial bombing at 4:30 PM drove much of the population into air-raid shelters. When Guernica’s citizens emerged from these shelters to rescue the wounded, a second, longer wave of bombing began, trapping them in the town center from which there was no escape. Low-flying planes strafed the streets with machine-gun fire. Those who had managed to survive were incinerated by the flames or asphyxiated by the lack of oxygen. Three hours of coordinated air strikes leveled the city and killed over 1,500 civilians. In his war diary, Richthofen described the operation as “absolutely fabulous!…a complete technical success.” The Führer was so thrilled that, two years later, he ordered Richthofen to employ the same bombing techniques, on an infinitely greater scale, to lay waste to Warsaw, thereby setting off World War II.

With that sort of casual brutality, it’s no wonder Picasso was still livid about it years later:

In occupied Paris, a Gestapo officer who had barged his way into Picasso’s apartment pointed at a photo of the mural, Guernica, asking: “Did you do that?” “No,” Picasso replied, “you did”, his wit fizzing with the anger that animates the piece.

(via open culture)