Talking about Picasso’s Guernica at Montjuïc

The Generalitat de Catalunya’s Memorial Democràtic initiative has organized a series of activities, exhibitions and talks to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Civil War bombing of the civilian population.

Guernica. Pablo Picasso, 1937. Oil on canvas

Although aerial bombardment had been used in previous wars, the Spanish Civil War was the first in which the civilian population was subjected to intensive and continuous attack from the air. First in Euskadi — the Basque Country — and then all over the country, the rebel General Franco’s army and its Italian and German allies systematically bombed defenceless towns and cities behind the lines. This aberrant tactic continued during World War II and culminated in the dropping of the atomic bomb, on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Since then the bombing of the civilian population has been a common practice in almost all wars.

To commemorate the 75th anniversary of those horrific events, the Generalitat de Catalunya’s Memorial Democràtic has organized the exhibition “Catalunya bombardejada” in the Castle of Montjuïc, and a series of talks and panel discussions to consider the consequences of the devastating attacks and the resistance of the civilian population.

Memorial Democràtic’s Education Service asked the Museu Picasso to take part in explaining to 3rd- and 4th-year Secondary School students the impact that the bombing of the Basque town of Gernika had on European intellectuals and artists and on Picasso in particular.

Aerial view of the Castle of Montjuïc

We were delighted to accept the invitation, and on 26 April, the anniversary of the bombing of Gernika in 1937, we tried to explain to the students Pablo Picasso’s position in relation to the Spanish Civil War and how he came to paint Guernica, which was to become a symbol of peace. Picasso, who in January that year had been commissioned by the government of the Spanish Republic to make a panel for the Spanish Pavilion at the 1937 Paris International Exposition, took several months to decide on a subject and did not start working on the panel until the first of May, the day after the French newspapers published photographs of the shattered town. We felt it would be interesting to accompany the explanation with a series of photographs of the bombedtown, alternating these with images of the artist’s creative process. Our main aim was to help the students appreciate how that process fitted into history and how any artistic activity can bear witness to the past and at the same time contribute to the struggle against injustice.

At the end of the dissertation, we invited our young listeners to talk about what they felt when they looked at the Picasso mural. After a minute or two of silence, some of the girls started to express their views and analyse the painting. Some of these girls (none of the boys was willing to speak) saw the picture as a powerful representation of suffering, helplessness and despair, a snapshot of the madness and confusion during and after the bombing. The grey tones symbolize the loss of hope and the onset of darkness, both in the outside world and inside of people. Others then commented on the formal aspects of the work and the way it was made. They were struck by the superposing of different planes and the expressionism of the figures, detecting the presence of pages of newsprint in the body of the horse, and talked about how the sun that features in the earliest version becomes increasingly stylizedand transformed into the electric bulb that lights the scene.

Through their observations, the young people confirmed that Picasso’s Guernica is still today an emblematic protest against the horror of war. The dialogue with the students and their teachers was a genuinely enriching and rewarding experience, and we would like to thank Memorial Democràtic for including the Museu Picasso in the commemoration of one of the most tragic periods of our history.

Malén Gual
Museum curator

1 Comment
  • Descubriendo a Picasso
    April 3, 2020

    Me parece muy interesante el articulo . Me apasiona el arte realizado durante la segunda guerra mundial

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