Picasso’s Guernica In Our Time

Spanish politics entered newspaper headlines all over the world following the Catalan referendum on Sunday 1 October 2017 – Jordi Trull official spokesperson for the regional government stated 90% of votes were pro independence. Images of Spanish riot police attacking voters at ballot stations in a last minute attempt by the Spanish government to stop what they called illegal voting accompanied reports which voiced uncertainty about the stability of Spain – one headline from the Independent’s Voices section stating: “The Catalan crisis could cause the collapse of Spain.”

A few weeks later the Spanish Civil War and Picasso’s Guernica were the subject of the BBC Radio 4 programme In Our Time [1].  Guest speakers included Dacia Viejo Rose from the University of Cambridge who discussed the Nationalists propaganda surrounding the attack of the town of Gernika during the Spanish Civil War on 26 April 1937. She spoke about the false news circulated by the supporters of the military coup led by General Francisco Franco. This false news claimed the Democratically elected Republicans had destroyed the town themselves. Three days after the bombing of Gernika the Germans went into the town to “cleanse it” [2]. This involved recovering bomb shells and destroying any markers that would lead back to the Germans implication in the aerial attack of the town – oil cans were also placed around the town to demonstrate how the Republicans burnt the town themselves. Viejo Rose explains that once the evidence had been planted, reporters favourable to the Francoist cause were shown around the town on a tour that evidenced how the Basques destroyed their own town. She refers to the resulting “post truthiness”  that followed immediately after the bombing [3]. This relationship between politics and lies, it seems, has now begun yet another chapter with the onslaught of the now famed tweets of US President Donald Trump purporting “alternative facts” and “fake news”.

Picasso’s Guernica – a postcard

The reporting of the Spanish Civil War by the press is referenced directly in Guernica (1937) painted shortly after the attack on the town. In the centre of the image on the horse’s body there are markings that suggest newspaper print – for Picasso was largely learning about events in Spain through newspapers he could access in Paris where he was living at the time.

Guernica 1937, Pablo Picasso. Courtesy of Peter Horree / Alamy
Guernica 1937, Pablo Picasso. Courtesy of Peter Horree / Alamy

Postcards of Guernica have entered into the paintings mythology and the political history of Spain. During World War Two when the Germans occupied Paris (1940-44), Nazi officers would regularly visit Picasso in his studio. The story goes that a Gestapo officer picked up a postcard of Guernica and asked Picasso: “Did you do this?” he responded: “No, you did!” This story demonstrates the power of Guernica even in its hand held and mass-produced form. Mary Vincent from the University of Sheffield also speaking on Radio 4’s In Our Time noted how people could be arrested for having such a postcard of Guernica in their possession. Gijs Van Hensbergen author and art historian made reference to the ongoing presence and relevance of Guernica in todays politics, alerting listeners to the fact that one force or another of recent conflicts will attempt to use the painting for propaganda.

[1] In Our Time, BBC Radio 4, aired on Thursday 2 November 2017.
[2] Listen at 22:20
[3] Listen at 23:15