Guernica: Then and Now

Research Proposal

Picasso’s Guernica: An Icon for the Spanish Civil War and its Role in Modern Cultural Politics

The bombing of the small, Basque town of Guernica in the Spring of 1937 is a notorious piece in the tragedy, which was the Spanish Civil War. If not for the audacious efforts of Pablo Picasso, however, the story of Guernica may have gone unnoticed to most of the public at the time, and surely never would have gained the international attention, which it continues to receive in the present.

Picasso was commissioned to create a mural for the Spanish Pavilion at the Paris World Fair in 1937, and subsequently, upon the bombing of Guernica on April 27, 1937, he found his subject. At the close of the Fair in 1938, the painting embarked upon a world tour spreading awareness of the tragedy of the Spanish Civil War, until it arrived in New York at the Museum of Modern Art, where it remained through WWII, until 1981. After his death, a notarized document informed officials that Picasso’s intentions were for Guernica to be taken to his homeland, Spain, only once a stable, democratic government was installed there, and so, actions were taken according to his instructions.

While reverence for Guernica is not universal, Picasso recognized his work’s intrinsic power and the legacy it would possess long after his time. And so, his instructions to return the piece to Spain only when its political state had been stabilized, begs to imply that he wanted Guernica to be a sort of gift to be delivered “home” at a time for celebration. Subsequently this gift is displayed publicly in Spain as a reminder of the tragedies of the Spanish Civil War, something that was until recent years. It is almost as if Picasso knew that the War was something which would have to fight for its proper recognition and Guernica was his attempt at a proper homage.

Last semester, I participated in the Mapping Memory in Madrid research trip. While in Madrid, my main focus was to capture how the Spanish Civil War is being represented through exhibitions. I wanted to experience how such a tragic, tense subject like the Spanish Civil War could be properly recognized and respected through the means of an exhibition. On our first day in Madrid we visited the Reina Sofia Museum of Art, Madrid’s prominent contemporary fine arts museum, which houses Guernica. While it was not my first time seeing Guernica, it was a very meaningful experience to view the painting in the context of my studies on the Spanish Civil War and being in Madrid, seventy years after the events. As our trip ensued, Guernica became for me so much more than a highlight of Spanish art history. On our visit to the Almudena Cemetery, We saw the communal gravesite of soldiers from the Condor Legion, the group responsible for bombing the town of Guernica. On another visit to the organization CSIC, a state research agency, we saw a presentation on Carabanchel, a well-known prison during Franco’s regime, which was recently demolished. The presentation featured the graffiti, which covered the prison once it had been shut down, including a graffiti replica of Guernica. These experiences in Madrid and the way that Guernica served as a common thread throughout our trip and further research I have since done, has made me realize how important an icon of the war Guernica is.

In the last 6 years with the war in Iraq, Guernica has been linked to numerous issues related to social movements and mass mobilizations promoting peace and antiwar movements in Spain. For example, on the Spanish antiwar banners in 2003, the image of the crying woman clutching her dead baby from Guernica, was featured prominently with the slogan emphasizing Madrid’s allegiance and compassion for the Iraqi peoples. More recently, banners have used the same image alongside a photo of Palestinian refugees, with the slogan “Tropas fuera de Afganistan, fin a la ocupacion de Palestina” [“Troops out of Afghanistan, end the occupation of Palestine”]. So, as an icon for war, Guernica has come to be an instrument in current social movements to work for peace, and not coincidentally, in the town of Guernica there exists a museum dedicated to peace studies.

Drawing back to my research from Madrid, I would like to continue research in museum studies, ideally locating resources about the role of museums in areas beyond the art, which they encapsulate, and the idea of museums as messengers of cultural politics and sources of activism.

The mere creation of Guernica was a risk and an activist movement in itself. In the Spring of 1937, Picasso, in what may be disputed as an audacious or brave effort, painted this highly polemical antiwar symbol in the midst of the actual war, for an international audience to view. Thus, Guernica was born into war and a spotlight of violence, political unrest, and controversy. It always was political and politicized. In my research, I would like to uncover the legacy of that genesis and the legacy of Guernica, in modern cultural politics.

This semester, as I travel to Spain to study abroad in Sevilla, I plan to build upon my previously funded Student Research Grant “Mapping Memory in Madrid” where I focused on exhibitions and memory in Madrid, and now I will focus on one exhibition, Guernica, which I began to analyze in Madrid, and now I plan to use this research moving into a new yet related direction, focusing on Guernica as an icon of cultural politics. In Spain, I will have access to countless texts and resources, as well as possible interviews and first hand accounts. I have already made plans to travel to Barcelona and there I will be able to visit the Picasso Museum and gain insights on Picasso’s intentions. I will also be traveling to Bilbao where there is an exhibition on the process of the creation of the painting, including a series of sketches leading up to Guernica’s creation, and information on its context. In Sevilla I will also be a short way away from Guernica itself, in Madrid where I will surely visit the Reina Sofia and its library collection. I feel that a research grant would be an invaluable aide to my research and the execution of my plans thus far, and further opportunities, which I am sure I will find during my semester in Spain.