This month marks the anniversary of one of the many atrocities of the last century carried out in the cause of nationalism. On Monday, April 26, 1937, less than a year after dissident Spanish generals launched a coup d’état against a democratically elected coalition government, German and Italian airplanes bombed Gernika, in the Basque Country of Spain.
Within a week, Pablo Picasso commenced the mural-sized painting— “Guernica,” using the Spanish rendering of the Basque town’s name—that now stands as the exemplar among artists’ public opposition to war.
There was no military reason to bomb Gernika. No barracks or munitions factories of significance were to be found there. Nor was the town on the front lines. Politically, people identified it with Basque culture and independence. Attacking it was the equivalent of targeting the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, but not the navy yard to the south of the city. The strike, which destroyed more than half of Gernika’s buildings and killed hundreds of its citizens, was conceived cynically as a testing ground for the tactic of the blitzkrieg, or lightning war, that Germany would deploy with stunning success two years later when it invaded Poland and ignited World War II. In the aftermath of Gernika, terror from the air would come to define modern war. So, too, would total war—conflict in which military forces made no distinction between soldiers and civilians.
In a class I teach on “Guernica” and antiwar art we spend the semester wrestling with the question of art’s efficacy. What can it do in the realm of politics and war? We know that art can be the handmaid of power, and that it can make such power appealingly seductive. It can serve the cause of subjugation as easily, and earnestly, as that of liberation.
At the same time, art wields no direct power. It controls no budgets, enacts no legislation, commands no troops. Humans control these things. Humans start wars. Only humans can stop them. To expect artists or works of art to do this is both naïve and unrealistic. It misunderstands art, and it also simplifies history.
Paradoxically, antiwar art’s lack of actual power is its power. It provides means for us to enter into the maelstrom of war, to register its broad sweep of destruction—cultural, economic, physical, and psychological. How? Through imagination. Picasso did not witness the bombing of Gernika. He read about it. Then he found the form to bring audiences to the event. In doing so, he gave them a way of perceiving and understanding the destruction, albeit indirectly.
In celebrating Picasso’s achievement, we tend to forget the press of events and the stakes of political tension in Europe during the 1930s. With the memory of World War I still fresh, the continent knew that another would be every bit as traumatic, if not more so. No wonder artists took sides. In a decade marked by the intense politicization of art, some artists, both in Spain and across Europe, willingly embraced fascism; Picasso was among many cultural workers who opposed the fascists and aligned themselves with the left. Following the liberation of Paris in 1944, Picasso joined the Communist party and remained a member until his death in 1973. He embraced the communist directive that art was a weapon in the war with fascism.
Picasso conceived and designed “Guernica” for the Spanish Pavilion at the Exposition Internationale in Paris with the clear notion that it would elicit empathy and support for the beleaguered Popular Front government desperately fighting the fascist insurgence. Depicting combat through traumatized women, a dead infant, a decapitated soldier, a wounded horse, and impassive bull gave animal presence to vulnerability and violation. The distortions of the female bodies—with limbs awkwardly thrust into space, hands and feet swollen, and mouths open in screaming agony—was a forceful means of bringing audiences into the space of trauma. With a palette reduced to black, white, and gray, the painting was easily reproduced, and thereby was known globally.
Initially, “Guernica” didn’t enjoy the burnished reputation it has today. It worried some critics who targeted the painting’s apparent ambiguity, noting that its imagery fell somewhere between personal symbolism and overt propaganda. Was Picasso again exorcising personal demons in a cubist style understood, and appreciated, solely by cognoscenti? Was he really willing, or even capable, of serving a cause beyond himself? To be fair, without the painting’s title, or its inclusion in the pavilion, it was not necessarily clear that Picasso was addressing a particular event, or even the Spanish Civil War.
Not that that really mattered, in retrospect. The power of the painting is evident in the many examples of antiwar art that followed “Guernica”, sometimes through direct quotation, other times in continuing its exhortation to witness and to condemn state violence. Consider the work of David Smith, Leon Golub, Peter Saul, Nancy Spero, Martha Rosler, and Coco Fusco, among so many others. The legacy is long and impressive.
Why do we still think of “Guernica” now? Because war remains with us—and has even returned to Europe. And because the painting, and works like it, continue to challenge perspective and consensus.
My students are living proof of this challenge. In a recent class, we discussed the canonical presence of the painting in any consideration of modern art, especially that conceived for public places, as well as its ongoing relevance in regard to militarism, elitism, and imperialism. Some students noted that the United States often articulates its identity through its martial past. Our visual culture is suffused with stories of sacrifice, heroism, and triumph on the fields of battle, from the War of Independence to the War on Terror. Such imagery creates pressure to embrace and perpetuate tradition. Antiwar art is a reminder that the responsibility of citizens is to exercise independent judgment—even and especially when this means challenging dominant sensibilities and proscriptive histories, not to mention nationalist mythologies.
Other students told me they see the subject and style of “Guernica” as evidence that art need not exist within an ivory tower. It might be something other than a manifestation of individuality, or a commodity with market value. Art belongs in the polis where it can contribute to public debate.
Still others in my class read the painting through their experiences as first- and second-generation Americans. The history of the Spanish civil war reveals to them that Spain was not only a colonial power with a troubling history in Africa, the Americas, and elsewhere. It also suffered violence at home. Spaniards treated their countrymen with the same disdain as they did their colonial subjects. “Guernica” exposes the so-called monolith of the West as something more complicated and diverse than might be acknowledged, or admitted. In turn, this suggests that there is still much to be learned from and admired within the Western tradition—without, of course, ignoring its long and devastating presence around the globe. Studying Picasso’s painting reveals that it now speaks to broader histories and experiences than he could have intended or anticipated.
“Guernica” is also a lesson in civics. The painting didn’t halt the march of fascism, or of war. But it demonstrates that art’s awe and wonder—its creativity, insight, and inspiration—can communicate individual dissent, and that dissent, in and of itself, can hold great power.
Think of it as a way of casting a ballot in public, with fellow citizens knowing exactly how you voted. In an age when we are too easily manipulated by rhetoric and half-truth, accountability and transparency are a salutary public tonic. We need more such art.