Art is at its best when it sends a powerful message, and this is exactly what Picasso’s famous Guernica painting does. The painting shocks and disturbs us, even when we don’t know the story behind it. It conveys a message of death, destruction, and a world gone mad. What horrible event could have provoked Picasso to paint such a disturbing scene?
The year was 1937. The Spanish Civil War was in full swing and General Franco, leader of the Nationalist forces, had powerful allies: Nazi Germany and fascist Italy. The war proved useful to the Nazis. It provided them with an opportunity to test new technologies and strategies of warfare. It was in pursuit of this goal that the Luftwaffe bombed the Basque town of Guernica. The goal was to break the morale of the people. It was psychological warfare against civilian populations.
Morale bombing was the brain child of the Italian General Giulio Douhet, whose influential The Command of the Air (1921) argued in favor of targeting civilian populations who were assumed to be weak and would therefore if bombed would press their leaders to end the war, thus saving lives.
The strategy was based on a flawed assumption (civil populations are weak) and never lived up to its promise (an experiment that cost the lives of millions of civilians). But in 1937, Hitler was so enamored by its “successful” implementation in Guernica that he recommended its use on Poland two years later. This strategy was implemented not just by the Nazis in the Spanish Civil War, but also by the Allies during WWII.
While Picasso’s painting is about a single event in Guernica, it has since taken on a much more significant role as an indictment of all war crimes and atrocities. For this reason, a replica of it is prominently placed at the UN headquarters outside the Security Council chambers. Here it finds itself frequently the backdrop for press statements. As a result, it had to be covered up during a press conference in 2003. Collen Powell was set to speak about the war in Iraq. The message was inconvenient!
Read Richardson’s review of Gernika, 1937: The Market Day Massacre by Xabier Irujo here: A Different Guernica by John Richardson | The New York Review of Books