Guernica and the barbarism of twentieth century Europe.

Today we mourn the dead of Guernica, killed in the first air raid which rained murder from the skies on a civilian population during the Spanish civil war. Guernica became a focus for outrage and shock at the way the new power of aerial bombardment could be used to destroy the buildings of towns and kill the men,women and children who lived there. The later barbarisms of the twentieth century were first enacted on that fateful April afternoon seventy one years ago.

I can understand why people were so shocked. The mass slaughter of the First World War had revolted people enough as they saw heavily mechanised death on an industrial scale meted out to young men crouching in muddy trenches. In a throw back to the morality of medieval warfare where knights were meant to help damsels in distress, not rape or murder them, there was still a feeling that at least that barbarism was confined to combatants who had some means of fighting back. The murder from the air at Guernica was meted out to unseen people in their homes, attacking men, women and children indiscriminately. All were defenceless, as the town had no anti aircraft weaponry in place. Waves of Luftwaffe planes flew in to discharge their bomb loads unchallenged. Just in case they were supported by Italian fighter planes.

The Condor Legion’s raid killed many. There have been disputes ever since about just how many, with estimates ranging from 250 to 1500. At the time the perpetrators sought to give a very different impression, and pointed out that Guernica was also a military target as the fascist forces sought to prevent the retreat of the opposing army. The event has been remembered both because at the time world opinion was affronted by such bestiality, and because Picasso produced his famous painting lest we should forget.

I share the feelings that the bombing evoked. It was another lurch to a more brutal age, a celebration of the naked power modern technology can hand to governments, a further decline in the standards of governments handling disagreement and conflict. It did point to the murderous pounding London and other British cities received from the Luftwaffe in the Second World War, and the retaliatory death the Allies dished out to Germans in their cities. Neither long and damaging bombing campaigns against civilian populations and whole cities changed the course of the war. London was not bombed into submission. The Germans were not forced to an early surrender by the ferocity of the later Allied bombing. Wars still required men in arms to hold or seize territory on the ground, fighting village by village, street by street for control.

Bombing munitions factories, armies on the ground, weapons development establishments, bridges and railways to be used by opposing forces may all be necessary as part of traditional armed conflict between men in arms in a modern setting. There are conventions seeking to limit the use of weapons of mass destruction. Guernica and its aftermath has led many to think there should also be a convention against the mass bombing of civilian populations.

I understand why Guernica evokes such strong passion. I myself have never been able to find those passions properly captured by Picasso’s painting. Most people think it a masterpiece. I cannot see it. I would love to be told why it is in a way I can appreciate too.


  1. Rose
    April 26, 2008

    I agree. I cannot see the merit in the picture, though many artists I know think otherwise. If Picasso had been on the other side, and shown, say, the thousands of priests being butchered, would people today laud that as a masterpiece, or would it have been suppressed? This cruel and complicated war is all too often presented in fashionably simplified terms for a cinema-educated generation.

  2. Stuart Fairney
    April 26, 2008

    In the strict sense you are right, I too struggle to see the merit in the painting on it's own. But it is rather like Anne Frank; as a diarist she was understandably limited, but its the emotional resonance she generates from the association with the events of the time that give the work significance. Thus it is with the painting and to no small extent, the 'celebrity' artist.

  3. mikestallard
    April 26, 2008

    John, you have to paint to understand. Sometimes the paint just flows onto the board. It is a controlled anger which is really satisfying too. All your intellect, feelings, know how, skill pour out together. There is no way to describe it.
    The down side, of course, is that nobody else understands what you are up to! To them it is just a mess!
    But if you are any good, the fairest and most skilled critic is – yourself. You know it is "going well".
    Believe me, once he had got rid of the deadly influence of his Art School dad, Picasso really was a good drawer and painter and he worked at it too. Some people (Tracey Emin? The pre Raphaelites?) just couldn't paint at all. Picasso just sat in cafes drawing what he saw.
    This sounds about as easy as pie. Believe me, it is just as difficult (I guess) as making a good speech in parliament.

    As to the bombing: Butcher Harris looked up during the blitz and said "They have sown the wind".

  4. Stephen
    April 26, 2008

    I couldn't begin to do justice to the content of Picasso's painting, but would suggest you read Robert Hughes (the shock of the new) here:

    The power of the painting though is evidenced by the way we retain a strong memory of the dark monochrome image, recalled each time we here the word 'Guernica'. If the opportunity presents itself you should see the original; the sheer scale of the work increases it's impact.

    There is another artistic war memorial, not that far from your constituency, Stanley Spencer's Burghclere chapel. To this viewer, it is one of the greatest artistic achievements of the 20th century, you should visit.

    Great blog, very stimulating.

    Reply: Yes, the Spencer is powerful. My own idea of a great painting is the Fighting Temeraire. The image of the mighty ship which had played such a part at Trafalgar being towed to her last berth into the sunset by a steam tug is so evocative. There is the end of the end of the age of sail and the ships of the line that had defeated the tyranny of Napoleon; there is the image of the sunset reinforcing the image of the decaying ship. with the future in the foreground. That is great art recalling great events and changes.

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