Pablo Picasso Oil Painting 1937
Today we remember one of the first ever air raids of a civilian population in world history. On April 26, 1937, the Spanish Civil War reached the Basque town of Guernica. This wasn’t just a town, it was the cultural center of the Basque people and a symbol of their freedom.
Although the town was important to the Basque, it had little to no military significance. There was an arms factory outside of the town that supplied the Spanish military and police, but it was really just a normal town. A normal town full of an ethnic minority. A normal town full of a free people during a very complicated civil war, a war which involved powerful militaries outside of their own.
The political situation was complicated. Like most civil wars, there were two main parties at fight, the Republicans and the Nationalists led by Franco. Also like many civil wars, these two sides were not fighting alone. The Nationalists were supported by the Germans and Italians, the Republicans by the Russians and other communist parties.
April 26 was a market day. Thousands of people were in the streets, as they were every single Monday at 4:30. Some estimates suggest 10,000 were there.
For nearly three hours the civilian population of Guernica were bombed upon from above indiscriminately. This wasn’t a single plane or even a single run. In the end, there were five waves of the raid, including machine gun fire targeting individuals attempting to escape.
Conspiracy theories abound, but it is now widely accepted that while the German Condor Legion carried out the attack, it was under the direct order of the Nationalist forces. The Spanish General Franco blamed the Republicans, his opposition in the Civil War. The truth is that Franco, backed by the Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, wanted to terrorize and break the Nationalists. The Basque were a particular thorn in his side because of their autonomy.
The Germans saw this as an opportunity to try out new tactics for the future. Guernica is often compared to the Dresden bombing of World War II. This would be the beginning of terror bombings, done solely to break the will of a people, with little or nothing to gain militarily.
The casualty reports from this day vary widely, everywhere from 350 to over 1,600. It is sometimes also noted that it is believed over 800 people died in the days and weeks following the attack. Regardless of the number, it was effective. Franco would continue to lead Spain until he fell ill shortly before his death in 1975.
In 1937, Pablo Picasso was commissioned by the Spanish Republican government for a painting to represent Spain in the World’s Fair. Although originally from Spain, after his visit in 1934 he didn’t return home but remained in France.
It’s said that after he read reports of the bombing of Guernica he was so moved he thought it was his responsibility to make sure the world knew. A painting at the World’s Fair was the perfect way to do it. Guernica is often considered one of the most influential anti-war works of art of all time. It is also one of Picasso’s most well-known.
I’ll be completely honest, I’m not a fan of cubism. I actually would have zero interest in this painting if I didn’t know the history behind it. Picasso intentionally painted no traits that were specifically related to the bombing of Guernica so it would stand the test of time and can be applied to any war situation.
There is a lot of speculation about the symbolism in this painting. I think the pain and suffering of the people is quite obvious. The broken sword in the center symbolizes a crushing defeat. What I naturally think of as a cluttered, over-crowded space is meant to be seen as crushing oppression.
Picasso continued to live in Paris during the occupation. Needless to say, he wasn’t particularly popular with the Gestapo. One story is told that during a search of his studio an officer saw a photo of Guernica and asked Picasso if he created it. His reply? “No, you did.”
Today, take a moment to consider the innocent men, women, and children lost in the name of war. When you think about it, they are all innocent. Children are not born to kill each other, but the reality is that they do. Those pilots and gunners were not born to massacre, but they did. Try to keep perspective when someone nonchalantly suggests carpet bombing to make a point. That point has already been made.