The First Rehearsal

James Attlee, Guernica: Painting the End of the World

Head of Zeus, 248pp, &18.99, ISBN 978-1786691446

reviewed by Mike Gonzalez

Pablo Picasso’s extraordinary commemoration of the bombing of the historic Basque town of Guernica is an iconic image. In Guernica: Painting the End of the World James Attlee explores the work in depth, and shows how the meanings of each figure on the canvas have been remade in every age and place. So powerful are its resonances that when Colin Powell announced the launch of Operation Shock and Awe at the United Nations, where a tapestry reworking of ‘Guernica’ was normally displayed, he had it hidden from view. The historical analogy was simply too obvious.

The painting, has itself become a battleground. The conjunction of images provides a vocabulary of rage and horror: the long agonised suffering of the horse; the woman with her raised arm appealing to an absent god; the virgin and child removed from her golden drapes and placed in a context of destruction; the apparent indifference of the bull. Perhaps it represents a Spain turning away from the savage brutality fascism had brought. The ritual killing in the bullring that so fascinated Picasso had now erupted in streets and homes and broken out of the theatrical confines of the arena. This was murder on a grand scale – indifferent to the condition of the victims, indifferent to ancient cultures, indifferent to the ordinary pursuits of everyday life. So it was when the Condor Legion, in support of Franco’s coup, bombed the ancient Basque city of Guernica on April 27th 1937. It was market day.

James Attlee’s narrative traces Guernica’s genesis and execution, and its later travels across the world in the intervening 80 years. His extensive knowledge of the world of art enables him to unearth connections and responses beyond the better-known remaking of Picasso’s images in other historical moments, from Hiroshima through Baghdad to Aleppo. He traces the ‘art historical tracks’ to show how reactions and responses to ‘Guernica’ have shaped the ideas and practices of artists as different as Jackson Pollock and Francis Bacon on the one hand, and the contemporary painting of India on the other.

It is that afterlife that Attlee explores in the second half of the book; as the painting arrived at its long term temporary home in New York it became a battleground between art historical and political narratives, particularly after the Second World War – to which the bombing of Guernica becomes, in retrospect, a prologue. It was entirely legitimate, of course, to acknowledge Picasso’s great work as a milestone in the evolution of modernism, but the underpinning of the argument was profoundly political in itself. The commentators of the right set out to ‘rescue’ the work from its historical context, making great play of the fact that the painting contained no specific historical references. This allowed it to be re-located in the world of universals and general allusions to the violence embedded in human nature. But that seems to be an obvious falsification. ‘Guernica’ demonstrates clearly that great art cannot turn its back on history, or on politics – which is the relationships formed between human beings in their collective struggles and encounters. No art can survive in an airless vacuum.

Some of these issues certainly produced vehement debates between Picasso and his lover, the talented modernist photographer Dora Maar in the painter’s studio at the Rue des Augustins in Paris. Maar had a network of connections with both artistic circles and the organisations of the revolutionary left. When Guernica was bombed Picasso was wrestling with a dilemma over what to paint for the Spanish Pavilion at the World Trade Fair in Paris. He had been commissioned in January, yet his preliminary sketches centred on the ‘Artist and Model’ theme to which he returned from time to time throughout his life. The organisers of the Pavilion were growing impatient by April, yet it would open in July in the building designed by Josep Maria Sert, with ‘Guernica’ displayed on its ground floor wall. The Pavilion has since been rebuilt in the district of Horta in Barcelona, where it stands alone. In Paris it was dwarfed by the huge edifices of Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany.

Picasso drew the first sketches of Guernica on 1 May 1937 in his studio.The work was completed in six weeks or so. It is generally agreed, and Attlee confirms it, that Dora Maar had a key role in persuading Picasso to respond to the bombing of Guernica. Although he had completed a series of satirical cartoons called ‘Dreams and Lies of Franco’ to support the Republic, Picasso was always reluctant to work to order; though his support for the Republic was clear, his work was always intensely personal. It was Dora who insisted that an artist of his stature had both the ability and the responsibility to speak beyond the momentary and the opportune. Dora then chronicled the painting’s genesis and development in a series of photographs.

It is important to acknowledge the specific impetus of the painting. It was not war in general that spurred Picasso’s response but this war, the brutal inhumanity of this fascism on the one hand, and on the other its manifestation of the industrialisation of war, the irony of how society’s material progress could produce new and terrible means of destruction. This, after all, was the first rehearsal for Blitzkrieg. Attlee subtitles his book ‘painting the end of the world’; the phrase comes from the dispatches of Charles Steer, the Times correspondent, the sole foreign witness to the destruction of the ancient Basque capital. But we know that this was not the end of the world, but the beginning of a new chapter in the history of state violence and the application of human ingenuity to ever more fearsome means of destruction.
Mike Gonzalez is Emeritus Professor of Latin American Studies at the University of Glasgow.