Performing ‘Guernica’

In the new Trocadéro Gardens, in the middle of Paris between the Eiffel Tower and the Palais de Chaillot, the gigantic ‘International Exposition of Art and Technology in Modern Life’ opened in the Spring of 1937. Visitors entering the Spanish pavilion there could not miss the hugh painting that soon would be known all over the world: Picasso’s Guernica. The artist, obviously not following the ‘just in time’ principle, had finished the painting about a week too late. He was fortunate that the completion of the pavilion itself, like several others, was somewhat delayed.

On April 25th, Picasso still had had no definite idea as to his subject (although he had received his commission from the leftwing Republican government of Spain to produce a substantial painting for the pavilion already in January). The next day, the 26th of April, to assist General Franco’s reaction against revolutionary republicanism, Hitler’s Junker and Heinkel bombers practised their demonic skills on the small Basque town of Guernica. For three hours on end they threw incendiary bombs on defenseless Guernica, killing hunderds of men, women and children and turning the place into an inferno. Picasso read about it in L’Humanité and Ce Soir and, like so many others, was enraged. Although Hitler’s propaganda machine came up with a ludicrous story – a poisoneous fairytale stating that Bolshevik arsonists from the Spanish Left were to blame for the massacre – Times-correspondent George Steer made sure the world soon could read the real story.

Picasso and Guernica in studio

Working on Guernica

Picasso almost immediately knew what to do and, on symbolic Labour Day, May 1st, began preparing his painting inspired by the Guernica tragedy. He was 55 and at the peak of artistic fame. That year there were no less than six exhibitions, showing his work in Paris, London and New York. In order to cover the wall of the entrance hall to the Spanish pavilion the painting had to measure about 3,50 m. high and 7,80 m. wide. Picasso had the enormous canvas installed in his spacious but rather cold new studio in the rue des Grands-Augustins. For five weeks he worked here, intensely, to complete the painting, undisturbed as far as I know. Still, it must have felt to him as if, besides the Spanish Republican government, indignated world consciousness was looking over his shoulder. Many of his friends knew what he was working on. (The moment he had finished, a whole group of them came to the studio to applaud their Pablo).

Picasso Guernica 1937

Guernica in the Spanish pavilion, 1937

Imagine Guernica to be created in our time, instead of 1937: most likely the whole painting process would be recorded by one or several cameras, and the resulting video would for sure be put on Youtube. Would it not be fantastic to be able to relive (and repeat to one’s heart’s content), with just one ‘click’ as we’re now used to, ‘the making of’ Guernica, step by step?

What would we see? The best clue is in the photographs of Dora Maar – a professional photographer whom Picasso had got to know the year before – made in the Grands-Augustins studio. The ultimate subject of her pictures is not ‘Picasso at work’, but the emerging painting as such. This way she has documented seven stages of Guernica’s development, from May 11 onwards, when the first complete sketch covered the canvas. Miss Maar inadvertantly produced a short Youtube-film avant la lettre of the birth of Guernica. Her photo’s, soon published in the Cahiers d’art, substantiate the impression that world famous Picasso was, more or less publicly, performing his abilities as a painting genius. He didn’t mind the world to see he was sometimes groping in the dark.

These photo’s also provide us with valuable information on Picasso’s creative process (in addition to the trivial facts that he needed a ladder to reach the upper regions of the canvas and used artificial light in the rather dark studio). He made more than fifty separate sketches before tackling his enormous canvas. Dora Maar’s reportage shows that, from the start, he had made up his mind on at least three things: working in black, white and gray, limiting the drama of his picture to seven figures (the Pieta, the bull or Tauro, the Pegasus-like horse, the slaughtered male, the female messenger, the running woman, the woman in flames) and filling up the whole of the canvas with these figures, leaving almost no space for depicting the environment. Guernica stubbornly ignores the aeroplanes, the bombs, the inhuman attackers.

The Pieta to the left seems to have been the first figure to appear, more or less in its definitive shape. More important still is that, in comparing the different stages, we can see Picasso has been ‘struggling’ to find the most convincing (now so familiar) composition. The body of the bull at first was on the righthand side of its head, Picasso turned the beast around, making the ‘plume’ of its upright tail appear on the upper left of the painting. The now iconic head of the screaming horse used to be much lower; bringing it to the top strongly enhanced the painting’s expressive power. The dismembered male, like the bull, has been turned (the head was on the right in the early versions) and, in this case too, Picasso only gradually seems to have found the expressive shape. Similarly we see how the figure of the running woman, panic stricken, in the creative proces is gaining expressive strength, step by step, by stretching and enlarging her legs to give her a painful dragging appearance.

The artist needs the imperfect shape, line or colour to find, ‘in the rebound’, a better version. Drawing the first line is like throwing it into a nondescript open space, without coordinates. But immediately this first line will begin to tell you what to do next. The first line is a pioneer, a pilot in uncharted waters. After drawing it, it is, on the spot, evaluated and corrected if needed. In a similar way, the first figure introduced to a canvas will act as a pilot too, offering valuable clues as to the other figures to be created. This dialectic of creation is often taken for granted, but it really is essential. Of course, Picasso can also just have changed his mind, but even then this will often have happened, I assume, according to a pattern of action and reaction.

It is comforting to see that even Picasso begins with less than perfect lines and shapes, needing one or more trials in a creative proces of optimization.

We can also learn from Guernica, both as ‘end product’ and creative process, a valuable lesson on style. We know that Picasso was enraged (because of the massacre against his own people) as well as engaged in a political sense (supporting the Spanish Republicans and feeling sympathy for Communism). However, the style of Guernica is pure Picasso; rage nor engagement caused him to alter his style. Picasso’s personal style – embedded in the collective styles of lyrical cubism and abstraction – seems to work as Apollonian form, effectively balancing the Dionysian impulse of rage. We can see the modernist style taking control and not losing its grip, even when emotion, political struggle and ideology are keen to take over. Besides, modernism in painting acted, in this famous case and, I believe, in many others, as an antidote to the politicising of style. This particular strength of modernism is undervalued.

To comprehend this, we just have to look around on the terrain of the Trocadéro exposition. The nazi architect Albert Speer designed the German pavilion and with his plans succeeded in convincing his reluctant Führer that Germany should not only participate, but should also surpass the nearby Soviet pavilion. So Speer erected an enormous stone building that looked like a vertical mausoleum, with an Arian eagle on top, holding a swastika in its greedy claws. The Soviets built something of similar height, not very pavilion-like either. They topped their building with two enormous metal statues, representing a Soviet labourer and a Kolchoz woman, true working heroes whose heroism implied they abstained from decent earnings. Both the German example of Speer mythology and the Soviet exercise in social realism – so out of place in Paris – were stone totems of combative nationalism; the artistic consciousness here had to comply to the doubtful ambitions of nation-politics.

Trocadero Paris Exhibition German pavilion Speer

The German ‘pavilion’ at the Paris 1937 exhibition

This situation shows how special the light-weight and relatively simple Spanish pavilion, designed by Sert and also containing work of Juan Miro and the American Alexander Calder, was. Above all it proves a few points about Guernica and modernism in art. Picasso’s painting, surrounded by the German and the Soviet pavilion, was very much out of tune with the new ‘trend’ of cultural nationalism and xenophobia. So was the whole school of modernism. Surrounded by the cultural nationalism of 1937 Guernica was a truly brave statement, ruffling the feathers of all those who felt modern art was degenerate and that Spain had to be brought into fascism’s plight. Picasso’s protest named Guernica really drove its message home, since the ‘inhabitants’ of Speer’s nazi-pavilion only had to cross a few hundred yards to see it, in all its autonomous glory. Probably they would, however, not have been able to perceive and understand the moral and stylistic integrity of this painting – since these were values from a different planet to them. It was Speer, by the way, who won two medals in Paris: one for his pavilion, and one for his architectural achievement of designing the Nuremburg grounds the NSDAP used for its massive party rallies.

Paris 1937 exhibition Trocadero Soviet pavilion

The Soviet ‘pavilion’ on the opposite

Some three years later Hitler, after his troops had occupied it, visited Paris and, in triumph, stood in front of the Eiffel Tower, his back turned to the Palais de Chaillot and the former exposition terrain of the Trocadéro Gardens. Speer accompanied him. Picasso and Dora Maar had left for Royans, but on August 25 they returned to Paris. During the war, Picasso will again work and live in his studio in the rue des Grands-Augustins, where the spirit of his Guernica, as a universal protest against the cruelties of war, is then still present. The Germans knew he was there, but it would have been senseless for them to interfere: Picasso was all over the world, he could not be stopped.