Upon reading an eyewitness account of the bombing published in the newspaper, Picasso tossed aside the idea for the mural that he had been picking away at for 3 months and began working on possibly his most famous work. Thirty-five days later and it would be complete.
Fast forward 81 years and my family and I arrive at the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid, Spain to see this masterpiece in person. The museum is free for two hours every evening and we are apparently not the only ones to realize this: the line to get in stretches on for an eternity. Hundreds of visitors and locals have come to glimpse at the immense canvas that Picasso painted that fateful summer in 1937 and we take our places at the end of the line, our jet-lagged children are thankfully snoozing peacefully.
Luckily, the museum opens up another entrance and the line is cut in half. I realize as we near the front that my pocket knife is most likely not kosher in an art museum and awkwardly stash it behind the siding of the museum as I pretend to tie my shoe. We pass through security and hustle inside as our children awaken at the excitement.
The museum is quite expansive and we did our best with our weak Spanish to discern where Picasso’s masterpiece was on display. Wading past many impressive works by lesser-known artists, we round a corner and there it is: an 11 ft tall and 25 ft wide testament to the horrors of modern warfare. Picasso titled it Guernica.
The year was 1937 and there was a civil war in Spain between the Nationalists, who wanted to return to the traditional ways of law and order and traditional Catholic values, and the Republicans, who were comprised of varying groups that were united in their opposition to the Nationalists. Guernica was a town of 7,000 people in northern Spain and was a vital strategic point for the Republican forces, although it was nearly 20 miles from the battlefront. Additionally, it was the spiritual capital of the region’s people and its destruction would heavily demoralize the Republican efforts.
Mondays were market days in Guernica when folks from the surrounding region would gather in the town’s center to peddle their goods and see old friends. This Monday was no different and on April 26, 1937 at approximately 4:30pm, the bombing began.
I could go into great detail about the terror and horror that the townspeople of Guernica must have surely endured as their beloved town was completely destroyed, but I feel that Picasso’s reaction to it captures it more effectively. Guernica is painted in monochromatic grays, black, and white. This is meant to achieve a more reportage quality as in a photographic record of the events that transpired that day in April. A horse screams as it is gored, a mother wails as she clutches her dead child, a dismembered soldier lays motionless; these are images that Picasso uses to tell the story of the bombing of Guernica and to see them in person in all of their expansive emotion leaves the viewer feeling many things, not the least of which is heavy sadness.
The room at the museum that housed Guernica was crowded but nearly silent as the viewers took in the weight of the mural-sized painting. We solemnly worked our way to the front, where a velvet rope kept viewers from getting closer than a couple of yards from the work. I knelt by our oldest son, Ivan, and quietly asked him what he saw in the painting. He noted the horse and the ghost-like figure emerging through the window, his eyes darting this way and that as he searched for the words to describe what he was seeing. I told him about Picasso’s intention behind the painting and how good art makes the viewer feel something, even if that something is sadness. We spent another minute or two gazing at the masterpiece before moving on to other parts of the Reina Sofia.
For me, viewing Guernica was a bucket-list experience and my reaction of awe and admiration were to be expected. What I didn’t expect to feel was a connection to Picasso as a mortal man; an artist feeling a strong emotion and struggling to mold that into art. When I viewed Guernica up close, I could note the loose, gestural strokes that Picasso used. I could see the area where his brush was so heavy with paint that the edge of his painted line broke into an unexpected drip. Areas where he painted over previous images were left visible, nodding at the indecision that all artists fight. I could connect with his hurried manner, worried that the image that was so clear in his head will be buried if he delayed too long. Guernica is massive, it’s messy, and it’s riveting. I’ve never seen anything like it.
As I retrieved my stashed pocket knife and we returned to the busy streets of Madrid at night, I thought of Picasso and that immense blank canvas that he faced back in 1937. He had just learned of this horrific tragedy in his homeland and he decided to express his angst in the biggest way he could muster: a giant painting that would move viewers for centuries to come. This is what art can be. This is what art can do.
I’m currently writing this blog from my new studio space at Green Olive Arts in Tetouan, Morocco. I’ll be here for a glorious six-week residency launching The Jobs Project: Morocco, which will involve creating my own giant mural to celebrate the workers here and the amazing community they’ve helped shape. Be sure to follow me on Instagram or Facebook for all the wondrous things I’m experiencing and the resulting artwork.