13 Ways of Looking At Guernica

Over the weekend I finished Gijs van Hensbergen’s Guernica: The Biography of a Twentieth-Century Icon. Very interesting. PBS.org provides some background on what it calls “modern art’s most powerful antiwar statement”:

On April 27th, 1937, unprecedented atrocities are perpetrated on behalf of Franco against the civilian population of a little Basque village in northern Spain. Chosen for bombing practice by Hitler’s burgeoning war machine, the hamlet is pounded with high-explosive and incendiary bombs for over three hours. Townspeople are cut down as they run from the crumbling buildings. Guernica burns for three days. Sixteen hundred civilians are killed or wounded.

Picasso’s Guernica was a response to that bombing, and it was produced to serve as the centerpiece for the Spanish Pavilion of the 1937 World’s Fair. From Hensbergen’s book (whose endnotes often left me wanting), here are 13 responses to the painting itself:

1. Max Aub, speaking to the pavilion’s construction workers gathered to celebrate their achievement: “It is possible that this art be accused of being too abstract or difficult for a pavilion like ours which seeks to be above all, and before everything else, popular manifestation. This is not the moment to justify ourselves, but I am certain that with a little good will, everybody will perceive the rage, the desperation, and the terrible protest that this canvas signifies … If the picture by Picasso has any defect it is that it is too real, too terribly true, atrociously true.”

2. Critic Anthony Blunt, writing in the Spectator in August 1937: “The painting is disillusioning. Fundamentally it is the same as Picasso’s bull-fight scenes. It is not an act of public mourning, but the expression of a private brain-storm which gives no evidence that Picasso has realised the political significance of Guernica.”

3. Critic Myfanwy Evans, writing in the collection The Painter’s Object in 1937: “It is a terrible picture of atrocities that would turn one’s hair white if one met them in real life. It is not gently composed to soften the blow, either; not a Laocoon picture. Nor is it the wild testament of a man distracted by the thought of his tortured country, and least of all is it a ‘Red Government’ poster screaming horrors to a panic-stricken intelligentsia. It is a passionate recognition of the facts, so purged as to become almost detached statement, and ultimately so unrealistic as to be almost as abstract as his most abstract painting.”

4. Virginia Whitehill, writing in Parnassus in 1939: “For the average gallery-goer Guernica must remain unpleasantly incomprehensible, and the purpose of the present editorial is merely to deplore the dishonesty of the American art public when confronted with work which it can neither understand nor appreciate but which it feels nevertheless obligated to accept.”

5. Critic, painter and collector George L.K. Morris, writing in the Partisan Review soon after: “There are striking passages, and the emotion fits the form completely, but unity of spirit cannot conceal disunity of structure.”

6. Someone writing in The Herald Express in 1939: “CUCKOO.”

7. Someone writing in the Los Angeles Examiner in 1939: “…revolting…ugly…bunk…”

8. Curator Charles Lindstrom, in a statement to exhibition visitors in 1939: “This is the Last Judgment of our age, with a damnation of human manufacture, and nowhere the promise of paradise.”

9. Artist William Baziotes, after seeing the painting around that time: “Picasso had uncovered a feverishness in himself and is painting it – a feverishness of death and beauty.”

10. Willem de Kooning: “…staggering…”

11. Lee Krasner: “Picasso’s Guernica floored me. When I saw it first at the Dudensing Gallery, I rushed out, walked about the block three times before coming back to look at it.”

12. Clement Greenberg, writing in Picasso at Seventy-Five in 1957: “Guernica is the last major turning point in the evolution of Picasso’s art. Bulging and buckling as it does, this huge painting reminds one of a battle scene from a pediment that has been flattened under a defective steam-roller.”

13. Inigo Cavero, Spain’s Minister of Culture, welcoming the painting to its new permanent home (from MOMA) in 1981: “Guernica is a scream against violence, against barbarism, against the horrors of war, against the denials of civil liberties that an armed insurrection implies.”