Guernica and Timelessness

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In this essay I will address how Picasso’s Guernica is one of the most influential paintings of the twentieth century. The forms of influence I will cover are: the perception and discussion of art and political correlation. To do this I will provide a brief description of Guernica’s origin, a focus on Guernica’s time in American and a recollection Guernica’s exhibitions and the significance of such locations.

Guernica (1937) is a cubist mural created by Pablo Picasso attributed to the attack of the titular city. On Monday, April 27th, 1937, during the Spanish Civil war, a direct attack was led on a non-military target, the city of Gernika in the Basque Country of Spain (White, 2018). Despite that the attack was aided by Italians and Germans, no other country changed their foreign affair policy regarding Germany nor did they send aid to Spain. It is only after this event that Picasso began work on Guernica, with his first sketch being dated May 2nd, 1937.

Guernica’s unveiling in Paris for the International Echibitionwas heatedly contested as a valid addition to the exhibition. The ambiguity of Picasso’s cubistic style spread over such a large dimension, with no clear link to the atrocity created much room for interpretation (Brunner 80). The only true clarification of Guernica’s intent from Picasso is that it is assuredly propaganda and was quoted that it is “an instrument of war, for attack and defence against the enemy” (Chipp 487). At the time, Artist and Communist writer Georges Sadoul affirmed it clearly stated an abhorrence of the military caste (Chipp and Tussel 190) whilst more recent interpretations are still being offered. Brunner in Guernica: The Apocolypse (2001) offers that upon close inspection of the text, Guernica resonates with the Latin epic, the legend of Numancia and the theatrical adaptions that succeeded it. This timeless division and thusly, continued discussions marks Guernica as an influential piece from its origin.

In 1939 to 1981 Guernica spent most of its time at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York under the eye Alfred H. Barr (Hensbergen 80-85). At the conclusion of World War 2 America entered its Cold War, a period of evolved war tactics involving subterfuge, propaganda and espionage. It is during this period that communism and the ever-looming threat of the Soviet Union became America’s direct enemy. Guernica and its connection to notorious Communist Picasso, created a maelstrom of political perception in its time in the United States, that affected not only the reputation of MOMA but the career of Barr. Guernica’s involvement with MOMA and the communist affiliation it provided, saw Barr removed from his position as Director of MOMA in 1943, forced into political purgatory until taking the lesser position of Director of Museum Collections in 1947. Even Barr, a man who devoutly believed in the true democracy of art and exhibiting all genres, assisted in the suppression of Guernica from becoming a rally point of Communist unrest. Bar intentionally omitted ties to Spain and direct information from Guernica’s labels, leaving the piece to be normalised somewhat in its ambiguity (Hensbergen 80-85).

The most salient aspect of Guernica’s influence is its constant re-politicisation, historically and geographically (White, 2018). Politically salient in the US from 1937 through to the end of WW2 as a commentary on the brutality of man and a figurehead of communist solidarity throughout the Cold War.Guernica’s trip around Europe brought new potency with each stop: In 1953 Guernica was united with other powerful pieces, Massacre in Korea, La Guerre et la Paix in Milan to display a powerful exhibition o the atrocities of war, In Brazil Guernica represented the union of Spanish artistic exiles in collaboration with the works of Sao Paulo Biennale, in Paris (1955) it reignited conversations of its original unveiling, a display in Germany resonated participation and guilt for Gernika and WW2 and finally, in Colgne who sympathised with the piece as a victim of aerial bombardments. In 1985 a tapestry of Guernica was hung at The United Nations, where in 2001, it was part of debacle when it was covered during a press release regarding the Iraq war. Even now Guernica is contested today between, Madrid, Barcelona and Basque Country for where the piece should finally rest.

Guernica has dominated not only the artistic world of the twentieth century but the political. Since it’s unveiling in 1937 Guernica has influenced not only debate of its true meaning but the intent of art as a concept. So too has Guernica as a catalyst for political concern and awareness,created political discussion and tension wherever it travelled.  It is undeniable through forms of intellectual and political influence Guernica dominated the twentieth century but noting the recent events at the United Nations, I believe Guernica will continue to influence well into this century.

Words: 806


Brunner, Kathleen. “‘Guernica’: The Apocalypse.” Burlington Magazine, vol. 143, no. 1175, 2001, pp. 80-85, British Library Document Supply Centre Inside Serials & Conference Proceedings, <>.

Chipp, Herschel Browning, and Javier TusellPicasso’s Guernica : History, Transformations, Meanings. University of California Press, 1988.

Chipp, Herschel Browning. Theories of Modern Art: A Source Book of Artists and Critics. University of California Press, 1968.

Hensbergen, Gijs. Guernica: The Biography of a Twentieth-Century Icon. Bloomsbury, 2004.

White, Anthony. “Week 10 Lecture 1: Picasso.” University of Melbourne, Melbourne 2nd October 2018.

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