‘Guernica’ divides historians, but its meaning is more relevant than ever

Picasso's 'Guernica' is the iconic portrayal of war in art. Surely there's nothing new to say 80 years on? No so, found James Attlee

Despite the flood of visual stimuli we are subjected to every day, certain images persist, losing none of their power to move and engage us. Pablo Picasso’s Guernica is one of these.

When first invited to write a book about it I was initially a little reluctant: after all some of the greatest art historians of recent times had done so already and their conclusions contradict each other in ways that only add to its mystery. However I soon found myself gripped by its story, which has strong resonances with our own times.

Picasso was inspired to paint Guernica by a specific event during the Spanish Civil War, the carpet-bombing of the undefended Basque town of Gernika on April 26, 1937 by the Condor Legion of the German Luftwaffe. However, the painting includes neither planes nor combatants. Instead, its living subjects, four women and three animals, share the canvas with a dead baby and a fallen soldier. The space they occupy is neither clearly inside nor outside. Nothing ties the painting’s content to a specific place or date – we could be looking at any time in history; the soldier’s dismembered arm still clutches a broken sword.

For him, art was a spontaneous process rather than something summoned to order.

Picasso had lived in Paris since 1904, but events in Spain disturbed him deeply. The French press carried shocking descriptions of civilian casualties during the bombing of Madrid. His mother and other family members were still living in Barcelona; and in January 1937 Picasso’s birthplace, Malaga, fell to Franco’s troops, his childhood home transformed into a tableau of death and devastation. Yet when that month he was asked to paint a picture for the Pavilion of the Spanish Republic in the World Fair that was to open in Paris in the summer, he agreed reluctantly. He hated commissions: for him, art was a spontaneous process rather than something summoned to order.

For months, he struggled to find a subject. Then on Tuesday April 27, the Spanish poet Juan Larrea came to find him with news of the bombing of Gernika, certain it was the subject he’d been searching for. That Saturday, Picasso made the first sketches for Guernica; some five weeks later the painting was delivered to the Pavilion.

Guernica divided opinion on its first appearance. While some declared it a work of genius, the film director Luis Bunuel, who helped hang it, said he would have been happy to blow it up; Basque painter José María de Ucelay went further, declaring it nothing but “7 x 3 metres of pornography, shitting on Gernika, on Euskadi (the Basque Country), on everything”. Anthony Blunt, writing in The Spectator, called it the “private brainstorm” of an artist who understood nothing of its political significance.

Herbert Read blasted back in the letters column that Guernica was “the modern Calvary” and that Blunt’s ideas were typical of “middle-class doctrinaires who wish to ‘use’ art for the propagation of their dull ideas”. Their opposing views were put to the test when the painting was shown at the Whitechapel Gallery in London’s East End in January 1939. Picasso asked that visitors donate a pair of serviceable boots for soldiers on the Spanish front; during the two weeks it was on show 15,000 people filed past the painting and its attendant sketches and studies, the pile of boots growing steadily until it contained 400 pairs.

Judgement was equally polarised when Guernica arrived in North America, viewers either finding it retrograde for clinging to figuration, or revolutionary in showing how a political message could be conveyed without compromising avant-garde principles. Jackson Pollock was so electrified when he first saw it in a New York gallery that, after overhearing someone being less than complimentary, he offered to fight him outside.

The painting was, The Museum of Modern Art told its audience in 1939, “an artist’s revenge” for the bombing of Gernika. By the end of the Second World War, criticised for housing what many claimed was a ‘Communist-inspired painting’, the museum changed its tune, insisting instead the painting wasn’t political, but merely expressed the artist’s “hatred of war and brutality”. So began Guernica’s mutation into the universal symbol of the suffering of the innocent in wartime it has become today.

Although Picasso was clear the painting belonged to the Spanish people, he remained adamant it must not be exhibited there until civil liberties were restored. He died in 1973; his old enemy General Franco two years later. Guernica finally landed in Madrid in 1981, initially exhibited behind bomb and bulletproof glass, its location as politically charged as it had been ever since it was first painted. The town of Gernika offered to construct a purpose-built museum to house it and Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao was designed including a space to accommodate it, but it seems its current home at the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid will be its last. As a Basque spokesman succinctly put it in the 1990s, “We gave up the bodies and they got the painting.” In 1937, Guernica was a warning of the consequences of not standing up to the rising tide of fascism; it is a warning we would be wise to heed today.

Guernica: Painting the End of the World by James Attlee is out now (Head of Zeus, £18.99)