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Pablo Picasso – Guernica

government pardon
by lisby1

Article by Robert Pitts

On April 26, 1937, in the midst of the Spanish Civil War, twenty-eight bombers from Nazi Germany, in support of the Fascist forces led by Generalissimo Francisco Franco, bombed Guernica, a Basque village in northern Spain, killing or wounding 1,600 men, women and children. Just fifteen days later Pablo Picasso, inspired by the bombing, began work on a large mural commissioned by the Spanish government for the country’s display at the Paris International Exposition in 1937. Upon completion, the painting, Guernica, was displayed around the world, garnering wide acclaim. More importantly, it brought the Spanish Civil War into the international spotlight.

World Tour

Guernica’s tour began in the Scandinavian capitals, followed by London, where it arrived on September 30, 1938, the same day the Munich Agreement, which permitted Germany to annex Czechoslovakia’s Sudetenland, was signed by the leaders of the United Kingdom, France, Italy, and Germany. It then returned, briefly, to Paris, before making its way to the United States. There, it was used to raise funds and support for Spanish refugees, following the victory of Franco in Spain.

While in the United States, Guernica was entrusted to the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, at the request of Picasso. Six weeks after the Nazi invasion of Poland, a Picasso retrospective opened at the museum, with Guernica as its centerpiece.

For the next thirteen years, between 1939 and 1952, the painting traveled extensively throughout the United States, followed by stops in Brazil, Milan, and a number of major European cities. The well-traveled piece then returned to the Museum of Modern Art for a retrospective celebrating Picasso’s seventy-fifth birthday, before getting back on the road for stops in Chicago and Philadelphia.

Eventually, concern for the painting’s safety led to the decision to keep it permanently housed at the Museum of Modern Art. It was placed in a room on the third floor, along with a number of Picasso’s preliminary studies and some of Dora Maar’s photographs. And there it would remain until 1981.

Unlikely Symbol of Peace and Freedom

While living in Nazi-occupied Paris during World War II, Picasso suffered harassment from the Gestapo. One officer allegedly asked him, upon seeing a photo of Guernica in his apartment, “Did you do that?” Picasso responded, “No, you did.”

During the Vietnam War, mostly peaceful anti-war vigils were sometimes held in the room containing the painting. But in 1974, ostensibly protesting Richard Nixon’s pardon of William Calley for his involvement in the My Lai massacre, Tony Shafrazi sprayed the words “KILL LIES ALL” in red paint on the painting. Fortunately, the paint was easily removed from Guernica’s varnished surface.

In Spain, during the 1970s, the painting was used as a symbol of the end of Franco’s regime. It also became a symbol of Basque nationalism, with the Basque left repeatedly using imagery from the picture.

Return to Spain

In 1968 Franco expressed his desire to have Guernica returned to Spain, but Picasso refused. He would only allow the painting’s return when the Spanish people were again able to enjoy a republic. Other conditions, including the restoration of public liberties and democratic institutions, were added later.

Franco died in 1975, just two years after Picasso’s death. Following Franco’s death, Spain was transformed into a democratic constitutional monarchy, ratified by a new constitution in 1978. The Museum of Modern Art, however, refused to give up one of their greatest treasures, arguing that a constitutional monarchy did not represent the republic envisioned by Picasso and stipulated in his will as a condition of the painting’s return. But the Museum eventually bowed to international pressure, returning Guernica to Spain in 1981.

About the Author

I have a passion for studying the history of western art, and its numerous influences. My own drawings and paintings have been profoundly influenced over the years by the artists that came before me, as well as a number of talented artists still living today. Visit me at

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