My Travel Book - In Search of "Guernica" in Gernika-Lumo (Euskadi_Basque Country), Spain

I do have to confess that Picasso is not my favorite painter, for many reasons which are not relevant here so I won’t expatiate upon my artistic crazes...

But there is no doubt about one point though. Whenever I plan a trip to Madrid, I make sure I’ll spend a few hours at Museo Reina Sofia. Why? Because there is a painting there that always takes my breath away. Such a violent feel actually. But I have to come back and come back again.

This painting is called “Guernica”. You have heard about it, no doubt but maybe you have never seen it in reality.

The painting is huge (7,87m wide and 3,50m high). Black and white and grey. Like a photograph actually. And it depicts something that is most unbearable and unfortunately quite endless. The horrors of war.

Many painters and artists have depicted wars but as far as I am concerned, no work has ever been as timeless as this one. No work has ever expressed so well human tragedy, unspeakable suffering and death of innocent civilians. No other work is such an absolute manifesto against war.

And yet it also depicts a true event in the style of Pablo Picasso.

In January 1937, Picasso who was living and working in Paris was asked by the Republican government of Spain to paint a mural for the International Exposition in Paris. Spain was then in the throes of a Civil War which had started six months before when the army had rebelled against the government. The painting was to express the scourge of civil war.

Rumor has it that at the time, Picasso did not really know what he’d be painting...

He then read George Speer’s eyewitness account of the bombing of a Basque small town called Guernica which was published in The Times and The New York Times two days after the destruction of the village (April 26, 1937).

And Picasso set to work immediately, actually one week after the bombing, four months after he had been commissioned and three weeks before the official opening of the “Exposition Internationale”.

(If you ever go to the Reina Sofia, don’t forget to look at all the drawings and the preparatory works for the mural. Picasso did not start painting outright. There was a lot of preparation involved besides the fact that this painting would somehow be the summary and the peak of Picasso’s thirty years of previous work.)

So there we are. “Guernica”. Looking more or less like a huge black and white picture from a newspaper...

But what happened in Gernika (its Basque name) on the 26th of April, 1937?

Gernika was and still is a small town in the Basque Country (Euskadi) in Northern Spain. In 1937, the whole region played a very important part in the fight against the rebels (also called the Nationalists) led by Franco. And Gernika is historically the seat of the parliament of the province of Biscay.

It may sound a little bit complicated but in 1937, Franco wanted to overthrow the Basque government and the Spanish Republican government as well... Hence what is now called the Spanish Civil War... when a lawfully elected socialist government in Europe was to be destroyed along with its supporters by a rebellious army essentially led by a general called Francisco Franco.

This Civil War was also to become the testing ground for the new hawkish Nazi German army which was called in by Franco for help (along with the Fascist Italian army).

On April 26, 1937 which was market day in Gernika (then crammed full with neighboring villagers too), the Condor Legion of Nazi Germany’s Luftwaffe bombed the village... The bombing and shooting lasted for several hours and the small town was almost completely wiped out.

No one will ever know how many people died or were wounded that day. Some say 300. Others, 1700... plus hundreds of wounded who ended up in Bilbao.

No matter what the numbers really were. That day, innocent civilians were bombed and gunned down and killed and maimed, inaugurating some deadly and very dark times for years and centuries to come, from 1937 until this very day and the days to come, I am afraid.

Last Sunday, we were driving from San Sebastian on our way to Bilbao when we decided on the spur of the moment to stop at Gernika. Gernika-Lumo as it is called now.

Well, this year has been the 69th anniversary of the Oradour-sur-Glane massacre where almost all the villagers were shot and burned by SS soldiers on their way to Normandy... This happened in France. 642 people. Men, women, children and babies. Ouradour-sur-Glane was never rebuilt. The burned-out ruins and objects have been preserved ever since. Our duty to remember the wantonness of barbarity.

Honestly I don’t know what we expected to find in Gernika. Maybe some “ruins” set up as a memorial? 76 years later?

The "village" looks so modern. 

There are a few “surviving” buildings... The school and a couple of churches besides very, very few ancient buildings... 

A ceramic mural that looks so incongruous. One very shrunken version of Picasso’s “Guernica”... It says: “‘Guernica’ Gernikara” which means "The Guernica (painting) to Gernika."

We went to the graveyard. There is a monument there that is supposed to be some kind of a grave for all the dead on that fateful 26 of April, 1937.  No names. The date. And “Pax” written on a stele...

There is one bell, supposedly the one that tolled the minute the planes got there.

There is also a very new plate with the names of the men from the village who died in camps before and after Franco won the war.

And then, there is the Peace Memorial. Yes, there is a Peace Park and a Peace Memorial with two sculptures. “Gure Aitaren Etxea” (1988) by Basque sculptor Eduardo Chillida and “Large Figure in a Shelter” (1992) by British sculptor Henry Moore. These sculptures are symbolic of Gernika-Lumo as a city of peace.

"Gure Aitaren Etxea" by Eduardo Chillida
"Large Figure in a Shelter" by Henry Moore

Because Gernika has chosen to represent “Peace” instead of “Memory” or “Revenge”. Well, I am not really for “Revenge” either especially since this war was a Civil War.

But because I am French and because I grew up with the children of those Republican families who more or less survived only because they had fled their country after Franco’s victory, I think I was expecting a little more “Memory” in Gernika.

There may be a very simple explanation though... Franco won the Civil War and established dictatorship over Spain from April 1, 1939 until his death, in November 20? 1975.

Memories had to be suppressed, especially the ones where his opponents had been so willfully killed and destroyed.

And then time went by. Omertà ruled at least in Spain while Franco was still ruling. And grief became dull I suppose...

And Gernika became the world center for peace. Which is hard for me to accept but quite easy to reason out.

The thing is... how do you survive after living through this kind of hell without any recognition... from 1937 till 1975?

I really don’t have any answer to this question. Is “Guernica” an answer?
Well, I don’t think so. It is too intellectually apocalyptic, isn’t it?


Picasso had “Guernica” sent to the United States where it was exhibited in New York’s MoMA until Franco’s death. Well this is a very short summary...

MoMA finally gave back “Guernica” to Spain after the King Juan Carlos transformed Franco’s dictatorship into a democratic constitutional monarchy.

I remember first seeing “Guernica” in 1984 at the “Casón del Buen Retiro” which is an annex to El Prado Museum. It was protected with bullet-proof glass and machine guns! Quite an experience!

In 1992, it was moved to a special gallery at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia... in a much friendlier environment.)

*Good Luck, and Good Night*

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