Friday, 28 April 2017

Picasso and the meaning of Guernica

Robin Blake after his talk / Picasso painting

When Pablo Picasso visited Italy in 1917 he went to the Sistine Chapel. Once there he admired the Raphaels: 'Good, very good,' he observed, 'but it can be done, don’t you think?' Turning to Michelangelo’s Last Judgement, he paused: 'Now this is more difficult.' Out of the astonishing 15,000 paintings Picasso produced during his lifetime, Guernica is the most powerful and well known. It is also, like Michelangelo’s Last Judgement, a work whose sheer size is part of its potency. Robin Blake started the spring season of cultural talks at the British Institute of Florence with a brilliant lecture on the painting, movingly on the same day (26 April) as that terrible massacre of the Basque town of Guernica all those years ago.

Blake began by transporting us back to the 1937 International Exhibition in Paris for which the piece was commissioned, a world of grand gestures where the Spanish Pavilion – with a beautiful statue by Alberto Sanchez,‘The Spanish People Have a Path that Leads to a Star’ – sat right next to the Nazi one. This was a time when Spanish republican art was still vibrant, and the chance to exhibit at the Biennale was an honour.

Since Picasso is quite unlike his Spanish contemporaries, Blake compares him to the Paris Surrealists with whom he worked, whose aim was to invite the viewer to be puzzled. Blake defines Picasso’s skill as one that manages to capture ‘the meeting place between the private and the mythic’. He was a master of balance, depicting, as Blake poetically puts it, ‘The harlequin and the whore / the matador and the minotaur'.

Robin Blake speaking in the Harold Acton Library 

What Picasso was able to depict in Guernica is not defiant heroism – but a fall from this: a tragedy. The job of tragedy for Picasso was to provoke fear and pity and to hold them in equilibrium. Looking back through his work, it’s clear that for Guernica he drew strongly on the bullfights of his homeland. The suffering picador’s horse is an image that tortured Picasso from a young age. ‘He saw the horse as an innocent,’ Blake notes: after all a bullfight ‘is not the horse’s fight’. What Picasso saw in the horse was pity, and with this pity he evoked fear, bringing a greater conception of tragedy to the tradition of the Spanish people. Although Picasso experimented greatly in the 1920s and 1930s, it’s possible to see an abiding theme in the horse as prey to the rampant bull. The innocent tragic figure, however distorted, pervades his work.

Blake showed us how it was this repetition of tragedy and horror, the subconscious themes of his earlier work, that Picasso drew on for Guernica. The painting is 'grounded in reality and emotion', and also 'particularly rooted in its time and place'. Through the drafts of the painting it is possible to understand the movements of Picasso’s vision and its evolution. Following the news of the bombing of April 1937 Picasso abandoned his original idea of depicting the artist’s studio for the commission, choosing instead to tackle the devastation of war head on.

Over several days he created a series of sketches; then he stretched a huge canvas and got down to work. Although he didn’t like studio assistants, his lover Dora Marr produced a series of photographs recording the stages through which the canvas developed: the tangle of bodies that appears at the feet of the horse and the bull, the sudden additions, as flames appear, then the sun. What becomes evident is that he was still working out what he was trying to do as he went along. The process of completion was a process of understanding. 

What Marr’s images also show are Picasso’s whims: at one point, very late in the process, he experiments with collage, but then rapidly discards the idea. Dora even helped adorn the central horse. Change is constant. The sun suddenly becomes a light bulb; a lamp takes the same shape as those lamps held by the concrete statues that Picasso originally intended to bracket the canvas in the pavilion. Studies of the mother and child characters develop in isolation. At one point the mother climbs a ladder clutching her child – one of Picasso’s only coloured sketches for Guernica to survive. The revolutionary fists that appear in so many of the first outlines as a central motif fade into the chaos. Violent defiance and hope through pain is eventually abandoned as pity and fear take over. Picasso comes to realise he doesn’t need revolutionary fists in order to create something truly revolutionary!

When it was finally completed the piece was ‘mind-bogglingly large’, roughly 8 by 4 metres. The canvas was rolled, wrapped, and taken to Paris. Initially it wasn’t well received: with no sickle and no promise of victory it hardly depicted the socialist-realist vision of defiance that many were hoping for. However, in a few years what had once been a local disaster was becoming a wider phenomenon: as world war broke out many cities were bombed and Guernica was on tour. Eventually it settled in MOMA in New York, where it stayed for more than thirty years, and finally gained the reputation it deserved as a great statement of pacifism and of powerful anti-war sentiment.

Half of the joy of talks like this is the proximity of speaker to audience. What would normally be a didactic process becomes one of collaboration. When Blake opened up to the floor, asking the audience what Guernica meant to them, there were some impressive answers. One person noted the importance of an isosceles triangle that structurally held the painting together, and how it gained from this. Another recalled visiting the painting the day after 9/11 and how its potency gained new and stirring connotations. Dubbed one of the most important paintings of war in the twentieth century, what is most striking about Guernica is how its meaning is far from fixed. If anything this talk confirmed that part of Guernica’s incredible sway over its viewer is its ability to constantly garner new meanings. One can’t help but feel that like Picasso’s changing sketches, the significance and meaning of Guernica is still evolving in our own troubled times. 

For more information about the cultural programme at The British Institute of Florence visit the programme here

Interestingly in Naples there is currently an exhibition called Picasso-Parade featuring Picasso’s work from his Italian journey in 1917. After this talk I’m certainly thinking of hopping on the train to pay his work a visit!