What drew you to the subject of Guernica?
I was introduced to Guernica and the town of Gernika many years ago by a remarkable teacher, Angel Vilalta, who taught Spanish language and culture in the School Year Abroad program in Barcelona. I was sixteen when he introduced me to the horrors and the huge tragedy of the Spanish Civil War, and to the unconscionable attack on the Basque town by the Condor Legion of the German Luftwaffe, which was the first time in modern warfare that a target had been destroyed solely for symbolic reasons and a civilian population attacked from the air. The bombing of Gernika immediately outraged people around the world, and it still stung Spaniards deeply in 1968, when Angel described it to me and a group of American students. But he also wanted us to understand that sometimes tragedy can be transfigured, and that it is often art that performs that kind of alchemy. He understood that Picasso's great muralwhich he began to paint only days after the attackhad become a powerful international expression of the ruin of war, as well as, quite profoundly, a symbol in Spain of opposition to Francisco Franco's dictatorial rule, and the hope that Spain would one day be free.
Why did you wait so long to write about the subject?
It's hard to know. I do believe that writers often subconsciously reserve important themes and come to them at times in their lives when they feel best suited to take them on, and somehow for me, this was the right time for this subject. Perhaps I'm finally old enoughmore than 30 years laterto perceive complexities and subtleties in the story that would have eluded me before. It was deeply moving as well to have been viewing Guernica in Madrid on September 11, 2001 when New York and Washington were attacked.
Do you see similarities in what occurred on September 11 and the destruction of Gernika 74 years before?
People in Spain immediately began to draw my attention to the similarities between the terrorist action in the U.S. and the bombing of Gernika. In both cases, the attacks represented the use of an utterly new kind of warfare; in both cases the destruction was meant to instill terror in a civilian population, and in both, the targets were chosen for their symbolic rather than strategic or tactical importance. I'm certain too that the brutality of September 11 will remain in our collective memory for many years, just as the destruction of Gernika has for more than six decades.
Why the difference in the spelling and pronunciations of Guernica and "Gernika"?
Gernika, pronounced Gair-KNEE-kuh, is the Basque spelling. In both Spanish and French the pronunciation is the same but the spelling is "Guernica." In English speaking countries it's common to hear the word pronounced GWAIR-ni-ka.
Was Picasso familiar with the town? Is that why he was so outraged by what happened there?
He never visited Gernika, either before it was destroyed or in the years after it was rebuilt. He, like hundreds of Spanish expatriates in Paris, paid close attention to the war that was devastating his homeland. He despised General Francisco Franco, who led the rebellion against the democratic Republican government, and he was horrified that the rest of the democratic world did not oppose the entrance of the fascist governments of Germany and Italy into the Spanish conflict. When Picasso first learned of the attack a day after it occurred, already it was clear that it had been carried out by the powerful German air force.
The painting doesn't contain images of airplanes or bombs or symbolic means of identifying the setting as a Basque town. Why is that?
Picasso explained over the years that he chose instead images that to him were profoundly Spanishremember that he had never visited the Basque country, and that he was deeply concerned about what was happening to all of Spain. The images he did invokethe horse, the bull, the tiled roofs, and the weeping womenwere all images he had employed before. They had assumed symbolic meaning for him long before he included them in his great mural filled with so much terror and despair.
Why did he choose to paint only in black, white, and gray?
Picasso long had been interested in monochromatic palettes, but in this case he probably also believed that the liveliness of other colors would be inappropriate to the subject. He did experiment early in the painting's creation with the inclusion of a bit of color in pieces of wallpaper with red tones applied with glue to the canvas. And he also experimented with a red fabric tear that fell from the eyes of several of the figures, but in the end he returned to the more somber palette. Also, the photographs he saw in newspapers of the actual destruction of Gernika were printed in black-and-white, and they may well have visually influenced his decisions. In a good-quality reproduction of the paintingor as you view it in personyou become aware of subtle greens and blues in the painting, as well as cool brown tones that make the painting seem both stark and humane.
How long did it take Picasso to complete the painting?
He began sketching on May 1, 1937, less than a week after Gernika was attacked, and worked constantly for more than a month. By June 6, the completed
canvas was ready to be seen by a group of friends and colleagues, who were astonished by its sizemore than eleven-feet tall and twenty-two-feet wideand
dramatic content, as well as the speed with which it had been created.
What was the initial reaction to the painting when it was displayed at the 1937 Paris world's fair?
People who were partisans of the Republican cause in Spain were deeply moved by it. But others were confused by it, even repelled. The French architect Le Corbusier, who had played a key role in the design and creation of the world's fair, groused that Guernica had no place in an exposition ostensibly devoted to the wonders of modern technology.
When did the painting begin to be seen as something of a masterpiece?
That word was first used to describe Guernica as early as 1938, when the painting traveled to England following exhibitions in Scandinavia. By the time the painting reached New York in 1939, it was already discussed as much in the context of its artistic meritsor lack thereofthan in its propagandistic response to a singular event in the Spanish Civil War. When World War II commenced in Europe, Picasso lent the painting to New York's Museum of Modern Art for safekeeping, a tenure that would last more than forty years, and one that would cement Guernica's reputation as one of the most important artworks of the century.
Was it clear in those years who actually owned Guernica?
Long before he died in 1973, Picasso made it clear that he had been paid for the mural by the Spanish Republican government and that he therefore believed it belonged to the people of a democratic Spain. But he stipulated that the painting could not go to Spain until at last democracy and freedom were restored there.
Why was that process so slowgiven that democratic reforms began soon after Franco's death in 1975?
For many years, Picasso presumed that he would personally make that decision. Then, just prior to his death, he passed this responsibility to his lawyer in Paris. The lawyer was charged with deciding when Spain had become democratic enough to receive the painting, and he took a very cautious approach to making that determination. And officials at MOMA in New Yorkwho were understandably reluctant to lose their most famous paintingargued, incorrectly, that Picasso had insisted that a true republic had to be reinstated before Guernica could go to Spain. MOMA officials contended that the new democratic constitutional monarchy did not meet Picasso's requirements. It was a hair-splitting argument that I believe was meant to justify holding onto the painting as long as possible. Both the Spanish and American congresses passed resolutions urging MOMA to surrender the painting before at last it did so.
How was Guernica received in Spain in 1981?
The national newspaper El Pais headlined the event THE WAR HAS ENDED, because it was apparent that only with Guernica's arrival in newly democratic Spain were the pain and tumult and tragedy of the civil war finally and forever laid to rest. The painting was initially placed behind bullet-proof glass, and guards bearing machine-guns stood at its flanks to ensure its safety, but in the two decades since its arrival in Madrid, there has not been a single incident of vandalism or a threat to the security of the painting. Guernica is now housed at the Centro de Arte Reina Sofía and receives virtually no special protection. So many peoplefrom Spain and from around the world as wellcome specifically to see Guernica each day that the Reina Sofía now annually receives more visitors than does the Museo del Prado.
Why do people in the Basque country remain angry about Guernica's fate?
Many Basques believe that the painting rightly belongs at the new Guggenheim Bilbao, which is only about twenty miles from the town of Gernika, the town whose suffering was the painting's genesis, after all. Guggenheim officials themselves doubt that a permanent move is possible, but they hold out hope that the painting one day can be exhibited temporarily in Bilbao as a symbolic unifying act. Government cultural officials in Madrid contend that the painting is too fragile to be moved, but they initiated a move themselves in 1989 when Guernica traveled the few blocks between the Prado and the Reina Sofía. With the kind of conservation and protection the painting could be provided by a museum like the Guggenheim, the ongoing appeal by the Basque government for a temporary exhibition of the painting in Bilbao might eventually be heard in Madrid. I suspect that if the painting were exhibited there, even briefly, its presence would heal wounds for Basques and Spaniards everywhere in much the same way that the painting's arrival from New York did two decades ago.