Book Prologue
  Author Interview
  Snapshots & Sounds
  About the Author
  Discussion Guide
  News & Reviews

Chapter Excerpts

The Spanish Dead

Remembering the Bullring

Images Spilling From Fingers

Save Spain!

A Wearable Pair of Boots


The Last Refugee

Guernica in Gernika
It was an enormous canvas, so large that Picasso needed a ladder and brushes strapped to sticks in order to paint its heights, a canvas so grand that he had little doubt of its ability to captivate the citizens of the world who would see it exhibited beside the Seine in only a few weeks' time. Working from the ladder when he needed to, and sometimes on his knees, the artist began to paint on May 11, 1937, and he did so with a hot and focused intensity that was unusually keen even for him. He was determined to transform the vacant canvas into a monumental mural that would disturb and shock its viewers, alerting them to the horror that had occurred in a town in Spain a fortnight before, and reminding them as well that people similarly suffered unimaginable terror in every place and time.

Four months before, in the gray trough of the Parisian winter, Pablo Ruiz Picasso, at age 56 already widely considered the world's foremost living painter, had been visited at his home and studio in the rue la Boétie by a delegation that included Max Aub, cultural delegate of the Spanish embassy in Paris, and Catalan architect Josep Lluis Sert, who recently had completed his design for the Spanish pavilion that would be part of the much-heralded world's fair scheduled to open in Paris in May. The men hoped to convince the artistwhose acquiescence they knew they by no means could count onto paint something bold and arresting specifically for the pavilion, an important canvas that would lend the modest building a cachet it otherwise would not have. As part of their effort to persuade him, the visitors suggested that the painting would remind the world that Picasso was a son of Spain, and that he, like every true patriot, abhorred the rebellion by members of the Spanish military that had thrown the country into civil war six months before and that by now very seriously threatened the survival of the nation's nascent democracy.

Picasso listened, but was filled with misgivings: he had never created a painting as large as the one Sert hoped would fill a focal wall in the pavilion's courtyard; he disliked the notion of being commissioned to create an artwork; and despite his strong support for the embattled Spanish Republic, the mural necessarily would be something of an overt piece of propagandaand the great Picasso was not a poster artist, after all. By the time his fellow Spaniards departed, the artist had gone as far as to assure them of his ongoing devotion to the cause of the republic, and that he would certainly like to be of assistance, but he had not specifically agreed to take up the mural project. He did promise his visitors he would give great thought to possible subjects for the mural, and he had continued to think but do nothing more until news reports reached Paris on April 27 that a town in northern Spain had been destroyed the day before by bombers of the Nazi Condor Legion acting under the orders of Spain's insurgent generals. According to rapidly mounting radio and newspaper reports, the town of Gernikaas its name is spelled in Basque, pronounced Gair-KNEE-kuhhad been attacked during the busiest hours of a regional market day, and the slaughter of civilians and the destruction of homes, schools, businesses, and churches had been its only brutal goal. Picasso, like people throughout Europe and the rest of the world, responded to the news with immediate outrage, and at last he knew he had no choice but to go to war himselfto create the mural in both bold support for the Spanish Republic and in fierce opposition to the fascist tide that was engulfing his beloved homeland.

On May Day, more than a million Parisians marched along the historic route between the Place de la République and the Bastille in the largest workers' parade in the city's history, the impassioned participants shouting their abhorrence of the bombing and pleas for aid to both its victims and Spain's republican government. And on that day as well, Pablo Picasso executed the first six of what ultimately would be five dozen sketches and drawings in preparation for the mural, a painting his huge anger now compelled him to commence. During the months since he had been asked to consider taking on the Spanish pavilion project, he imagined that a fitting subject for the mural might well be a painter at work in his studio, but now that decidedly self-absorbed theme demanded to be replaced by another. As he explained in a public statement issued a few days later, one that defined his position on the war more explicitly than ever before, "in the picture I am now working on and that I will call Guernica, and in all my recent work, I clearly express my loathing for the military caste that has plunged Spain into a sea of suffering and death."

Before he put his wet brushes into turpentine in the early evening of May 11, the celebrated painter already had worked so long and with such dispatch that he had filled the whole of the 3.5- by 7.75-meter canvas (11'6" high by 25'8" long) with line drawings of the many images he had been working out on paper during the preceding days. The painting he would call Guernica (as the name is spelled in both Spanish and French) already had begun to take tentative shape, and the often-uncomfortably intersecting realms of politics and artand of human misery and aspirationnever would be the same again.

Although I stood in front of the painting for the first time only in middle age, I came to know something about Guernicaand it began to matter immensely to mewhen I was still a boy, one who had traveled a third of the way round the world to live in Spain for a year. The time was 1968. The painting by then had long been resident in New York City, and the people of Spain continued to live under the cruel and despotic control of "Generalissimo" Francisco Franco, the diminutive but boldly defiant leader of the military revolt that had thrust Spain into civil war more than three decades before. The whole of the planet appeared to have lost its ethical moorings in that year of assassinations, cancerous foreign wars, and bitter demonstrations; and as it had for millions of young people throughout the world, the painting might have seemed to me more immediately emblematic of the violence then being visited on the citizens of Vietnam than an event that took place in a town in the Basque region of Spain half a lifetime before. But because I discovered Guernica  in totalitarian Spain, and because an extraordinary teacher in Barcelona had introduced the painting to his American students solely in the context of the terrible war he had observed as a boy, Guernica  initially for me was more fundamentally an historical accounting, a terrifyingly vivid depiction of a singular and awful event, than a universalized symbol of the horrors of war. Angel Vilalta, a young, vibrant Spanish art and culture professor, wanted his American students to get to know "el Guernica" only after he first brought the tragedies of the Spanish Civil War to troubling life for us and ensured that the bombing of town of Gernika was something we would viscerally apprehend. Picasso's Guernica was a report from the front lines of that war, first of all, and it spoke insistent truths to Señor Vilalta and subsequently to us. He made us understand the stark reality that fascism remained alive and wellin Spain at leastin the late 1960s, yet also that Picasso's by-then long-acknowledged masterpiece was proof that art sometimes can transfigure catastrophe, and he eloquently voiced his conviction as well that his country's art and literature mattered far more than its politics in the end.

I had not seen Angel Vilalta, now 75, in the three decades since I watched him recede from view on a platform at Barcelona's Estación de Francia on a bright June day in 1969, twenty-five of us American high-schoolers bound for Le Havre and a ship that would return us home to the United States nine days later. When I returned to Spain at long last in September 2001 to view the remarkable painting and investigate its history, I also wanted to pay a kind of homage to him and his vital mentoring of so many young Americans. Angel's eyes often danced during our three-day reunion as he repeatedly spoke of the miracle that had occurred in Spain since I had waved goodbye to himSpain becoming open and democratic and its citizens blessedly free without first having to suffer the bloodshed that had seemed inevitable back when an elderly Franco still ruled with the fiercest of iron hands. I listened carefully as he explained that throughout the decades that had followed Franco's death, the painting had been both a reminder of his country's tragic past as well as a potent symbol of the fact that Spaniards now were shaping a society that in many ways was utterly new. And as Angel described how the jubilant public response to the painting's arrival in Spain in 1981 at last had expiated a wide sea of political sins, it was clear to me that he had been right long ago when assured us that art matters enormously.

I became reacquainted on that trip with the soft light and many scents of Barcelona, the Mediterranean city in which Picasso had been a boy and young man, and which he always longed to return to; I saw once again the rugged, green, and forested Basque country that Angel first had introduced me to, the small region on the Bay of Biscay whose proud and self-protective people long have harbored democracy. I spent days in small but vital Gernika, rebuilt entirely since the dark afternoon in 1937 when German bombers screamed out of the sky and reduced the town to ash; and there were days as well in nearby Bilbao, where the Museo Guggenheim Bilbao, one of the world's most extraordinary buildings, sits beside the Rio Nervión like a dry-docked and shimmering ship, waiting, so far in vain, for the time when it will take Guernica on board, the painting at last drawing very near the place whose unfortunate fate gave it birth.

And on September 11, 2001, at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia in Madrid, at last I was standing in front of the much-traveled canvas, three decades after Angel first had described it to me, whenacross the Atlanticthe city of New York fell under an utterly new kind of attack, yet one that also eerily echoed the April attack on Gernika sixty-four years before. In both instances, the targets were symbolic; the aim of both attacks was to incite terror from out of the otherwise sheltering sky, and to destroy thousands of people who had no inkling of their supposed crimes. In New York, as had happened long ago in Gernika, barbarity and utter senselessness had taken hold. And similarly, it would fall to timeand to artit seemed, to fashion meaning out of unimaginable evil, once more to offer hope.

I looked at Guernica for a long time on that warm September afternoon, joined by thousands of people who had come to Madrid from every part of the world to spend a bit of time in the presence of what is widely regarded as the most important artwork of the twentieth century, none of us aware as we stood across from the brutal, horrific, yet somehow mesmerizing images of Picasso's war, that in those same moments the twenty-first century had been forced forever onto a new tack, that once moreas had happened in little Gernikahumans had transformed themselves into demons, and other humans suddenly searched for reasons why.

Excerpted from Picasso's War by Russell Martin, Copyright© 2002 by Russell Martin. Excerpted by permission of Dutton, a division of Penguin Putnam, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.