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The Painting, Guernica

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October 27, 2004

On April 27, 1937, Adolf Hilter’s air force bombed the Basque village of Guernica for target practice. It was a market day. Approximately 1,654 people were murdered and 889 injured.

On May Day, 1937, Parisian newspapers broke the story. Pablo Picasso, who was living in Paris at the time, was overwhelmed by images of the slaughter. He immediately began work on his infamous mural, Guernica. Three months later, it debuted at the Spanish Pavilion of the Paris World Fair.

The following is excerpted from Julián Ríos’s book Kitaj: Pictures and Conversations:

Each epoch usually has its own Apocalypse. Ours is called Guernica. This painting of chaos is in a way a time bomb. It exploded, and unfortunately continues to explode, our time. This grey printed matter that will never be reproduced enough is the stamp of a stampede. And of a stampede in the slaughterhouse of History. Our collective unconscious with its archetypes, the ‘nightmare’ of History with its disasters and sordid absurdities, the slaughter of the innocents in a black painting, and besides—because Guernica is above all an artistic production—a large part of modern art history, are condensed in a powder flash. A fusion-fission of antagonistic styles. It is precisely this war of forms that allows the painting to articulate the tearing cry of its contents.

The epic and ethical dimension of the great Picasso painting—a moral painting—demands the viewer’s aesthetical participation: an ethical attitude.

And we see this painting as the animals trapped in the war of Guernica would. War irrationalizes man. He can suffer or inflict war but he will never manage truly to understand it. All animals in the same slaughterhouse. The war of Guernica. ‘Dans Guernica il y a guerre…’ It is not impossible that the guerre camouflaged in the French pronunciation of Guernica would resound, even unconsciously, in the ears of a painter settled in France for more than thirty years. What’s in a name? Obviously, the memory of the Basque town destroyed by the bombers of Franco and Hitler. But after this bombing in reality there will no longer be any local wars or civil wars. And this is reflected prophetically in the great painting-mirror of Picasso. The war of Guernica is the war of all of us.

Julián Ríos

Kitaj: Pictures and Conversations

Moyer Bell, 1997

Reprinted with permission of the author

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Julián Ríos was born in Galicia, Spain. He attended university in Madrid and has lived in London, Berlin, Strasbourg, and Paris. He is on the editorial boards of a number of magazines, contributes to journals in various countries, and has edited several fiction and essay series. His books include Larva, Loves that Bind, Poundemonium, and Monstruary.

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