Picasso's Guernica as symbol of the peace movement

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Seventy-five years ago Nazi warplanes -- aligned with Franco's Nationalists -- bombed and destroyed the Basque town of Guernica. In response, the Spanish Republican government asked Pablo Picasso to commemorate the tragedy via a mural to be exhibited at the 1937 World's Fair in Paris. The large painting, the most memorable of the century, 11 feet and 6 inches by 28 feet and 8 inches, depicted the violence of the German bombardment. The attack was all the more terrifying because it demonstrated the existential significance of aerial barrage: all civilian populations would now potentially have to live in a state of emergency.

The painting's images are enigmatic, anguished and ingeniously cohesive in the experience that they provide the observer. There are nine figures, most unaware of each other: a wailing woman holding a dead infant, a dismembered statue of a soldier clutching a broken sword with flowers around the handle, a shrieking pigeon on a table, a gored horse curiously made of newsprint, a woman swooping in from above carrying a torch that contrasts with an obtrusive light bulb attached to the ceiling, a woman swooping in from below with her hands outstretched, a woman caught in mid-air framed by fire, and an unfathomable triumphant bull. All of the figures, except the child, are open-mouthed. The setting is simultaneously both indoors and outdoors and is coloured only by white, shadow and black. The combination of elements gives the painting a stark, theatrical quality as if its characters were passing forms, puppets on a stage, playing roles not only in a historical event, but also in a grander, unresolved supernatural one.

The mural helped bring the Spanish Civil War -- one of the left's noblest moments -- to world attention. The work was toured throughout parts of Europe and the United States. Picasso stipulated that the painting should not be brought to Spain until the country adapted democratic institutions, thus between 1939 and 1981 the picture was housed at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. It now rests behind bulletproof glass, guarded by soldiers, at the Museo Reina Sofía in Madrid.

This work of art has become a well-known symbol of the peace movement, with vigils held in front of it during it the Vietnam War and with press conferences not held in front of it during the run-up to the war on Iraq. There is a copy of the painting at the entrance to the Security Council room at the United Nations building in New York. The Bush Administration compelled UN administrators in 2003 to place a curtain in front of the tapestry while Colin Powell and other U.S. spokespersons made their case for military action against the Middle Eastern country. Shrouded or not, original or copy, the painting continues to inspire activists and to haunt those who choose militarism as their legacy.

While Guernica is safely housed in Madrid, a diversity of Picasso's works, part of an international tour that is making only one stop in Canada, are now on display at the Art Gallery of Ontario. They are well worth seeing; among other things, they demonstrate the development of the techniques and the themes that would eventually enable the superlative artist to produce the century's greatest aesthetic condemnation of war.

Thomas Ponniah was a Lecturer on Social Studies and Assistant Director of Studies at Harvard University from 2003-2011. He remains an affiliate of Harvard's David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies and an Associate of the Department of African and African-American Studies.

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