It takes a bold author to open his book about ‘Guernica’ with a quotation from the Spanish artist Antonio Saura lamenting ‘the number of bad books that have been written and will be written’ about it. Fortunately, James Attlee’s study of Picasso’s superstar work of art is not a bad book and he builds on a solid cultural and historic understanding of the painting to collate 80 years of evolving reaction to it.
Attlee begins in May 1937, when, at the height of the Spanish Civil War, the Spanish Republic commissioned Picasso to create a painting for its pavilion at the World’s Fair in Paris. They hoped the famous artist would help secure sympathy, funds and, significantly, political intervention in the Republican cause. Picasso initially struggled to find a subject, but was eventually galvanised by reports of the Nationalist-led Luftwaffe’s Blitzkrieg assault on the undefended Basque town of Gernika.
His response to the attack was completed within a month and soon took its place within the Republic’s pavilion, designed by the Catalan architect José Lluís Sert. The initial reception was mixed. Many on the left found it too cubist, insufficiently realist for the proletariat to understand. The Basque artist José María Ucelay saw it as nothing more than ‘pornography, shitting on Gernika’, and Attlee draws valid comparisons with some of the more popular and accessible works in the exhibition.
Nearby stood the Vatican pavilion, hosting work from the rival Catholic Nationalist regime; Paris had effectively become a cultural front of the Guerra Civil. Attlee notes the inclusion of the great muralist José María Sert in the Nationalist camp but not that he was the uncle of Sert, the Republican architect. It is an interesting connection and some detail on the unique motives behind the painter’s Francoist position (he was motivated by the wartime destruction of his life’s work in Vic Cathedral) would have been another welcome counterpoint to the story of ‘Guernica’.