Images and Democracy

Pablo Picasso was commissioned by the Spanish Republican government to create a mural for Spanish pavilion at the Paris World Fair. Picasso undertook the project with little inspiration. Then when he heard of the bombing of a small town in the Basque region of Spain, he knew what he had to paint.

Guernica was one of many atrocities committed by both sides in the Spanish Civil War. At the time of the bombing, most of the men had left Guernica to fight in the war. The Nationalists, led by Francisco Franco, had requested fascists in Germany and Italy to bomb Guernica. Following the German approach of tactical bombing, all roads leading out of Guernica were bombed first. Then the bombing of Guernica took place on Guernica’s market day when it would have maximum effort on casualties. When the bombing was completed, planes flew low enough to machine gun any survivors.

Picasso depicted the destruction of Guernica in a huge cubist style painting (11’5” x 25’6”). He only used grey, black and white paint to give the scene of bleakness he wanted to convey. You can see the painting here.

The painting took only 35 days to complete. Hundreds of thousands of attendees at the Paris World Fair saw Guernica. Little did they know at the time (1937) that Guernica was an omen for the threat of democracy across Europe.

Once the World Fair was over, Guernica went on tour. It ended up in America and displayed in museums to raise money for refugees from the Spanish Civil War. Picasso asked the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in NYC to be the caretaker of the painting until liberty and democracy were restored in Spain. When Francisco Franco requested that Guernica be returned to Spain, Picasso refused until there was a return to “public liberties and democratic institutions.” When Franco died, a constitutional monarchy was reestablished in Spain, but the MoMA did not return the painting because they felt that Picasso’s wishes were not met. It was finally returned in 1981.

A full size tapestry duplicate of Guernica was commissioned by Nelson Rockefeller and displayed at the United Nations as a warning against the consequences of war.

The art critic Jonathan Jones stated that Picasso “was trying to show the truth so viscerally and permanently that it could outstare the daily lies of the age of dictators.” That’s what the arts can do to embed democratic principles in our minds. Images of democracy (or the lack of) cannot be erased. Anyone who has seen Guernica’s stark renditions of the consequences of war cannot forget them.

Just imagine how our thoughts about democracy are shaped by images, stories, and other forms of art? Just imagine how the arts have been disparaged by despots when they can’t control them? Just imagine how each of us have been emotionally affected by the free expression of the arts?

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“I paint objects as I think them, not as I see them.”–Pablo Picasso

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