Postcard from the Basque Country IV: The Art of War

Before the destruction of the quiet market town of Gernika, deep in the Basque hills, there had been a similar assault on nearby Durango. The Italians had performed similar atrocities in Abyssynia and their planes were to support the Nazis and their Spanish allies in this campaign to demoralise the Basques. But Gernika (Basque spelling) is forever remembered as the site of the first act of total war: a wilful and deliberate attack on a civilian population who were, despite the atmosphere of intense intimidation fostered by rebel generals Franco and Mola, going about their weekly business.

April 26th, 1937 ‘would have been market day’, and despite subsequent disputes between historians as to whether a market was actually held on that fateful Monday, it is clear that the timing of the bombing – which lasted three hours – was intended to cause as much death and destruction as possible. Bilbao, along with its Catalan counterpart Barcelona, formed not only the industrial bedrock of Spain, but also the powerbase of support for the democratically elected leftist government in Madrid. Franco’s Nationalists knew exactly what they were doing when the order was given to attack Gernika; it was a strategic move and a warning to Bilbao.

It was also an effort to destroy the spiritual home of the Basque nation, and thus an early attempt – even before Franco had seized power – at forging a new idea of Spain. Its Gernikako Arbola – the famous ‘Tree of Guernica’ – is a symbol of the freedoms of Biscayan people, and by extension all of the Basques. Dating back to the fourteenth century, the tree forms a link with the days when medieval assemblies were held under large trees, often oaks. This tradition of village democracy could not be further removed from the debut act of total war from the Luftwaffe’s Condor Legion.

In attempting to obliterate the town, along with its tree, the rebels who were to become the Francoist dictatorship were striking at the very heart of the Basque nation. In other words, they knew exactly what they were doing, and why. For the Germans, Gernika was a dummy run for the worldwide war that was already looming, where bombing raids on civilian populations would not only become the norm but would grow ever more clinical, brutal and disregarding of human life. Gernika paved the way for Coventry and Dresden and Hiroshima. For the Spanish, it was an act of internecine terrorism whose repercussions were to reverberate for the rest of the century.

The attack on Gernika has its status, of course, because of Guernica (Spanish spelling) by Pablo Picasso. The painter’s masterwork, created for the Spanish Republican Government’s pavilion at the 1937 Paris International Exposition is a mural depicting an allegory of the Spanish struggle, which Picasso called ‘the fight of reaction against the people, against freedom.’ Despite that the Nationalist coup had prompted Picasso’s first overtly political works, he went on: ‘My whole life as an artist has been nothing more than a continuous struggle against reaction and the death of art… In the panel on which I am working, which I shall call Guernica, and in all my recent works of art, I clearly express my abhorrence of the military caste which has sunk Spain in an ocean of pain and death.’

Guernica has become iconic to the point where some of its original impact may have been lost. But its anguished, monochrome figures, twisted out of all proportion, still capture something like the impossible. The mural is an appropriate response to an act that leaves no room for appropriate responses. There are no words to greet such violence. Perhaps this is precisely why Picasso’s silent screams retain their power and why it is not simply another painting.

After Paris, the mural travelled to Scandinavia and London (where it arrived on the day of the 1938 Munich Agreement). Between 1939 and 1952, Guernica was hosted by various galleries in the United States, mainly at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. With brief interludes in Brazil and Milan, there it remained until 1981 when it was finally ‘repatriated’ to Spain, six years after the death of Franco (and eight after Picasso’s own passing). It now stands as a symbol of resistance – to fascism, to totalitarianism, to senseless, cowardly acts of war – at the Reina Sofia museum in Madrid. Such is the universality it has attained, a replica is hung outside the meeting room of the United Nations Security Council in New York.

The fact that Picasso’s highly symbolist picture made the town of Guernica itself an international symbol of first resistance and later reconciliation – the town now houses a museum and research centre for peace – is ironic but, perhaps, fitting given that the selection of Gernika for destruction was a symbolic act in itself. The claims of the Franco regime to have had nothing to do with the bombing (both immediately afterwards and for many years to follow) are undermined not only by the facts of the bombing but also by the fact of the place. While war criminals and cultural vandals know how to destroy symbols (sadly, there have been many Gernikas, before and since), they rarely know how to create. Art in the service of despotism always rings hollow.

Long since rebuilt, the town is in most respects still as ordinary as the day it was bombed. But now it is awash with artistic symbols – a ceramic mural of Picasso’s masterwork, the Park of the Peoples of Europe, a sculpture by Henry Moore called Large Figures in a Shelter and statues commemorating George Steer, the British journalist whose telegram alerted the world to the bombing and inspired Picasso’s response, and Jose Antonio Aguirre, the first president of the Basque Autonomous Community. The attack on Gernika was an attack on people and an attack on an idea, the idea of democracy, that the people of a community can imagine that community for themselves. And the tree – that symbol of people-rule itself – still stands.