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War: The Destruction of Guernica, and the Masterpiece that Changed
New York: Dutton, 2002.
$23.95 US, 274 pages, ISBN: 0-525-94680-2.
Indiana University Southeast
There are more detailed studies of Picassos paintingcertainly
one of the most famous in the history of artthan Russell Martin
provides in this book. There are more detailed biographies of Picasso.
And there are more detailed studies of the history of the destruction
of the Basque town of Gernika on Monday, April 26, 1937. (Throughout
the book Martin uses the Basque spelling for the name of the town
and the French and Spanish spelling for Picassos painting.)
What, then, does this book have to offer that other studies dont?
Several things, in fact, among them Russell Martins instinct
for rooting out and highlighting incidents that might get buried in
another work; his excellent eye for the significant detail, both in
history and in art; his clear and readable style; and his personal
experiences with this painting, which give his book an intensity and
relevance that no other work on the painting has.
Martin was an exchange student in Spain in 1968. His mentor there
was Angel Vilalta, who made us understand the stark reality
that fascism remained alive and wellin Spain at leastin
the late 1960s . Martin went back to Spain in 2001, to make
contact again with Vilalta, and to see for himself the painting that
Vilalta had made so vivid for him as a student. On September 11, 2001,
Martin was standing in front of the painting in the Museo Nacional
Centro do Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid when someone came up to
him and said, Youre American, arent you? Its
serious. You should go find a television .
In Picassos War, Martin discusses the Spanish Civil War,
Picasso in Paris in the 1930s, the Paris International Exposition
of 1937, and what happened to Guernica between Picassos
painting of it and what seems likely to be its final home.
As he does in the two best known of his other books, Out of Silence
(New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1994) and Beethovens Hair
(New York: Broadway Books, 2000), Martin weaves a fascinating tapestry
out of scholarship, human interest, and personal experience. Like
these other two books, Picassos War is written for a
general audience. He is not cavalier with his sources, as some writers
of popular non-fiction are, but he does not provide a bibliography
in the first two books. However, in Picassos War he does
give us a Bibliographical Note in which he lists the most informative
books that deal with Guernica, with its creation and history,
with the Spanish Civil War, with the Paris International Exposition
of 1937, with the life of Pablo Picasso, and with the life and work
of Dora Maar, who was Picassos mistress while he was painting
Guernica and who photographed the painting and Picasso at work
on it from its beginning.
Martin also offers to answer queries directed to me through
the publisher about specific sources . And he recommends
two web sites: Enrique Mallens Online Picasso Project
[http://www.tamu.edu/mocl/picasso/] and the Picassos War
website [http://www.picassoswar.net/] . The Mallen website covers
Picassos entire life and work in detail. The Picassos
War website focuses on the book itself, but it includes an interview
with Martin, photographs, and mp3 files that include Martin reading
the prologue to the book, an eyewitness to the bombing describing
what he saw, Martins mentor Angel Vilalta discussing what the
painting means to him, an explanation of the mysterious blue color
that the painting seemed to cast on the opposite wall, the director
of the Museo Guggenheim Bilbao discussing his hopes that he can exhibit
the painting there, a group of Basque schoolgirls singing a folksong
about the sacred oak tree in Gernika (which was not damaged by the
bombing), and Martins partner and colleague Lydia Nibley in
a moving meditation on what happened in Gernika and on the continuation
of violence and suffering in the world.
One of the epigraphs Martin chooses for his book quotes Picasso:
What do you think an artist is? An imbecile who has only eyes, if
he is a painter, or ears if he is a musician, or a lyre in every chamber
of his heart if he is a poet, or even, if he is a boxer, just his
muscles? Far from it: at the same time, he is also a political being,
constantly aware of the heartbreaking, passionate, or delightful things
that happen in the world, shaping himself completely in their image.
How could it be possible to feel no interest in other people, and
with a cool indifference to detach yourself from the very life which
they bring to you so abundantly? No, painting is not done to decorate
apartments. It is an instrument of war.
And war is one of Russell Martins themes: the terrible suffering
war brings to the innocent, how wars beget wars, and that ideologies
of every kind [can] be devilishly indifferent to the sufferings of
humankind . While it is easy to see the parallels between
the destruction of Gernika by the Luftwaffe and the destruction of
the World Trade Towers by international terrorists, this book offers
a wealth of details from the 1930s that we might well search for other
parallels with current events. For example:
Both the German and rebel commands did agree that a show of overpowering
strengthan attack of sufficient force and scale, a bombardment
as symbolic as it was destructivemight well succeed in breaking
the spirits of the Basque people and their defenders and hasten the
capture of all the region .
But what about the innocent who will die? What about the children?
Franco had assured American reporter Jay Allen that he would save
Spain from Marxism no matter what the price. Allen had responded
incredulously: That means you will have to shoot half of Spain;
and Franco, in turn, had simply smiled before he added, I repeat,
at whatever cost. [33-34]
Much of the book deals with politics, from Francos attempts
to blame the destruction of Gernika on the Basque communists to the
complicated negotiations that finally brought the painting to the
home country of its maker, from the very complex relations between
Euskadi (the Basques name for their homeland) and the rest of
Spain to the futile attempts of the new Museo Guggenheim Bilbao to
at least borrow the painting and thus bring it to within a few miles
of the town whose destruction it commemorates, from the brutality
of Francos determined attempt to destroy the Spanish democracy
to the graceful restoration of that democracy by King Juan Carlos
after Francos death.
The book deals with Picassos life, with his growing up in Spain,
his love of all things Spanish, and in particular his love of and
fascination with bullfighting. It follows the evolution of Guernica
from the initial request by representatives of the government of republican
Spain that Picasso paint a mural for the Spanish pavilion at the Paris
International Exposition of 1937 to the installation of the painting.
And it deals with some of the interpretations that the painting has
been subject to over the years.
From his very first studies for the painting, the bull and the horse
had been prominent figures. Clearly Picasso has taken them from bullfighting,
the images of which he would come back to throughout his life. But
why are they in this painting? What do they represent? What do they
symbolize? Martin suggests the difficulty of trying to answer questions
like these in his description of a symposium on Guernica sponsored
by the New York Museum of Modern Art and held on November 25, 1947:
Picasso had assured him, [Jerome] Seckler [a former American soldier
who had interviewed the painter about Guernica four years earlier]
still maintained, that the bull plainly symbolized the brutality of
Franco and his forces, and that the dying horse was symbolic of the
suffering of the Spanish people. But [Juan] Larrea, a friend of the
artist and a fellow Spaniard [who had recently published the first
book-length study of the painting] was equally convinced that Picasso
had meant the bull to represent the particular courage and tenacity
of the Spanish people themselves, while the suffering horse in turn
predicted the ultimate collapse of Francos Fascist regime. 
And if that didnt make things complicated enough, Albert Barr,
from the Museum of Modern Art, had a letter from Daniel-Henri Kahnweiler,
the art dealer in Paris who handled Picassos paintings. According
to Kahnweiler, Picasso had told him before he finished Guernica
that This bull is a bull and this horse is a horse [
Its up to the public to see what it wants to see .
This of course allows both Secklers interpretation and Larreas.
And allows viewers past and future to see the painting as a protest
against all war. In the 1960s Guernica hung in the Museum of
Modern Art in New York. It had already become in the minds of many
a protest, not only against the destruction of a specific town in
Spain on a market day early in 1937, but against all brutal destruction
of civilians by attack from the air. For Americans in the 1960s that
most vividly meant Viet Nam. After the Mylai massacre in March of
1968, protesters wrote to Picasso urging him to ask the MOMA to withdraw
the painting. Meyer Shapiro, art historian and critic, responded passionately:
To ask Picasso to withdraw his painting from the museum because of
the massacre at Mylai is to charge the museum with moral complicity
in the crimes of the military. This I cannot do [
] A democratic
republic is capable of great evils like a dictatorial state. But unlike
the latter, it has a free press and free elections through which individuals
and organized groups may criticize, resist, and act to change what
they believe is wrong. 
Martin points out that the devastation of Coventry, Dresden,
Hiroshima, and other cities [has] made the descent of terror from
out of the sky something that [is] all too commonplace, if not yet
comprehensible . As I am writing this review, the president
of the United States seems determined to add Baghdad to the list.
The September 11 terrorists have already added New York. But Gernika
was the first city in human history to be completely destroyed
by aerial bombardment, and in 1937 its annihilation by this most modern
means of warfare seemed unimaginably brutal .
Aerial bombardment is, of course, still unimaginably brutal. Picassos
painting is as relevant today as it was in 1937. Guernica transcends
language, but it continues to speak to us. Picassos War
helps us begin to understand how it speaks to us and why we should
pay attention to what it is saying.
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