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Picasso’s War: The Destruction of Guernica, and the Masterpiece that Changed the World
Russell Martin
New York: Dutton, 2002.
$23.95 US, 274 pages, ISBN: 0-525-94680-2.

Millard Dunn
Indiana University Southeast

There are more detailed studies of Picasso’s painting—certainly one of the most famous in the history of art—than 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 Picasso’s painting.) What, then, does this book have to offer that other studies don’t?

Several things, in fact, among them Russell Martin’s 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 well—in Spain at least—in the late 1960s” [5]. 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, “You’re American, aren’t you? It’s serious. You should go find a television” [257].

In Picasso’s 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 Picasso’s 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 Beethoven’s Hair (New York: Broadway Books, 2000), Martin weaves a fascinating tapestry out of scholarship, human interest, and personal experience. Like these other two books, Picasso’s 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 Picasso’s 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 Picasso’s 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” [271]. And he recommends two web sites: Enrique Mallen’s “Online Picasso Project” [] and the Picasso’s War website [] [272]. The Mallen website covers Picasso’s entire life and work in detail. The Picasso’s 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, Martin’s 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 Martin’s 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 Martin’s 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” [27]. 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 strength—an attack of sufficient force and scale, a bombardment as symbolic as it was destructive—might well succeed in breaking the spirits of the Basque people and their defenders and hasten the capture of all the region [33].

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 Franco’s 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 Franco’s determined attempt to destroy the Spanish democracy to the graceful restoration of that democracy by King Juan Carlos after Franco’s death.

The book deals with Picasso’s 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 Franco’s Fascist regime. [176]

And if that didn’t 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 Picasso’s paintings. According to Kahnweiler, Picasso had told him before he finished Guernica that “This bull is a bull and this horse is a horse […] It’s up to the public to see what it wants to see” [176]. This of course allows both Seckler’s interpretation and Larrea’s. 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. [201]

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” [233]. 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” [233].

Aerial bombardment is, of course, still unimaginably brutal. Picasso’s painting is as relevant today as it was in 1937. Guernica transcends language, but it continues to speak to us. Picasso’s 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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