Iconic Picasso back in spotlight

MADRID • Spray-painted in murals, wielded on anti-war banners and even once hung as a tapestry at the United Nations, Pablo Picasso's Guernica might be the world's most famous political artwork.

Now organisers of a new initiative are inviting art lovers to revisit the iconic black-and-white painting, using the latest imaging technology and releasing a trove of previously unseen documents to chart its turbulent history.

"Guernica is a source of never-ending artistic material and it's a privilege to be with as an art historian," said Ms Rosario Peiro, head of collections at Madrid's Reina Sofia modern art museum. She is part of the team behind Rethinking Guernica, an interactive exhibition rolled out about the work.

Guernica, conceived in the depths of Spain's civil war, shows the bombing of a Basque town on April 26, 1937, by German and Italian air forces under the orders of future Spanish dictator Francisco Franco. Many died in an aerial attack on civilians that shocked the world and set a precedent repeated often by German and allied forces in World War II.

Picasso, then living in France, was commissioned by the struggling Spanish Republican government to produce a work depicting the bombing for the 1937 World Fair in Paris. That work and hundreds of other documents about Guernica are now available online for the first time.

They tell the story of a well-travelled artwork, with stops in Scandinavia, Britain and the United States, where it spent decades on loan at New York's Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). There are papers relating to its trip to Venezuela in 1948 that was cut short due to a coup d'etat, and a frantic telegram sent by MoMA collections director Alfred H. Barr Jr informing the artist that his works were safe after a fire tore through the museum in 1958.

"It is a political painting because it was requested by the government for a propaganda purpose," said Ms Peiro. "The truth is, during all these years of travel and being in different places, the work was depoliticised."

Picasso's Guernica, a black-and-white painting depicting the bombing of a Basque town in 1937, was commissioned by the Spanish Republican government.
Picasso's Guernica, a black-and-white painting depicting the bombing of a Basque town in 1937, was commissioned by the Spanish Republican government. PHOTO: REINA SOFIA MUSEUM IN MADRID

Researchers took thousands of images using visible and ultraviolet light as well as infrared reflectography and high-definition X-rays to create a "Gigapixel" rendering that allows users to browse a 436-gigabyte composite of the work.

Details of its restoration, individual paint strokes and even rogue hairs from Picasso's brushes can be seen still stuck to the original canvas.

The Reina Sofia currently displays dozens of black-and-white war images alongside Guernica, many captured by legendary Catalan conflict photographer Agusti Centelles.

Some critics credit the photos to Picasso's decision to eschew his usual vivid colours in the piece.

As Catalonia's independence crisis exposes Spain to its deepest political turbulence since returning to democracy in 1978, Ms Peiro insisted the current installation is not about politics. "We do show a lot of Barcelona photographs, but that's because the best Spanish photojournalist of the time was Catalan," she added.

She hopes the new project will provide new perspectives on one of the 20th century's defining images. "Guernica is the most important work for the museum, so we have to keep working on it," she added. "It's the least we can do."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 21, 2017, with the headline 'Iconic Picasso back in spotlight'. Print Edition | Subscribe