Known for its reverence toward artists and intellectuals, the Republic tapped creatives at the forefront of the ’30s avant garde, like
. Picasso received the commission for a mural-sized painting in January 1937.
While artworks created for the Republican pavilion were intended to serve as political vehicles (commissioned by an anti-fascist regime), Picasso’s original plan for his work was, at least at face value, decidedly apolitical. According to Wagner, the artist was at a loss as to what he should paint. Initial sketches for the work depict a painter in his studio, facing a nude model who reclines on a sofa.
It was tragedy that led him to change course.
The Bombing of Guernica and the Painting of Guernica
On April 26, 1937, Franco ordered the Nazi Condor Legion (loaned to Franco by Germany) to drop bombs over the small town of Guernica. It was a market day; civilians, predominantly women and children, were convened outdoors in public squares. As the first place where democracy was established in Spain’s Basque region, the town was a symbolic target. The brutal bombing, which killed hundreds of people (the number is contested, and reports vary between 200 and 1,700) and injured as many as 900 others, was the first instance in the Spanish Civil War in which a defenseless city was attacked.
“One of the things you can immediately glean from the whole spectrum of imagery around the Spanish Civil War was that there was a very public awareness of what was happening to civilian bodies—women and children,” Wagner notes. Indeed, the Spanish Civil War was the first war of its kind to have a press photography corps on the front lines, and like countless others, Picasso opened his morning paper in Paris on April 27th to find devastating images of the destruction of Guernica.
Though Picasso was already a known leftist—he had created a pair of etchings, titled the Dream and Lie of Franco (1937), which were reproduced and sold in order to raise funds for the Republic—the bombing struck him with particular force. And on May 1st, he took to his studio on Rue des grands Augustins, and began new sketches for the commission.
By mid-June, the work was finished; the Surrealist artist
captured the various iterations the composition went through in a series of photographs. In July, Picasso delivered the finished work to the Republican pavilion, where it quickly became the centerpiece, flanked by Calder’s Mercury Fountain
(1937) and Miro’s The Reaper
A Picture of Human Tragedy