When Guernica Came to Town

imageIn 1938, one of Picasso’s most famous paintings was rolled up and taken to places previously untouched by art – even car showrooms

Every day, 11,000 people make the trip to the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid to see Picasso’s Guernica. The invisible infra-red wire around the painting is hyper-vigilant — the tiniest of leans (and I speak from experience) has alarms ringing, and guards to their feet, within seconds. Understandable, but a pity since all but the most eagle-eyed will miss the clues to an extraordinary story.

Over its 75-year history, it has been rolled and unrolled, stretched, nailed up, pulled down, driven, shipped and flown, all in the service of a cause. Creases and cracks mark its surface; its four corners are littered with puncture marks tracing the life it’s led.

A fair proportion of this damage was inflicted when the canvas came to Britain in 1938, as part of a campaign to raise funds for the rebels fighting Franco’s troops in the Spanish civil war. Masterminded by the British Surrealist Roland Penrose, a friend of Picasso, the tour eschewed the usual cultural hot spots for cities like Oxford, Leeds and Manchester, where, incredibly, the painting was nailed to the wall of a disused car showroom by a group of students. Its last stop was London’s Whitechapel Gallery, where the price of admission to the working poor unable to spare the entrance fee, was a pair of boots. One such pair was donated by David Hockney’s father, who only revealed this to his son decades later, when the artist was lecturing on Picasso in New York, and happened to send his father a postcard with Guernica on the front.

It seems inconceivable that such an important part of this story has been overlooked, but as Picasso & Modern British Art opens at Tate Britain this week, the imbalance is to be addressed. Although Guernica will not be exhibited (it never travels, in part because of its damaged state) a number of Picasso’s 67 preparatory sketches, which toured Britain alongside the painting, have been lent by the Reina Sofia.

“We’ve looked at two aspects of the Guernica story,” says curator Helen Little. “First, the political situation in Britain at the time; the immense support for Spain, which explains why the painting became a very special symbol for the peace movement. And, second, how the work affected those British artists who saw it at the time.” The raw energy of the sketches in particular had an enormous influence on Henry Moore, Graham Sutherland and Francis Bacon. Facing an increasingly absurd, cruel and chaotic world, Picasso’s exploded, surrealist, screaming forms signalled the way forward.

When the German bombs dropped on the Basque city of Guernica on April 26 1937, Picasso was living in Paris. The first photographs of the devastation appeared in the French press the following day, black-and-white proof of the death and debris. Picasso set about painting “a symbolic representation of the horror as seen in my own mind. All living creatures in that town, human and animal, were converted into tortured objects… shrieking their agony to the sky.” As the painting began to take shape in his studio, his latest lover, the photographer Dora Maar, documented its progress. The images show him feverishly absorbed, sweating, pacing, as ideas are added and then taken away. At one stage he tries colour, but in the end opts for the grisaille colours of the newsreels and photographs in which he had first seen the tragedy.

By late June, when Penrose arrived in Paris, Picasso was adding the finishing touches. The Englishman later recalled Picasso “discussing the movements of the figures as though the painting were alive.” Together they hatched a plan to bring the painting to England, where support for the Spanish cause, despite the government’s non-intervention policy, was fierce. If confronted directly by the dramatic work, Penrose hoped, the British public could not fail to send support.

To generate interest, Dora Maar’s photographs of the artist working on Guernica were published in the international journal Cahiers d’Art. Back in Britain, anticipation began to rise. The art critic Anthony Blunt published a scathing review of the painting, dismissing Picasso’s inaccessible, elitist symbolism. Fellow critic Herbert Read came immediately to its defence, and the two argued over the painting for several weeks in a very public spat.

Letters exchanged between Penrose and Picasso’s secretary Juan Larrea show preparations for the British tour at full pelt: “Today matters stand like this” Larrea wrote on 12th February 1938 “We want the exhibition to happen with the maximum force and solemnity, both for Picasso himself, since the more admired he is the more useful he will be to our cause, and for our cause itself, since this is one of the rare means we have to reach that sector of the public for whom this kind of argument may prove convincing. The question of making money is only a secondary consideration.”

“Dear Picasso” wrote Penrose, as plans began to take shape “public interest is growing daily in spite of the general consternation of the last few days [the country was in the grip of the row over appeasement following Hitler’s demand for the secession of the Sudetenland]…. I’ve already had two requests from provincial towns to exhibit the pictures after we close here. The cities of Leeds and Manchester would like to show the exhibition in their municipal galleries. We can arrange this under the same conditions as we’ve got here, if you like, but they do require a fairly rapid reply. Both cities are very important centres and I think the exhibition might make a big sensation there. …come when you can, my house will be at your disposal. There is a night train, which goes via Dunkerque without the need to change compartments – one sleeps just like a baby.”

Ominously, Guernica arrived in Britain on the day the Munich Pact was signed — in fact so volatile was the political situation that Penrose cabled Picasso the day before to check he was still willing to risk the loan. Happily, he received an immediate reply saying the purpose of the picture was to express the horrors of war and that it must take its chance. The first showing went ahead in a small London gallery, as planned, on October 4. But by the time the show closed four weeks later, only 3,000 visitors had been, far less than Penrose had hoped for. He chalked it up to moral lethargy in the wake of the pact.

But slowly the painting’s fame began to increase. The following week, the sketches were sent to Oxford for “Peace Week”, where they began to generate interest. “At this stage the press coverage was slight” says Little, “but the majority of people who saw it and wrote about it talked about it first and foremost as a piece of political propaganda, not as an artwork. Many found it deeply confusing; they questioned whether art can or should be politically engaged in this way.”

Next, the sketches went to Leeds, before being reunited with the painting in Manchester. Both towns were known for their Left-wing activism, and the painting’s arrival was spread by word of mouth. The late artist Harry Baines, a student at the time, remembered unrolling the canvas and attaching it to the wall with a basic hammer and carpentry nails. In an effort to attract working people on their way home, the exhibition stayed open until 8pm.

The final stop on the tour was London’s Whitechapel Gallery, where Guernica received its most rapturous response. With Penrose in attendance, it was opened by Major Clement Attlee, the leader of the opposition, and a supporter of the Spanish cause. They turned the gallery into a campaign headquarters of sorts, screening films about the civil war, and offering tours of the work by well-known artists.

The tactic worked — some 12,000 visitors attended during the two-week run. “The impression your works have made on these simple people,” wrote Penrose to Picasso, was “profound.” The tour wasn’t the success Penrose had hoped for, yet Guernica became a real touchstone for artists. Many aspects of the painting’s visit to Britain remain shrouded in mystery. That showing in a Manchester car showroom, in particular, has become such an urban myth that Little put out a call for witnesses via the Manchester Evening News last September. So far, nobody has come forward.

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