Painting takes on new meaning


`Guernica': Separated by 64 years and an ocean, the events of Sept. 11 resonate with the tragedy that inspired and enraged Picasso.

January 08, 2002|By Andrew Ratner | Andrew Ratner,SUN STAFF

MADRID, Spain -- Saturnino Moreno Soria, 65, huddles on a chilly morning in an alcove near the Reina Sofia, a towering fortress of an art museum, as a guard nearby eyes him warily.

He looks like he wants to sell a passer-by something, and he does -- the "truth" about the most famous painting inside.

As schoolchildren feed pigeons and run around a chalked spiral outside the museum, Soria offers to explain Guernica, a depiction of war by famed artist Pablo Picasso. It is often described as one of the most renowned artworks of the 20th century.

Many Americans, even non-art students, are familiar with the oil painting, if not by name. It is jarring and as big as a billboard, with the sharp lines and misplaced eyes for which the artist is known. Picasso made it to express his outrage over the Nazis' aerial attack on the small town of Guernica in 1937 during the Spanish Civil War.

Because of its size and history, and the man who made it, the painting has always elicited a hushed reverence among the crowds coming to view it inside Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, but since Sept. 11 it has assumed a new relevance.

Although it's disturbing and has been described as grotesque, the image has also become an emblem of pop culture in Spain's Old World capital city. It adorns T-shirts, coffee mugs and key chains at tourist shops.

On a 45-degree morning, Soria says that he stands outside the downtown museum almost every day to offer his viewpoint. He describes himself as a retired bank worker and former docent at an art gallery. He lost that job, he says, because he too readily shared his political views, including those on Guernica.

Yes, Soria is told, his analysis would be welcome.

"That will be 1,000 pesetas, please."

A thousand pesetas, to discuss a painting? How about 500?

"Forget it," Soria says. "I had someone pay 3,000 once."

The visitor considers that 1,000 pesetas is less than $7 and hands Soria his bounty.

The interpreter displays two small reproductions, one of Guernica and another of a painting made around 1638 by the Renaissance artist Peter Paul Rubens, and begins a rambling dissertation: Picasso's work wasn't original, he says. He modeled it on Rubens' work of three centuries earlier, The Horrors of War.

"The state does not want to explain it. I tell the people it has nothing to do with Guernica. It has to do with the immortality of art. Few stop to listen. They just go like sheep, `Baaa, Baaa.' They fear the truth," he says. "It's the left that is the problem. ... Clinton, the Kennedys. They lie."

He hikes up his pants leg and shows off a gnarled ankle. "The Socialists beat me," he says, explaining his limp.

Employees inside the museum dismiss the man as "mad."

Picasso was similarly described after he painted Guernica for the Spanish Pavilion of the International Exposition in Paris in 1937.

The work broadcast his revulsion at the German Luftwaffe's attack on Guernica on April 26, 1937. Adolf Hitler's Condor Legion bombed the Basque town to aid the Nationalist forces of Gen. Francisco Franco during the Spanish Civil War. Hundreds of the town's 7,000 residents were killed in the 4-hour air raid.

Picasso began sketching Guernica five days later.

Some believe he was inspired by a stirring account of the attack by George L. Steer first published in The Times of London and The New York Times.

"Guernica, the most ancient town of the Basques and the centre of their cultural tradition, was completely destroyed yesterday afternoon by insurgent air raiders," Steer wrote. "The fighters plunged low from above the centre of the town to machine-gun those of the civilian population who had taken refuge in the fields.

"The raid on Guernica is unparalleled in military history. Guernica was not a military objective. A factory producing war materiel lay outside the town and was untouched. So were two barracks some distance from the town. The town lay far behind the lines. The object of the bombardment was seemingly the demoralization of the civil population and the destruction of the cradle of the Basque race."

After Franco consolidated power throughout Spain and became dictator, Picasso was unable to return.

Guernica was exhibited around the world to rapt audiences -- and mixed reviews. According to one account at the time, the painting "saw the backs of the visitors, for [they] felt repelled." It was decried as the "work of a madman, a disorderly array of corpses," with drawings "suitable for a young child," recounted Joaquin de la Puente in his book Guernica: The Making of a Painting.

Its resonance grew, however, with world war and millions more civilian deaths.

But Picasso, who joined the Communist Party, forbade the return of Guernica to Spain until his native land gained democracy.

The artist continued to work and live in France, where he died in 1973 at 92. Two years later, in 1975, Franco died.

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