Around 4:30 in the afternoon on April 26, 1937, the citizens of the Basque town of Guernica, Spain, looked overhead to see a formation of aircraft crossing the sky. They were bombers from two squadrons—the Nazi Luftwaffe’s Condor Legion and the Fascist Italian Aviazione Legionaria—on a mission to destroy Guernica in support of General Francisco Franco, the leader of the right-wing coup against Spain’s Socialist government that had begun the year before. Some 24 planes dropped 22 tons of ordnance in a succession of raids lasting several hours.
After the operation, much of Guernica lay in ruins. Estimates of civilian casualties have never been firmly established, varying from less than 200 to more than 1,000 out of a total population of 7,000. But while the carnage would be far surpassed in future air campaigns against cities such as Warsaw, Rotterdam, Coventry, and Dresden, Guernica holds a special place in the annals of infamy, thanks largely to the efforts of one person: Pablo Picasso.
Picasso cemented the event in memory with his masterpiece Guernica (1937), a cri de coeur that’s become an icon of antiwar sentiment. Painted almost entirely in grisaille, and measuring 11 by 25.6 feet, Guernica sets its mise-en-scène in a manger where animals and people, including a mother and child, are seen in a frenzy of anguish.
Guernica ranks as Picasso’s second-most important painting after Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), with which it shares the same epic impact, though with a greater sense of gravity. But beyond matters of tone, the difference between the two paintings was that Les Demoiselles was painted by an artist known mainly by an intimate circle, while Guernica was painted by an artist who’d achieved international stardom.
Read Part 1: 1890s to 1920s here.
Picasso after World War I
In 1921 Picasso moved on from Cubism in the aftermath of World War I, in which nearly an entire generation of young men had been lost. The staggering toll left the Continent shellshocked, and understandably, artists reacted.
Two postwar movements emerged to address the moral collapse following the conflict. One was Surrealism, which mixed Freud and Marx in a rebellion against what its founder, the poet André Breton, described as the “petty system of debasement and cretinization” that led to the trenches.
The other, the so-called return to order, was a conservative retrenchment among some members of the early avant-garde who looked to restore the classical tradition as a form of therapy after the horrors of industrialized slaughter. Among this cohort were the Italians Gino Severini and Giorgio de Chirico, along with André Derain and Picasso’s partner in the development of Cubism, Georges Braque. Picasso, meanwhile, would spend the 1920s and ’30s engaging in Classicism and then Surrealism, with each allowing him fresh opportunities to indulge his propensity for borrowing (or stealing, as he himself put it) from the work of others.
Picasso embarked on his Neoclassical phase a few years after a trip to Italy in February of 1917. He had familiarized himself with the Old Masters as a student in Madrid, and both his Blue and Rose Period paintings were considerably influenced by El Greco.
But in visiting Florence and Rome, he encountered the artists of the Early and High Renaissance—Raphael and Michelangelo among them—as well as masters of the Baroque like Bernini. Heading south to Naples, he was exposed to the trove of Roman frescoes and mosaics found in Pompeii and Herculaneum. For an inveterate magpie like Picasso, the trip provided rich pickings.
Around this same time, Olga Stepanovna Khokhlova, a dancer with Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, became Picasso’s first wife. Picasso had met her in Rome while designing costumes and sets for the ballet Parade, which was being produced for Diaghilev’s company. They married on July 12, 1918, and Khokhlova became Picasso’s muse and subject, one of many women who would fill that role throughout his life.
Khokhlova introduced Picasso to a social set that was tonier than his previous associates, and as a result, his image changed from antiestablishment provocateur to well-heeled society artist. This may partially account for his embrace of Neoclassicism, for he had no real interest in the programmatic aspects of the ‘return to order.” Mainly, perhaps, he did it because he could.
Neoclassicism and Surrealism
All revivals of Greco-Roman art elaborated on certain qualities that characterized the art of antiquity. During the Renaissance it was the idealized proportionality of classical painting and sculpture; for artists such as David and Ingres, it meant Classicism’s precision of line, form, and surface.
Picasso’s brand of Neoclassicism, however, was primitivistic and roughly hewn in comparison. His approach emphasized bodily mass to render nudes, bathers, and dancers as stolid, monumental presences.
Large Bather (1921) depicts a female nude seated on a thronelike chair that is covered by drapery. Larger than life size, and tightly compressed by its vertical orientation, Bather lords over the viewer like a Roman god. The palette is limited to grays and flesh tones, though any semblance to skin and muscle is somewhat beside the point since the figure appears to have been carved from pink granite.
Picasso’s involvement with the return to order was part and parcel of his tendency to swing back and forth between conventional representation and radical experimentation. In this light, his subsequent adoption of Surrealism wasn’t that unusual—though to be fair, Surrealism adopted him first.
Breton had declared Picasso as “one of ours” in his essay “Surrealism and Painting,” but Picasso didn’t care much for Breton’s notion of tapping into the subconscious through “psychic automatism.” When Breton mounted the Surrealists’ first group show at Pierre Loeb’s gallery in 1925 in Paris and invited Picasso to participate, the Spaniard submitted a Cubist composition. When Picasso did eventually turn toward Surrealism, he did so on his own terms, eventually assimilating it into the cursive, “Picassoid” style that would become the signature of his later career.
Given its Freudian overtones, it’s no wonder that Surrealism surfaced Picasso’s regressive attitudes toward sex. The other Surrealists were hardly any better, but Picasso’s feelings on the matter were especially benighted.
For instance, a series of nominally arcadian beach scenes picture female nudes as monstrous, disarticulated sandcastles. In one, titled Seated Bather (1930), the subject’s head is rendered as an amphibious beastie, its clawed legs winding around to form a toothy set of mandibles evoking a deadly hug or vagina dentata. Picasso’s revolving-door relationships provided his art with an ever-shifting lineup of protagonists morphing into antagonists, with his wife Khokhlova—the subject of numerous Picasso portraits painted in a range of styles—being the first.
While Picasso’s marriage to Khokhlova had gained him access to the top tier of le tout monde of Paris, he soon chafed at attending soigné parties and dinners and frequently argued with Khokhlov over them. Picasso often cast Khokhlova in the role of model, but as the stresses on their relationship grew, her likeness devolved from the pensive beauty in works like Portrait of Olga in an Armchair (1917) to the twisted grotesquerie with bared teeth in Nude in a Red Armchair (1929).
Their union began to deteriorate in 1927 when Picasso, then 45, took up with a 17-year-old model named Marie-Thérèse Walter. Pliant and deferential, Walter offered an emotional respite from Picasso’s stormy dealings with Khokhlova.
Half Swedish, with flaxen hair and an athletic figure, Walter became known as Picasso’s “golden muse,” and they were together until she announced her pregnancy with his child in 1934, a daughter who’d be named Maya Widmaier-Picasso (he also had a son, Paulo, with Khokhlova and, later, two children—Claude and Paloma—with painter Françoise Gilot).
In 1935, both his marriage to Khokhlova and his liaison with Walter ended, though he never officially divorced his wife, since that would have required a division of property under French law. Meanwhile, Picasso had thrown Walter over for Dora Maar, a Surrealist photographer, poet, and painter, though she, too, would eventually experience Picasso’s disfavor.
Walter, however, inspired Picasso tremendously, and it was she who modeled for one of his best-known paintings: Girl Before a Mirror (1932). It pictures a young woman gazing at a full-length looking glass in which her smooth and youthful features are reflected as dark and haggard—a textbook vanitas contemplating pride before the fall. Picasso would later tell MoMA’s founding director, Alfred H. Barr, that it was his favorite painting.
Girl is striking for its bright colors and dizzying complexity of patterns. These include a diamond-checkered backdrop nodding to the harlequin figures deployed in some of Picasso’s previous works as an alter ego, and the use of stripes to define parts of Walter’s biomorphically rendered body—parts of which, her breasts and stomach, were made to resemble male genitalia. No matter what else Girl was about, though, it represented Picasso’s dominance over Walter.
1932: A Critical Year
The year Picasso painted Girl was a watershed moment for him. He turned 50 that October and faced a huge deadline in readying for a retrospective the following June at the Galerie Georges Petit in Paris. He found himself being dismissed by critics as old hat and no longer relevant, which, combined with his troubles with Khokhlova, conspired to produce a full-blown midlife crisis.
Consequently, he put off creating work for the show until just a few months before it was scheduled to open—at which point he roused himself and went into overdrive. He produced a body of paintings of which the most notable portrayed Walther—not only in Girl, but also in Nude, Green Leaves and Bust, Nude in a Black Armchair, The Dream, and the wonderfully weird Reclining Nude, which imagined her as a cross between a mermaid and a cephalopod.
The exhibition was a triumph, but by then Picasso could already afford a swank Parisian apartment, a chauffeur-driven car, and a chateau in Normandy complete with a tower that served as his painting studio and a barn that did the same for his growing sculpture practice. He’d become the most famous artist in the world, yet even though he was a member of the Communist Party, he preferred not to mix politics and art, largely ignoring the rise of Fascism until it came knocking at his door.
Like Les Demoiselles d’Avignon before it, Guernica turned out to be a painting much different from what the artist intended. Picasso had been commissioned by the Spanish Republic government to create a large mural for Spain’s pavilion for the 1937 World’s Fair in Paris. The piece was meant to raise awareness of the government’s conflict with Franco in the hope of eliciting funds for its war effort.
Picasso initially hit on the theme of the artist’s studio, which he’d covered in other works, suggesting that at the start of the job, at least, he was phoning it in. Then news of Guernica’s destruction broke. At the urging of the Spanish poet Juan Larrea, Picasso switched direction, and Guernica underwent a complete rethink to reference the bombing instead.
Guernica was started in late April or early May and finished on June 4. Picasso was assisted by American artist John Ferren, while Dora Maar, now firmly ensconced as Picasso’s mistress, took photos documenting the work in progress. Picasso dispensed with his usual policy of not admitting visitors while he was in his studio, making an exception to allow influential people to see him in action with the hope of promoting anti-Fascist sentiment.
As previously noted, Guernica featured a Gordian knot of man and beast trapped in terror. One thing immediately noticeable is that the composition is dominated by four women in different stages of agony (“Women are machines for suffering,” Picasso would later say to Gilot.)
A fire rages on the right side of the composition, while the center is filled by a horse trampling a soldier whose broken sword lays just beyond reach. Since the steed wears chain-mail armor and is run through with a lance, it’s fair to surmise that the man had been a knight riding it into battle. Meanwhile on the left side, a ghostly bull looms above the aforementioned mother keening for her dead child. An eyeball-shaped ceiling fixture eerily lights what is essentially a modernist vision of hell.
Picasso refused to discuss Guernica’s meaning, though that hasn’t stopped countless scholars from making a meal out its interpretation—many of which focus on the stigmata on the palm of the fallen soldier, suggesting a metaphor for the Crucifixion.
Interestingly, Guernica’s public unveiling didn’t cause much of a stir and was even faulted by some on Spain’s left for being apolitical. Its fame grew over a succession of tours through Europe and America between 1938 and 1940, after which Picasso entrusted it for safekeeping at New York’s Museum of Modern Art with the proviso that it could not be returned to Spain until democracy was restored there.
With Franco’s death in 1975, the stage was set for the painting’s repatriation, though it took another six years because of MoMA’s reluctance to part with it. Finally, under pressure by critics and others, MoMA relented, and Guernica came home; it now hangs in Madrid’s Reina Sofía Museum.
Throughout its stay at MoMA and after, Guernica attracted controversy. In 1975, artist Tony Shafrazi spray-painted “KILL LIES ALL” across its surface, for reasons that were hazy but ostensibly about Vietnam; the painting was easily restored and Shafrazi was let off, becoming a high-profile gallery dealer in the ensuing years.
World War II: Picasso in Nazi-occupied Paris
An anecdote concerning Guernica involves the visit of a Gestapo agent to Picasso in Nazi-occupied Paris. Spying a photo of the painting, he asked, “Did you do this?” to which Picasso replied, “No. You did.”
Leaving aside Picasso’s effrontery to someone who could have had him summarily arrested, the most telling point about this conversation is the fact that Picasso remained in Paris after most other modern artists had fled occupied countries to Switzerland, Britain, and the United States. Picasso had been in the town of Royan on the Bay of Biscay when France fell in May 1940, sojourning there to escape personal travails like the death of his mother in 1939 and his inclusion in the notorious “Degenerate Art” exhibition mounted by the Nazis two years before. Yet he returned to the City of Lights that August, residing at his studio on Rue des Grands-Augustins until the liberation of Paris in 1944.
Picasso probably surmised that his celebrity would protect him. And it did, up to a point: He was repeatedly harassed by the Gestapo, and since he’d been already labeled a “degenerate artist,” he wasn’t allowed to exhibit his work. Even reproduction of his work was banned, along with any publications about him. Still, he was spared the deprivations of his compatriots and lived quite comfortably. He even managed to have his paintings sold, some of them to the Germans themselves.
His works during this period, mostly still lifes and figure studies, were gloomy and often memento mori featuring skulls, both human and animal. After the liberation of Paris, Picasso explained to an American reporter that these efforts weren’t overtly about the war; “I am not the kind of painter who goes out like a photographer for something to depict,” he said. Yet, he continued, “I have no doubt that the war is in these paintings.”
At the conflict’s conclusion, he did paint two polemical works, The Charnel House (1944-45) and Monument to the Spanish Who Died for France (1946–47), which overtly summarized his feelings about the war. But as to the ultimate question—Why did he remain in Paris?—he put it this way to Gilot: “I’m not looking for risks to take, but in a sort of passive way I don’t care to yield to either force or terror. . . . I want to stay because I’m here. . . . Staying on isn’t really a manifestation of courage; it’s just a form of inertia.”
The Final Decades
After the war, Picasso would never again achieve the heights he had with Les Demoiselles, or Cubism, or even Guernica. But he didn’t have to, of course, since he was now on par with Leonardo in the public imagination.
He continued to grind out his art in all mediums, including ceramics and prints, though some of his most notable efforts were in sculpture, including Baboon and Young (1951), which featured a toy car that he used to form the face of its subject; Bull (1955), an amalgam of planar shapes cut out of plywood; and the untitled monumental sculpture he created in 1967 for Chicago’s Daley Plaza, which became an icon for the city.
There is no blunter meditation on mortality, perhaps, than the group of self-portraits Picasso completed in the final year of his life, the first and best-known of which is Self Portrait Facing Death from June 1972, a work on paper in crayon. In it, his condition seems more postmortem than pre-, with his mouth drawn as a perfectly taut line across an unshaved face limned in cadaverous shades of blue, suggesting a circle squared with his Blue Period works. His eyes are bugged-out and nearly crossed, as if he were shocked by the final horror that his unstoppable drive, which had served him so faithfully in life, could not defeat his inevitable end. He certainly tried, however, painting until 3 a.m. on the morning of his death.
Picasso’s life has been thoroughly reevaluated for the worse, thanks to his treatment of women. But he seems cemented in the pantheon for now, though no one’s place there is ever assured. He might live on in memory forever, or it could turn out that among all of his mistresses, history may become his harshest.