Picasso’s Guernica Revisited

“And at the end of all our exploring, will be to arrive where we started, and know the place for the first time.” (T.S. Eliot)

The focus of this month’s seminar in Mexico City is “Trauma and Relationships: Men, Women and War and the War between Men and Women”. War is one of the root causes of conflict, misunderstandings and pain between men and women and their children. Many forms of war trauma impact relationships, often for generations, and in this seminar the topic of war is expanded to include closely related issues such as violent revolutions, class war and genocide; as well as racial, religious and ethnic conflicts. For the promotional material my organizers chose the image of Picasso’s Guernica, created in 1937 for the Spanish Republican Pavilion at the Paris World’s Fair. This now iconic anti-war masterpiece depicts the artist’s rendition of the bombing of the peaceful Basque cultural capital of Guernica on April 26, 1936 during which the entire town, (called Gernika-Lumo since 1983) was reduced to rubble. The Spanish Civil War presented Hitler with an opportunity to test his plans for targeting civilian populations. The German dictator had loaned Fascist future dictator Generalissimo Franco his finest Luftwaffe Condor Legion units who were told that they were going on a “training mission.” A late afternoon terror attack, during the region’s market day, unleashed a mixture of blast, splinter, and fire bombs. Terrified townspeople and fleeing refugees attempting to escape the mayhem were systematically mown down by aerial strafing machine gunners. Franco then blamed the devastation on “separatist reds”. Picasso’s horrific mural of these brutal war machines crushing bodies and spirits , screaming women, dead children, dismembered bodies, outrage and animal panic now rests in Madrid’s Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia.

Picasso’s Guernica had become important to me during a much earlier time in my life before I had any thoughts of a becoming a social traumatologist. During my master’s and doctoral studies in art history at the University of California at Berkeley, I was fortunate to have Picasso expert Herschel B. Chipp (1913-1992) as my graduate advisor. As a naval lieutenant in World War II, Professor Chipp met Picasso in Paris shortly after the liberation of France and decided to devote himself to the study of his work. From a certain angle, one could almost detect a certain physical resemblance between the artist and his historian. I was also one of Herschel Chipp’s teaching associates during my years of study at Berkeley and greatly benefited from his decidedly innovative methods for presenting pedagogical material. One summer when we received a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, we undertook a project to create multi-media slide show documentaries for the undergraduate courses. (Powerpoint was not yet available). While there were other topics, most of the focus went to a presentation entitled “Five O’clock in the Afternoon” which was about Picasso’s Guernica within the historical, political and cultural context of the Spanish Civil War. Based upon the collage- like format of the canvas, black and white images from the painting were interspersed with fragments of newspaper reports of the bombing, and scenes from bull fights, the Spanish fiesta nacional, Segovia’s guitar music and a recitation of martyred Federico Garcia Lorca’s poem about death in the afternoon, “Lament for Ignacio Sanchez Mejias”

This long poem so evocative of the bitter cruelties of the Civil War and Spanish obsession with pain and death begins as follows:

At five in the afternoon
It was exactly five in the afternoon
A boy brought a white sheet
At five in the afternoon.
A frail of lime ready prepared
At five in the afternoon.
The rest was death, and death
Alone.

Herschel Chipp’s gift for presenting important works of art within their historical, political and cultural context was an important inspiration for my eventual understanding of a need to see individual, social and global trauma in a similar way. The bombing of Guernica was a major social trauma which occurred within the even larger trauma of the Spanish Civil War. In recent years, my systemically oriented trauma work in Spain has clearly revealed that the still unresolved issues from that era continue to this day. In a larger sense Picasso’s Guernica has now come to serve as an icon of compassion for all victims of war and terror everywhere.( For further information see: Herschel B. Chipp, Picasso’s Guernica: History, Transformations, Meaning, University of California Press, 1988).

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