Basque Autonomous Government
of Euskadi requested to borrow
Picasso's famous Gernika; Madrid says the painting is too fragile
to travel. This is yet another chapter in the ongoing "soka-tira"
or tug-of-war between Madrid and the Basque country.
(spelled Guernica in Spanish) is one of the most famous paintings by one
of the 20th century’s most celebrated artists—Pablo Picasso. This
painting became yet another disputed point between offficals in Madrid
and the Basque country. Whereas Spain made the transition to a
democray following Francisco Franco's dictotorial regime in the 1980s,
the form of this goverment--in particular the preferred relationships
among the regional governments and federal government of Madrid--has
remained a work in progress. Disparate interests have made for at
times a contentious relationship. This broader debate was clearly
illustrated by a specific issue--can Picasso's Gernika painting
be put on exhibit in the Basque country?
most famous painting is
exhibited at the Museum Reina Sofia in Madrid. The Museum in
Madrid believes it belongs to them, while the Basques counter that it
should rightfully be exhibited in the Basque country.
Guernica? The first is the Basque spelling
and the second is the Spanish. Astero opts for the Basque
spelling of terms. For more on this see the previous
Astero article at
Basque spelling debate
(photo at right) was one of the 20th century's most celebrated
artists, and his painting of
Gernika remains one of the most recognized works of art
in the world.
marks the 70th anniversary of the destruction of the Basque town of
Gernika by aerial bombardment. The Basque regional government
which goes by the name of Euskadi
(a political union of the regions of Araba, Bizkaia and Gipuzkoa;
Nafarroa has its own regional government and the northern provinces of
Lapurdi, Nafarroa Beherea and Zuberoa do not have autonomy)--formerly
requested from the Spanish Cultural Ministry the loan of Picasso’s
Gernika for an exhibition in the
Bilbao to mark this anniversary. But there’s more to this story
below the canvas, sort of speak, as Elizabeth Nash wrote in England’s
Sunday Herald. This is not just a tug-of-war over a
painting. It is an emotionally explosive political power struggle over
a symbol of Basque nationhood. Basques have a deep attachment to
Picasso’s homage to the town where hundreds died in a civil war bombing
oil painting on canvas is considered by many to be modern art’s most
powerful antiwar statement. Its creation, however, was a surprise of
sorts to both the artist and his sponsors. Picasso had agreed to paint
the centerpiece for the Spanish Pavilion of the 1937 World’s Fair in
Paris, and then went about for three months in search of inspiration.
All the while his native homeland of Spain (he departed in self-exile)
was being ravagged by a brutual Civil War, and it was here that Picasso
found his subject. On April 26, 1937 the Basque’s symbolic capital of
Gernika was leveled in an air raid by Franco’s allies in the
Spanish Civil War: Mussolini’s Italy and Hitler’s Germany Nazi. Franco
allowed the Axis powers to use Gernika for the latter’s testing ground
to perfect its strategy of blitzkrieg or "lightening war" which included
a direct attack on civilians. The town numbered about 5,000 however a
much larger number were there that day because it was the weekly market
day on Monday. The city was leveled and hundreds perished. The
bombardment of Gernika rapidly became a world-renowned symbol of the
horrors of war. Picasso then went on to immortalize this in his
Franco's allies in the
Civil War were Mussolini's Italy and Hitler's Germany.
Franco allowed the Axis powers to use Gernika as a practice run
for their development of "bliztkrieg" which entailed the
targeted bombing of civilians. Thus on Market Day on April
26, 1937, these Axis bombers found the streets filled with local
Basque people as they went about leveling the city from the air.
Click on the photo to enlarge and see the devastation wrought by
the aerial attack.
painting reveals Picasso’s distinctive style of cubism that depicts
suffering people and animals, buildings shattered by carpet-bombing and
the outline of a skull. Painted in black and white, it conveys the
intensity of the scence that Monday morning. Even before the bombing,
the city of Gernika had long been associated with the traditional
freedoms of the Basque people as symbolized by the famous oak tree
there. But for the longest time, Basques were not allowed to remember
what happened. Elizabeth Nash reported that Basques recall that
during 40 years of Franco’s dictatorship, hanging a copy of Gernika in
their front room amounted to a subversive act. Some Basques grieve
that the painting has never been seen in the region that inspired it and
where, many claim, its rightful home should be.
not the first “soka-tira” or tug-of-war over who gets the painting. It
began early on. Picasso frenziedly executed the work in 1937 for
exhibition in Paris, and insisted it should never enter Franco’s Spain.
Following the World’s Fair the painting traveled extensively, first
through the Scandinavian capitals, then to London and France before
making its way to the United States where proceeds went to support
Spanish refugees of the Civil War. Picasso then entrusted his work to
the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York City for safekeeping. But
as early as 1968 Franco expressed an interest in having Gernika return
to Spain. Picasso countered that not until the Spanish people again
enjoyed a republican form of government would this happen. Picasso died
in 1973, and Franco two years later. After Franco’s death Spain did
transform into a democratic constitutional monarchy, but the MOMA was
reluctant to give up such a prized piece but finally acquiesced in that
tug-of-war decades ago.
A tiled wall in
Gernika claims "Guernica" Gernikara, "The Guernica (painting) to
Gernika." Inspired by events in this Basque town in 1937,
Picasso's famous painting has never been exhibited there or
anywhere else in the Basque country. The painting seems to
be the issue, but this is actually something symptomatic of a
larger debate between the federal government in Madrid and the
regional Basque Government of Euskadi. Among other things,
as one of the world's most famous paintings, there is much
prestige that goes with whoever gets to exhibit it.
current soka-tira between Madrid and the Basque country over the
painting did not just start with last April's request of its loan.
It actually got going back over a decade ago when Frank Gehry’s
futuristic Guggenheim museum was being dreamed up. The central,
sprawling “ship” gallery of the completed museum was, it’s said,
designed to house the Gernika painting, and when the museum opened in
1997, the Guggenheim’s New York president, Thomas Krens, campaigned
furiously for Picasso’s masterpiece to form the heart of the inaugural
exhibition. The thinking seemed to be that planting the Guggenheim in a
city so far from the tourist track as Bilbao made sense only if
Picasso’s painting served as the top attraction.
against a different backdrop that includes political ramifications.
What makes this even more contentious now are recent Basque efforts to
redefine the relationship between Madrid and the Basque Country (the
Ibarretxe Plan) coupled with ETA’s
recent declaration of a cease fire.
A decade ago, the request was refused and when another was made in April
2006 Madrid’s culture ministry summoned a symposium of international art
experts who advised that the much-travelled canvas was too damaged to
move. Spain's culture minister Carmen Calvo referred to these “many
technical experts” when she insisted this month the painting was going
nowhere. “I don’t play politics with pieces of our national heritage,”
Zugaza, director of the Prado Museum, which mounts a blockbuster Picasso
show in June with the Reina Sofía to mark 25 years since Gernika
returned to Spain, backed the minister. “This is not a question of
political will, but of practical considerations – this fragile work has
travelled and suffered a lot,” he said. It is true that the painting has
suffered. The canvas is cracked and distorted after being rolled and
unrolled some 40 times, paint has flaked off, and scars remain from two
Guggenheim of Bilbao stands out as a tourist destination, but
its planners were not so sure that people would divert from the
usual tourist path to this city seeking to re-invent itself.
Planners made a pitch over a decade ago requesting that
Picasso's painting become the centerpiece for this new museum.
Then and still now, they are refused by officials in Madrid and
the tug-of-war continues.
many Basques it is deeply political. “This transcends technical
considerations. To say it is too fragile is to insult our intelligence.
We plan to transport it in its frame in a special protective vehicle.
We’ll pay,” said Juan Ignacio Vidarte, director of the Guggenheim Museum
Bilbao. He was speaking in 1997, but repeated the same thing in 2006.
“It’s a cry for peace and freedom,” said Miren Azkarate, spokeswoman for
the Basque government. “Twenty-first century technology and the
necessary human and material resources permit a transfer with all
guarantees. It’s perfectly possible for a work that has crossed half
the world to be shown in the land where the tragedy occurred, near the
town whose name it bears, where it has never been seen.”
continued . . .
Bombing of Gernika at
Guernica painting at
Elizabeth Nash's article at
Joseba Etxarri's article at