Soka-tira over Picasso's Gernika  

Originally published June 7, 2006 by John M. Ysursa, this is an elaboration on an article by Elizabeth Nash writing in the Sunday Herald.  Neither NABO or the Basque Government is responsible for the following content.

The 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.

Gernika (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? Picasso's most famous painting is presently 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. 

Next year 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 Guggeheim 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 raid.

Picasso’s 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 painting.

The 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.

This is 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.

This 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.

This current soka-tira is set 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 so-called 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,” she said.

Miguel 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 knife attacks.

But for 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.”

To be continued . . .

Bombing of Gernika at
Guernica painting at
Elizabeth Nash's article at  
Joseba Etxarri's article at


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