This Artwork Changed My Life: Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica”

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Elephant and Artsy have come together to present This Artwork Changed My Life, a creative collaboration that shares the stories of life-changing encounters with art. A new piece will be published every two weeks on both Elephant and Artsy. Together, our publications want to celebrate the personal and transformative power of art.

Out today on Elephant is Nathan Ma on Adrien Piper’s Catalysis.

The first time I saw Pablo Picasso’s Guernica (1937), I nearly missed it. I was 15 years old, studying abroad in Spain for the month of July with a few dozen other American high schoolers. It was our last free afternoon in Madrid and while my peers were likely sneaking sangrias at an out-of-the-way café, I, ever the shy, straight-laced type, had museum plans. Forget a few blissful hours of aimless frolicking or rule-breaking, I needed to see the Reina Sofía.

As best as I can remember, 15 years later, it was an uneventful, slightly boring museum trip for my younger self. The Reina Sofía is located in a former hospital, with an idyllic central courtyard that hosts a looming Calder stabile; the white cube galleries hold masterworks of modern art. Its crown jewel, Guernica (1937), is one of Picasso’s most famous paintings and one of the most iconic depictions of the horrors of war. I knew none of this, and apparently wasn’t wise enough to consult the museum’s floor plan or even a basic brochure. I traversed gallery after gallery, and then planned to leave. But before I made it out the door, I saw a postcard of Guernica in the gift shop. I recognized the image from middle school Spanish class and decided I should probably go back and find it. When I finally saw the hulking canvas—goodness knows how I missed a 25.5-foot-long painting—I soaked it in for a minute or two, then made a quick exit, fearing I would miss that evening’s curfew (I didn’t).

The following day, my group headed to Barcelona; and two weeks later I returned to the U.S., my mind swimming with Velázquez’s Las MeninasGaudí’s trippy architecture, and ham croquetas.

In the years that followed I became convinced that trip had instilled in me a lifelong love of Spain. I was eager to get back there, and I did, several times during college; and yes, I majored in Spanish. But while my passion for Spanish culture faded over the years, I still can’t seem to shake Guernica. It guided my studies in college, set me on a career path, and often resurfaces, reminding me of art’s potential. Guernica became synonymous with the brutality of war; its indelible imagery has been appropriated by countless artists; and its political heft is so cutting that, for a time, Spanish officials deemed it should be shown behind bulletproof glass.

I began to learn all of this in college during my freshman seminar on the Spanish Civil War. We didn’t go deep on the painting itself but rather a photograph of it: Alberto Schommer’s Guernica Movido (1994). The blurred image of a crowd surrounding the painting was featured in a 2005 exhibition that memorialized 11-M—the 2004 train bombings at Madrid’s Atocha Station, a terrorist attack that killed almost 200 people—on its first anniversary. Schommer’s image captures Guernica’s power, which continues to resonate decades later. Picasso painted it after the Nazi Condor Legion—at the behest of Francisco Franco—bombed the Basque town of Guernica (or Gernika, in Basque) during the Spanish Civil War. An estimated 200 to 250 people died—it happened on a market day, when people were out buying their groceries for the week—and the town was left in ruins. Over 60 years later, the painting was once again serving as a memorial, albeit for a different group of blameless sufferers.

The painting’s distinctive and dynamic composition has been the subject of countless homages and reinterpretations. Guernica was printed on signs used in anti-Vietnam War protests. In the aftermath of 9/11, artist Sophie Matisse recreated Picasso’s composition using her famous great-grandfather’s more colorful palette. Another artist, Nadia Plesner, adapted its imagery to draw attention to the strife in Darfur in 2010.

After I chose to write my senior honors thesis on Guernica, I tried to learn everything I could about its long, twisting history. I set up Google Alerts to find out about new artworks that mined its imagery; I applied for a grant to study in the Reina Sofía’s library; I became a regular at my school’s inter-library loan desk, requesting every book that ever mentioned Guernica.

One summer I even traveled to the town of Guernica, dragging my mom with me during a trip to Bilbao. The town was perfectly charming and unremarkable, save for a humble-yet-moving Peace Museum, and a ceremonial tree. Before the Spanish Civil War, Guernica was best known as a symbol of Basque independence. Beginning in medieval times, the city’s government officials would convene under the branches of a large oak to discuss political matters of the day. That history ultimately may have been what made the small, unsuspecting town a target.

My interests expanded from the painting itself to the journeys it took—from its beginnings in Paris and the world tour it took in support of the Spanish Republic; to its spotlight in the 1939–40 Picasso retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, where it ultimately remained from 1958 until 1981. I was fascinated that Guernica had spent more time in New York, my hometown, than I had. It became one of MoMA’s star attractions, while Spain was still under the black cloud of dictatorship. It was during this time that the pioneering artist Faith Ringgold visited the painting; she went on to create her own gut-wrenching work, American People Series #20: Die (1967), a bloody, tangled commentary on race relations. That painting earned its due spotlight this past fall, when it was mounted at the new MoMA, alongside another very famous Picasso painting.

Faith Ringgold,  The American People Series #20: Die , 1967. Photo by Josep Lago/AFP/Getty Images.
Faith Ringgold, The American People Series #20: Die , 1967. Photo by Josep Lago/AFP/Getty Images

.I wasn’t so interested in Picasso himself but I was taken by his intentions for Guernica. When the Franco regime attempted to claim Guernica for a new contemporary art museum in Madrid in 1969, Picasso met with his lawyer, who drafted legal documents prohibiting such actions. The 1970 document stipulated that Guernica would only be shown in Spain “when public liberties are reestablished in Spain.” Picasso explained: “You understand that my wish has always been to see this work, and those that accompany it returned to the Spanish people.” He did not live to see that day in 1981.

I acknowledge the cliché I fell into by studying one of the most studied paintings in history, but I enjoyed following and diverging from my many predecessors. I was so enthralled with my thesis—the private carrell I had in the library, the stacks of art books I kept in my dorm, the image appendix I added to what became a 160-page tome—that I decided I should continue to study art in grad school. My masters program led me deep into obscure corners of art history and opened me up to internship opportunities that led me to where I am today.

In time with the 80th anniversary of Guernica, in 2017, I wrote about the painting for Artsy. I brought my bound copy of my thesis to the office to help with research, and it’s sat on my desk ever since. The writing may be cringe-worthy, but I’m still proud of it. And even though Picasso is maybe the last artist I’d choose to write about today, I’m still obsessed with Guernica.

I can never know for sure, but maybe the fact that I almost missed the painting on that first visit to the Reina Sofía made me especially fond of it. Had I seen Guernica during my first walk through the museum, perhaps it would’ve been much less memorable, and I might have devoted the ensuing years to something entirely unrelated to art.