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Reframing ‘Guernica’.

Guernica. Image: Wiki.

By Nigel Wheale.

DURING THE FIRST two weeks of January 1939, Guernica, Picasso’s epic canvas in black and shades of grey and white, 11 feet high and 25 feet long, was exhibited at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in the working-class East End of London.

Clement Atlee opens the Whitechapel exhibition of 'Guernica' in January 1939. Image: Whitechapel Gallery.

Clement Atlee opens the Whitechapel exhibition of ‘Guernica’ in January 1939. Image: Whitechapel Gallery.

The panel, as now in the Reina Sofia, Madrid, was shown together with a selection from the wave of work that culminated in Guernica itself, 67 preparatory sketches and paintings. The event attracted more than 15,000 visitors, many of them from Whitechapel and the immediate surroundings. Entrance to the gallery was (and still is) free, but Picasso had requested that visitors might consider donating a pair of shoes or boots in good condition, and during the fortnight, rows of heavy-duty footwear steadily accumulated in front of the mural, as many as 400 pairs according to one account (‘thousands’ in another). They were destined for Spain, either for the volunteers of the International Brigades, or for the numberless refugees displaced by the ferocious Civil War, then in its third year. The Whitechapel event was opened by Major Clement Attlee, leader of the opposition Labour Party, and a steadfast Republican supporter. Besides the vital footwear, Guernica in the East End also raised £250 for Stepney Trades Council’s ‘Million Penny Fund’, contributing towards an emergency food shipment to Spain.1

Clicking an image will launch a captioned slideshow.

The Gallery and its supporters staged an effective ‘outreach’ and educational programme of events during the fortnight to draw in visitors, including screenings of documentary films about the Civil War and commentaries on the painting by the critics Herbert Read, Eric Newton and the organiser of the event – working with Stepney Trades Council – Roland Penrose.

The exhibits had arrived in Britain on 30 September 1938, the day on which the United Kingdom, France, Italy and Germany signed the Munich Agreement, which acquiesced to Germany’s annexation of Czech territory largely occupied by the Sudetendeutsche. Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain had signed on behalf of the UK; no representative from Czechoslovakia was present. Roland Penrose, who as a friend of the artist negotiated directly with Picasso, telegraphed him to make sure that he was willing to commit to the exhibition at such a tense period – Picasso replied that his works portrayed the horror of warfare and so must take their chance, along with everyone else.

Guernica began its British tour at the fashionable New Burlington Galleries in London’s West End; the fundraising here was in aid of the National Joint Committee for Spanish Relief. The New Burlington had been the venue for the notorious, and wildly successful, International Surrealist exhibition, organised by Penrose, poet David Gascoyne and critic Herbert Read in June 1936.

Salvador Dalí and Co had attracted over 20,000 customers, but Picasso’s Guernica only drew in a disappointing 3000 visits during 4–29 October (entrance 1/3d.); Penrose attributed this relative lack of interest to a dismal ‘moral lethargy’ brought on by the ominous Munich Pact agreement. Louis MacNeice, in his Autumn Journal, was a ‘wonderfully sensitive recorder of those weeks’, according to Julian Symons:

xxxxxxHitler is yelling on the wireless,
xxxThe night is damp and still
And I hear dull blows on wood outside my window;
xxxThey are cutting down the trees on Primrose Hill.
The wood is white like the roast flesh of chicken,
xxxEach tree falling like a closing fan;
They want the crest of this hill for anti-aircraft,
xxxThe guns will take the view2

RESPONSE FROM THE sophisticated gallery goers of the West End to Guernica is reported to have been lukewarm, in contrast to the appreciation shown later by the Whitechapel audiences; some admired the skill of the more realistic preparatory works, rather than the final, monochrome panorama. Opinions may have been shaped by a sharp disagreement between art critics Anthony Blunt and Herbert Read. Blunt, third cousin to Queen Mary and a clandestine NKVD agent since the mid 1930s, maintained his (crypto) Soviet Realist opposition to Picasso’s decadent abstractions. In a Spectator article, ‘Picasso Unfrocked’3, responding to the work’s first public appearance, in the Spanish Pavilion at the Paris World Fair, Blunt had denounced Guernica as too obscure and self-referential, and its reliance on the worn-out Cubist idiom frankly ‘elitist’. Against Picasso’s formalism, Blunt went on to champion the work of Mexican social realist Diego Rivera.4 Kenneth Clark, youngest-ever Director of the National Gallery since 1933, sided with Blunt against what he termed the ‘dissenting sects’ of Penrose, Herbert Read and E.L.T. Mesens, arch-proponent of Surrealism and co-director, with Penrose, of the London Gallery.

Picasso’s ‘Three Dancers’. 1925. Image: Tate.

The 67 supporting sketches and paintings were then despatched to Oriel College, Oxford, where they were exhibited during ‘Peace Week’, and where press coverage began to generate more interest. Even so, a predominant response from the New Burlington and Oxford audiences was to question whether the collection was an aesthetic, properly artistic work, or else no more than a propagandist gesture. It may be that Picasso himself had mixed feelings about the implicit politics of Guernica, as he later said to Roland Penrose that he considered The Three Dancers, together with Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, as his two greatest paintings, and that The Three Dancers was more of a ‘real painting’ than Guernica, ‘a painting in itself, without outside considerations’.5

The group of supporting works was next exhibited in Leeds City Art Gallery, where there was only room to exhibit the preparatory works, but Roland Penrose contributed Picasso’s oil painting, Weeping Woman, which he had bought from the artist in 1937. The culmination of the series of sketches on the subject, Penrose was overwhelmed by this painting’s ‘unprecedented blend of realism and magic … It misses nothing of this tragedy, but surpasses it.’6

Helen Little: '....those eager to see Guernica did not have to travel to one of the city’s art galleries to encounter it. Instead, the painting and 67 preparatory sketches had been squeezed with inches to spare into a car showroom in the city centre.'

Helen Little (Tate): ‘…those eager to see Guernica did not have to travel to one of the city’s art galleries to encounter it. Instead, the painting and 67 preparatory sketches had been squeezed with inches to spare into a car showroom in the city centre.’

Finally, during 1–15 February and following the Whitechapel exhibition, the panel and all supporting works were shown at 32 Victoria Street, Manchester. Leeds and Manchester were predominantly working-class cities with strong Labour, leftist sympathies; during that winter, the half-million citizens of Madrid were existing on two ounces of rice or pulses per day, with occasional supplements of sugar or cod. A student activist group, ‘The Manchester Foodship for Spain’, organised the exhibition in an auto show room. Interest in the event spread by word of mouth.

A leading figure in the Manchester group was the figurative, realist artist, Harry Baines, then 29. Baines gained his Diploma from Manchester Art School in mural painting, and his work had been included in an exhibition of ‘Contemporary British Mural Painting’ at the Tate Gallery the year before; the communist Baines’ social-realist murals in Manchester made him a well-known and respected figure. Baines’ widow, Pauline, related Harry’s story that the only venue large enough to accommodate Picasso’s panel was the Ford car dealer’s showroom, where it was mounted on battens, and Harry hammered Guernica to the wall with masonry nails. The show ran for the first two weeks in February (entry 6d.), remaining open until mid-evening for visitors at the end of their working day.

Penrose, an increasingly close friend of Picasso since 1936 and a tireless advocate of contemporary art, had watched the artist at work on Guernica in May 1937, painting with an even more focussed intensity that was usual for him. At the end of the English tour, although he was privately disappointed with the general response, Penrose wrote to Picasso, referring to the Whitechapel show, ‘The impression you have made on these simple people … was profound.’ The ‘simple’ visitors included Henry Moore and painters John Craxton, John Sutherland and Francis Bacon, who all took what they needed for their own artistic development from Picasso’s work – for Bacon, already a decisive influence since the early 1930s. Jack Jones, former Liverpool docker and later the highly influential General Secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union (1968–1978), visited the gallery and took photographs of Attlee opening the event. Jones had volunteered for the British Battalion of the International Brigades, and been seriously wounded at the first battle of the Ebro in the previous year.

The remarkable contribution the Whitechapel Gallery made to its local community during the 1930s was vividly illustrated by poet Michael Rosen in a moving introduction to a symposium, ‘Exhibiting Guernica 1939–2009’, which marked the opening of the refurbished gallery in April 2009. Polish artist Goshka Macuga had succeeded in bringing the tapestry version of Guernica, commissioned by Nelson A. Rockefeller in 1955, to the Whitechapel. The near full-scale replica, in beige brown tones rather than grey, was woven by the atelier of Madame Jacqueline de la Baume Dürrbach in Cavalaire, France, working closely with Picasso– an example of the well established convention of reinterpreting contemporary painting as tapestry in France during the first half of last century.7

Since 1985 the tapestry has hung outside the entrance to the Security Council Chamber at the United Nations, New York, where it has served as backcloth for broadcast press briefings; it fortuitously became available for display in London during modernisation of the UN building.

Guernica, the tapestry version, at the UN. Image: Slate.

Guernica, the tapestry version, at the UN. Image: Slate.

GOSHKA MACUGA CREATES complex installations that combine sculpture and historical text, artefacts, within resonant spaces; the tapestry as installed at the Whitechapel served as the focus for a meeting room, a simulacrum of the Security Council Chamber with its large circular table at the centre, and UN-blue curtains to each side of the tapestry. This version of Guernica, installed at the UN as a forbidding reminder of the horrors of war, had been concealed by blue drapes and flags of all nations when Colin Powell as US Secretary of State made his now infamous speech denouncing Saddam Hussein’s supposed arsenal of weapons of mass destruction. ‘Shock and Awe’ rained down on Baghdad shortly after, and the ‘veiled Guernica’ story quickly gathered a controversial, mythic status.8

Michael Rosen explained that three generations of his family had lived close by the Gallery since the 1890s, and that his father regarded it as effectively his own personal university. The gallery library – now the room in which Goshka Macuga’s replication of the UN chamber was staged – was home to the largest collection of Yiddish books in Europe, affectionately known as the ‘university of the ghetto’. Jacob Epstein, Mark Gertler and Issac Rosenberg, the ‘Whitechapel Boys’, studied in the library during the period when they were involved with Wyndham Lewis’s Vorticist putsch.

The Rosens were committed Communists, intimately involved in the political life of the predominantly Jewish East End – defending their neighbourhood against Oswald Moseley’s Black Shirts, helping to organise a rent-strike against rapacious landlords, and raising funds for the Republican cause in Spain. The Rosens didn’t hang any reproductions of Picasso’s work on their walls, ‘but they were certainly up in the homes of virtually all the Communist families that I knew as a child’. Michael Rosen explored this apparent paradox: Jewish East End Communists were not following the (Party) line according to the commissars of aesthetics such as Anthony Blunt – that Socialist Realism, and not the diseased self-indulgence of artistic Modernism in all its varieties, was the only ‘valid’ form of representation. He added, ‘You may know the bitter joke that came out of the Soviet Union against this kind of art. Impressionism is what you see. Surrealism is what you think. Expressionism is what you feel. Socialist Realism is what you hear.’9

Another visitor, travelling from Bradford to one of the northern venues, was Kenneth Hockney, a dapper dresser and ardent pacifist, also a Communist. Mr Hockney was so serious about his pacifism that he refused to take his share of fire-watching in Bradford, which endured three air raids in the course of the war, and as a consequence he was subjected to abusive graffiti from some neighbours. With a family of five to support, Kenneth Hockney began to recondition perambulators, and his skill in decorating them seems to have made on impression on his fourth child, David, born in 1937; David Hockney’s first major retrospective would be held at the Whitechapel in 1970. Both Michael Rosen and David Hockney only learnt relatively recently that their respective fathers had seen Picasso’s Guernica during its tour of Britain on the edge of war, and both shared that common sense of regret, of not having been more curious about their parents’ memories and experience.

British Batallion of the International Brigade.IN DECEMBER 1937, Clement Attlee, together with leading Labour figures Ellen Wilkinson and Philip Noel-Baker, had visited the British Battalion of the International Brigades at Mondéjar, Guadalaraja, and pledged to bring to an end ‘the farce of non-intervention’ in the civil war, which was the policy of Neville Chamberlain’s Conservative administration. The Labour team then viewed a torchlight parade of the Battalion, and No. 1 Company was named the ‘Major Attlee Company’ in his honour. Just over nine months later, after again taking heavy losses in the second battle of the Ebro, the British Battalion, along with the rest of the International Brigades, was withdrawn from Spain. Major Attlee and other dignitaries were at Victoria Station on 7 December to honour the 305 British Brigaders who returned safely.10

Almost everyone involved in organising the five exhibitions of Guernica during these critical months, and many of those who visited them, must have been aware that Franco’s Nationalists were at that moment remorselessly destroying all hope of a Republican victory; on 2 November an armed Nationalist merchantman had even sunk a Republican steamer carrying food seven miles off the Norfolk coast near Cromer. While Guernica was on its progress through England, Republican lines were collapsing, the front destroyed; Catalonia was overrun during January, half a million fleeing north from Barcelona in the last days of the month. Among the mass of human misery, more art cargo was on the move: hundreds of paintings and drawings from the Prado collection, including major works by Titian, Rubens, Velázquez and Goya, sent on the recommendation of the League of Nations for safety to Geneva.

THE PASSIONATE COMMITMENT to causes and to art that surrounded this touring exhibition of Picasso’s Guernica provokes so many questions. How would Michael Rosen’s parents, or Kenneth Hockney and Jack Jones, have described their reactions to the astonishing panel? Did Harry Baines modify his socialist realist mural style after handling Picasso’s work at such close quarters? Were the shoes and boots left in a poignant heap, laced together in pairs, or were they lined up neatly in rows? There are descriptions of both options, and their resonances are quite different. How many visitors might have felt that the well-intentioned fundraising was completely futile, given the scale of the disaster? Reproductions of which works by Picasso were favoured by Michael Rosen’s childhood Communist Party friends and acquaintances? The Frugal Meal (1904)? Family of Saltimbanques (1905)? Clown with Glass (1905)? Was Guernica itself available as poster even then?

John Berger's 'Success and failure of Picasso'. 1965These paintings and others from Picasso’s Blue and Rose Periods – A Child with a Dove (1901), for instance – were among the most popular ‘art’ posters in the English Midlands of the mid-1960s, as a quite new level of affluence arrived: first fridge, washing machine, stereo record player, first art posters on the dining room and bedroom walls. John Berger’s Success and Failure of Picasso also appeared in 1965, so freshly designed for Penguin by Gerald Cinamon, a layout that was integral to understanding the meaning of the book. Berger gives a severe, contextual reading to the desperation of an image such as Repas frugal, ‘Many peasants in Andalusia must have been hungrier than the couple at table in the etching … But no couple would have been so demoralized, no couple would have felt themselves to be so worthless’ (42–3). Is it fair to hazard a guess as to how these lovely posters were mostly viewed? It seems to have been as decorative, sentimental images, not too far from those grotesquely kitsch, stylized paintings of ‘Montmartre gamins’, even more popular, and which you still sometimes see marooned on dilapidated café walls.

Reading John Berger for the first time, he arrived new-minted, and his large fresh readership would probably have had little or no sense of where his particular version of art discourse had come from, how it had been developed. This came into slightly sharper focus with Berger’s 1972 TV series, Ways of Seeing, a kind of riposte to Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation, of three years earlier. There must be long continuities, not to say ancient animosities, connecting these mass-popular accounts of cultural production, Berger’s based explicitly on Walter Benjamin’s Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Clark sustaining the vision of his early mentor, Bernard Berenson. The debates over Guernica in the London art press during the late 1930s would also have been a part of these stubborn wars of aesthetic position.

Guernica finally joined the selection of posters from the Blue and Rose periods in the mid-1960s. Memory – notoriously imaginative on its own account – locates these Guernica prints on the walls of chic furniture displays, a long rectangle of tasteful grey tones that blended very nicely with a range of wallpapers; I see it against a pale yellow. For one child of the time, now a Mumsnet blogger, it was a depressing item hanging opposite you at breakfast time, perhaps significantly, in her grandparents’ house. But today, we can know what people think by checking online customer responses to their purchase of the latest high-quality art poster reproductions of Guernica. It’s a great conversation starter, for one customer, and for another, it ‘Looks very impressive in the lounge, a real statement’; for another, he’s pleased because it fills his ‘rather large entrance hall’. But among the comments (and complaints) about the quality of the framing, there are several who admit to being seriously interested in this work, as it continues to provoke responses, hostile or admiring. Great piece of wall furniture. Could we go for the tapestry version?


Nigel Wheale is the author of Raw Skies: New and Selected Poems (Shearsman 2005) and The Six Strides of Freyfaxi (Oystercatcher 2010). His academic texts include The Postmodern Arts (Routledge 1995) and Writing & Society: Literacy, Print and Politics in Britain 1590-1660 (Routledge 1999). He lives and works in Orkney.

  1. Helen Little, ‘Picasso in Britain 1937–1939’, in James Beechey and Chris Stephens (eds), Picasso and Modern British Art (Tate Publishing, 2012), pp.162–71. Guernica, an online magazine, contains an excellent account of the current state of cultural production in recessional Spain by Lorna Scott Fox.
  2. Julian Symons, The Thirties. A Dream Revolved, (Faber, 1960, 1975), pp.134-5.
  3. 8 October 1937.
  4. In the Listener, 28 July 1938.
  5. Chris Stephens, ‘David Hockney and Picasso’, in Beechey and Stephens (eds), Picasso and Modern British Art, p. 213.
  6. Helen Little, ‘Picasso in Britain 1937–1939’ in Beechey and Stephens, p.171. The painting: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/picasso-weeping-woman-t05010.
  7. Sheila Gibson Stoodley, ‘Dream Weavers’, Art and Antiques Magazine (2009). Brian Sewell, protégé of Anthony Blunt, did not at all enjoy the tapestry, but, writing in the Evening Standard in 2009, is fascinating and informative about the painting.
  8. David Cohen, Slate, 6 February 2003.
  9. Michael Rosen, ‘Exhibiting Guernica 1939–2009: Contexts and Issues,’ (lecture) King’s College, London, 12 September 2009.
  10. Details from Hugh Thomas, Book Six: The War of Attrition, December 1937–November 1938, Book Seven: The End of the War, The Spanish Civil War, (Pelican, 1961, 1968), pp.633–732. See also Patrick O’Brian, Pablo Ruiz Picasso. A Biography, XVI, for Picasso’s circumstances during this period, and his personal generosity to the Republican cause and refugees, (Collins, 1976, 1989) pp.329–49. Ian Patterson, Guernica and Total War, on the event and its iconography (Profile Books, 2007).
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One Comment

  1. marshall mateer wrote:

    Thank you for your essay – and a fascinating story it is. You say “Jack Jones, former Liverpool docker and later the highly influential General Secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union (1968–1978), visited the gallery and took photographs of Attlee opening the event.”. What is the reference that ‘he took photographs’ please? Thank you.

    Thursday, 13 June 2013 at 15:17 | Permalink

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