Online exhibit shows hidden depths of Picasso’s ‘Guernica’

Spray-painted in murals, wielded on anti-war banners, and even once hung as a tapestry at the United Nations, Pablo Picasso's "Guernica" might be the world's most famous political artwork.

Online exhibit shows hidden depths of Picasso's 'Guernica'
Pablo Picasso's "Guernica" at the Reina Sofia museum. Photo: Pierre-Philippe Marcou/AFP

Now organisers of a new initiative are inviting art lovers to revisit the iconic black-and-white painting, using the latest imaging technology and releasing a trove of previously unseen documents to chart its turbulent

“Guernica is a source of never-ending artistic material and it's a privilege to be with as an art historian,” says Rosario Peiro, head of collections at Madrid's Reina Sofia modern art museum.

She is part of the team behind “Rethinking Guernica”, an interactive exhibition launched this week about the work.

“Putting all of this together allows you to rethink the history of the painting,” Peiro told AFP.

“Guernica”, conceived in the depths of Spain's devastating civil war, shows the bombing of a Basque town on April 26, 1937 by German and Italian air forces under the orders of future Spanish dictator Francisco Franco.

Hundreds died in an aerial attack on civilians that shocked the world and set a precedent repeated often by German and allied forces in World War II.

Picasso, then living in France, was commissioned by the struggling Spanish Republican government to produce a work depicting the bombing for the 1937 World Fair in Paris.

Storied history

That commission and hundreds of other documents concerning “Guernica” are now available online for the first time.

They tell the story of a hugely well-travelled work, with stops in Scandinavia, Britain and the United States, where it spent decades on loan at New York's Museum of Modern Art (MoMA).

There are papers relating to its trip to Venezuela in 1948 that was cut short due to a coup d'etat, and a frantic telegram sent by MoMA collections director Alfred H. Barr Jr informing the artist that his works were safe after a fire tore through the museum in 1958.

“Clearly it is a political painting because it was requested by the government for a propaganda purpose,” says Peiro.

“The truth is during all these years of travel and being in different places, the work was depoliticised.”

Researchers took thousands of images using visible and ultraviolent light as well as infrared reflectography and high-definition x-rays to create a “Gigapixel” rendering that allows users to browse a 436-gigabyte composite of the work.

Details of its restoration, individual paint strokes and even rogue hairs from Picasso's brushes can be seen still stuck to the original canvas. Residue from a 1974 act of vandalism is visible in the form of barely perceptible reddish discolouration across central areas.

“For me what is interesting to see is the geography of the painting, its surface, as if it's a kind of history map,” says Peiro.

New perspectives

The Reina Sofia currently displays dozens of black-and-white war images alongside “Guernica”, many captured by legendary Catalan conflict photographer Agusti Centelles.

Some critics credit the photos for Picasso's decision to eschew his usual vivid colours in the piece.

As Catalonia's independence crisis exposes Spain to its deepest political turbulence since returning to democracy in 1978, Peiro however insists the current installation isn't about politics.

“We do show a lot of Barcelona photographs but that's because the best Spanish photojournalist of the time was Catalan,” she said.

Peiro hopes the new project will provide new perspectives on one of the 20th-century's defining images.

“'Guernica' is the most important work, physically and symbolically, for the museum so we have to keep on working on it,” she says.

“It's the least we can do.”

By Patrick Galey


Banksy show opens in Madrid without artist’s consent

Infamous and wanted British artist Banksy has been 'Banksied' in the Spanish capital, where a show of the world's most famous street artist opened on Thursday, albeit without the artist's approval.

Banksy show opens in Madrid without artist's consent
An image from the same Banksy exhibition in Moscow this year. Photo: Yuri Kadobnow/AFP.

The guerilla artist who puts up his work in public spaces without asking authorisation is the subject of a new show in Madrid featuring his works – without his authorisation. 

“Genius or Vandal?” opened Thursday at the Ifema centre in the Spanish capital and will run until March 10. It has already pulled in half a million visitors at its previous venues Moscow and Saint Petersburg, according to a statement from the organisers.

The show's curator Alexander Nachkebiya, who assembled the works from private collectors, describes Banksy as “a phenomenon and one of the most brilliant and important artist of our epoch”.

The street artist himself remains something of an enigma. All he has revealed about himself is that he is British and that his home town is Bristol in southeast England.

But the dark wit of his art and a certain talent for self-promotion has helped him build up an international reputation, to the point that his works have fetched more than a million pounds. 

READ ALSO: Could a mural in Galicia be the first Banksy artwork in Spain?

In August, Banksy used his Instagram account – 5.1 million followers – to make his position clear on the original Moscow show.

He posted an exchange of messages between him and a follower who tipped him off to the unauthorised exhibition.

Banksy not amused

Told they were charging a £20 ($25, €22 ) entrance free, Bansky replied: “I wish I could find it funny. What's the opposite of LOL?”






A post shared by Banksy (@banksy) on Aug 15, 2018 at 9:00am PDT

But at the suggestion that he put out a statement denouncing the fact that it was made to look like an official show, he replied: “…not sure I'm the best person to complain about people putting up pictures without getting permission.”

Nevertheless, his website does carry a message warning visitors about this and other shows. “They've been organised entirely without the artist's knowledge or involvement. Please treat them accordingly.” In the meantime, his subversive style continues to attract admirers.

His most recent stunt was at the October auction of one of his works, “Girl with Balloon”, at Sotheby's in London. Moments after it sold for £1,042,000 – a joint record for the maverick artist – it unexpectedly passed through a shredder hidden in the frame.

Only partially destroyed, the buyer went through with the purchase and some art experts said it was probably now worth more than it had been before the stunt.

READ MORE: Mural of Spanish police officers snogging 'not a Banksy' after all