Around 4:30 in the afternoon on April 26, 1937, the citizens of the Basque town of Guernica, Spain, looked overhead to see a formation of aircraft crossing the sky. They were bombers from two squadrons—the Nazi Luftwaffe’s Condor Legion and the Fascist Italian Aviazione Legionaria—on a mission to destroy Guernica in support of General Francisco Franco, the leader of the right-wing coup against Spain’s Socialist government that had begun the year before. Some 24 planes dropped 22 tons of ordnance in a succession of raids lasting several hours.
After the operation, much of Guernica lay in ruins. Estimates of civilian casualties have never been firmly established, varying from less than 200 to more than 1,000 out of a total population of 7,000. But while the carnage would be far surpassed in future air campaigns against cities such as Warsaw, Rotterdam, Coventry, and Dresden, Guernica holds a special place in the annals of infamy, thanks largely to the efforts of one person: Pablo Picasso.
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Picasso cemented the event in memory with his masterpiece Guernica (1937), a cri de coeur that’s become an icon of antiwar sentiment. Painted almost entirely in grisaille, and measuring 11 by 25.6 feet, Guernica sets its mise-en-scène in a manger where animals and people, including a mother and child, are seen in a frenzy of anguish.
Guernica ranks as Picasso’s second-most important painting after Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), with which it shares the same epic impact, though with a greater sense of gravity. But beyond matters of tone, the difference between the two paintings was that Les Demoiselles was painted by an artist known mainly by an intimate circle, while Guernica was painted by an artist who’d achieved international stardom.
Read Part 1: 1890s to 1920s here.