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We reached Guernica in the afternoon—the time when most sensible folks in Spain go to sleep, particularly during its harsh summer months. The sun is not as pitiless here as in the south, but heat is heat. We walked from the bus stop, ascending the slopes of the city slowly, and headed for the oak tree, which has been the symbol of continuity of Basque identity.

Like Hiroshima in Japan and Dresden in Germany, Guernica has become a metaphor for senseless killing during a war. On 26 April 1937, the Condor Legion backing General Francisco Franco bombed the town on what was meant to be its market day without any warning, and devastated the landscape, destroying hundreds of buildings (70% of the town, according to Basque authorities) and killing several hundred people (estimates range from 126-1,600). There have been more brutal wars and worse massacres, but Guernica’s destruction captured people’s imagination. One reason was that journalists—in particular George Steer of The Times—documented it meticulously, and there were photographers to document it. The other, perhaps cynical, explanation is that Franco’s Nationalists were the bad guys; in Hiroshima and Dresden, the Allies were bombing the bad guys, and the mass civilian casualties were an unfortunate case of “collateral damage".

Opposing the Nationalists and supporting the Spanish republic was a cause that inspired many. Ernest Hemingway wrote about the war, George Orwell and Laurie Lee were drawn to the war, and many others, from many parts of Europe, joined the battle against the fascist forces. It was the cause for idealists, many of them communists and socialists, to join the International Brigades, even if defeat was inevitable.

That wonderful writer, the late Gauri Deshpande, once wrote a moving piece about her visit to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, where she described how picturesque, perfect, neat, well-kept and ordinary those cities looked, like every other Japanese city she knew (she lived in Japan at the time). There was something eerie about their normalcy, just as there was something uncomfortable about the calm in Guernica that summer afternoon.

I wasn’t expecting ruins, but as we travelled through the Basque country, there was nothing to set it apart from other towns along the road from Bilbao. And that, perhaps, was just the point—how commonplace Guernica was, and how its gratuitous destruction was to send a message to the republic that it must fall.

When the news of Guernica’s destruction reached Paris, Pablo Picasso was horrified. He lived in France then, and the Spanish republic wanted him to do a painting for the Spanish Pavilion at an international exhibition. Picasso agreed, but made two conditions—it had to be large, and it had to be about politics. And then he painted Guernica, that magnificent, large canvas which portrays war’s horrors, conveying heart-rending pathos. The painting has now become the symbol of humanity’s outrage at war. Picasso had it taken to New York, where I saw it first at the Museum of Modern Art, and he said it would return to Spain only after democracy returned to the country. He also wanted the painting to be in Prado, which has the world’s finest collection of Spanish art, but for odd reasons it was housed in Museo Reina Sofia, another fine museum in Madrid, but one which lacks the sheer breadth of Prado’s treasures.

The UN has a large tapestry of the painting at its headquarters in New York. It is there to remind delegates what their purpose in life is, their raison d’être—to prevent Guernicas elsewhere. But the UN is a practical organization. The tapestry was covered up in 2003 when Colin Powell, then US secretary of state, spoke to the assembly, making the case for invading Iraq. A part of the painting was on the cover of Jean-Paul Sartre’s novel, The Age Of Reason (part of the Roads To Freedom trilogy).

A mural of Picasso’s Guernica in the town. Photo: iStock
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A mural of Picasso’s Guernica in the town. Photo: iStock

That afternoon, we walked to a spot in Guernica which has a large mural of the painting. We went to the Peace Museum too, where the painting came alive—we walked on a floor made of glass, and beneath the glass was rubble, of destroyed homes, ash, and broken remnants of life. We sat in a room with a table and a chair as if a family was about to sit down for a meal. And then the air raid siren sounded, followed by the loud explosions, screams, and the deathly whistle of aircraft flying low, razing the town. After a few moments, everything was quiet. The mirror in front of us became a window; we saw a pile of rubble—the remains of Guernica. As we left, we saw a plaque with a simple quote: No hay caminos para la paz, la paz es el camino (There is no way to peace; peace is the way). Mohandas Gandhi said it.

Later that week, we were at the Reina Sofia, and I saw Guernica again. It was on a large wall, and tour guides were explaining its story to tourists. Guernica was no longer Guernica; but there are many more Guernicas.

Salil Tripathi writes the column Here, There, Everywhere for Mint.

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