Dear fellow travellers
Most art lovers visiting Madrid make first for the Prado and then for the Thyssen-Bornemisza. Both have celebrated collections. The Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, based in a former hospital near Atocha railway station, does not attract quite the same crowds as the two top-tier galleries. But with a weekend in Madrid last month, we made time for the Reina Sofia, where the big draw is Picasso's Guernica.
Carlo Levi's Christ Stopped at Eboli (mentioned in our last Letter from Europe) was one of the defining texts of twentieth-century Europe, and Guernica is one of the century's great iconic paintings. Both have the shadow of fascism as their context.
Guernica is a Basque village (called Gernika in Basque) that 75 years ago today was ruthlessly bombed by the German air force with terrible loss of life. The Luftwaffe was acting in support of the Nationalist cause in Spain. This wanton act of aggression, just one of many instances of German complicity in the Spanish Civil War, inspired Picasso's painting. The piece was conceived as a mural for the Spanish Republican pavilion at the 1937 World Fair in Paris, which opened just one month after the Luftwaffe onslaught on Guernica.
Picasso had been casting around for ideas for his own contribution to that Republican presence at the World Fair, and it was the 26 April bombing of Guernica that eventually inspired the artist. The 1937 Paris Exposition was devoted to the growing impact of art and technology on everyday life. The bombing of Guernica demonstrated the demonic appropriation of technology to suppress liberty and Picasso's painting dramatically united the art and technology themes in a mural that has become a dreadful scar on the European soul.
So we dodged blustery hail showers, sheltering here and there under great oak trees as we crossed the Parque del Retiro on our way to the Centro de Arte Reina Sofia. The weather was a reminder of how winter persists well into March in Madrid. Once in the Reine Sofia, we drifted through galleries of Basque and Catalan art, and slipped seamlessly from Utopias to conflicts and back again as we gazed on images from the first decades of the last century. Then we turned a corner and there was Guernica. Anticipated but unannounced, the mural came as a surprise. It is a bold monochrome sweep that recalls the horror of one day in a Basque village. It is shocking and dramatic, good reason indeed for visiting Madrid. Good reason indeed for remembering Guernica.
It is not just in Madrid that visitors and locals shelter under oak trees. They do the same in the Basque village of Guernica. 75 years ago today they sought shelter in vain from German bombs. But oak trees have a broader symbolism for the people of Guernica. Gernikako Arbola (the Guernica tree) captures the aspirations of the people of the Basque town to live in peace and freedom. The Guernica oak is a symbol of Basque nationalism, one that survived even the German bombing, though sadly the tree that stood in 1937 later fell victim to a common arboreal fungus. But there is always a new generation of Guernica oak trees in waiting. The Guernica oaks are an antidote to the pain and chaos recalled by Picasso's painting. The awful 1937 event being recalled today in Guernica and more widely across Europe is one that Picasso has ensured we shall never forget.
Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)