Picasso agreed to paint a mural for the Spanish Pavilion of the 1937 International World’s Fair. Urged by representatives of the Spanish Republic (under siege by General Franco and his Nazi allies), to paint something decrying the fascist onslaught… Picasso was swayed by one particular horrific incident. On April 27th, 1937, Nazi war planes obliterated the little Basque village in northern Spain called Guernica. Hitler’s forces pounded the village from the air for hours, turning it into a sea of fire and rubble. Over 1,600 civilians perished in the world’s first sustained aerial bombardment of a civilian population. News of the massacre reached Paris where Picasso was living. Newspapers were filled with photographs of the smoldering ruins of Guernica, and after having seen those photos Picasso began working on sketches for a mural that was to become one of his most famous works.
After the World’s Fair the mural was exhibited around the world to help raise consciousness on the threat of fascism. Once W.W.II began the mural was housed at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (though it made frequent trips abroad). Nelson A. Rockefeller had a large tapestry reproduction made of the famous mural, and donated it to the UN in 1985. The original mural is now housed in the Reina Sofia, Spain’s national museum of modern art.
On January 27, 2003, the Guernica reproduction hanging outside the entrance of the United Nations Security Council, was covered with a large blue curtain. Press Secretary of the UN, Fred Eckhard, said the covering provided “an appropriate background for the cameras.”
Obviously some were concerned that Picasso’s antiwar masterwork would not make a very good backdrop for speeches and press conferences advocating the bombing and invasion of Iraq. As the US talks about it’s “shock and awe” strategy (the potential launching of over 800 Cruise Missiles against Baghdad in two days), and its willingness to use “bunker busting nuclear bombs” against Iraq… Picasso’s work is a chilling reminder of what such military operations would mean for civilian populations. On Feb. 5th, 2003, US Secretary of State, Colin Powell spoke before the United Nations to make his case for a US attack on Iraq. Picasso’s mural was completely covered up and the flags of Security Council member nations were placed before the censored artwork. As Maureen Dowd, writing for the New York Times, wrote, “Mr. Powell can’t very well seduce the world into bombing Iraq surrounded on camera by shrieking and mutilated women, men, children, bulls and horses.”
Australian parliamentary representative Laurie Brereton spoke before the Australian Parliament on February 4th and said the following. “There is a profound symbolism in pulling a shroud over this great work of art. For throughout the debate on Iraq, whether at the UN, in the US, or here in Australia, there has been a remarkable degree of obfuscation, evasion and denial, and never more so than when it comes to the grim realities of military action.”
The censoring of Picasso’s mural is illustrative of art’s immense power. It is a civilizing force that erases national boundaries and strengthens human solidarity. In particular Picasso’s masterwork continues to aim a laser beam focus on the madness and inhumanity of war, a message that transcends the barbarity suffered by a small Basque village in 1937. As Picasso himself once said, “Art is a lie that tells the truth.” The artist’s profound mural still speaks the truth to the people of the world, so much so that the powerful feel compelled to censor it.
Art Print by Pablo Picasso, Guernica (1937), 39.5 in X 19.75 in. Ships same day.