GUERNICA by Gijs van Hensbergen


The Biography of a Twentieth-Century Icon
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Art writer van Hensbergen (Gaudí, 2001, etc.) concentrates not on the inner meanings of Picasso’s iconic painting, but on its fraught journey though troubled times.

The author stresses the interplay of art and politics in his examination of the history of Guernica, the masterpiece commemorating a Basque village’s destruction. On the afternoon of April 26, 1937, the small town of Gernika (as the inhabitants spelled it) was ravaged and more than 1,600 people were killed by German and Italian dive-bombers supporting Franco’s Nationalist troops. Within six weeks, Picasso covered 30 square meters of canvas with paint in a prescient depiction of wartime horrors soon to become commonplace. It was more than propaganda, more than art. Just as the Spanish Civil War was a rehearsal for WWII, Guernica graphically forecast the distinctive brutality of 20th-century conflicts, with their wholesale slaughter of civilians. First displayed at the Paris Exposition of 1937, the young painting soon became well-traveled, often rolled and stretched and rolled again. Like Picasso, a refugee from Franco’s Spain, Guernica found asylum in America in the welcoming arms of New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Its creator remained in Nazi-occupied Paris; the author repeats the emblematic tale of a German officer who pointed to a reproduction of Guernica and asked whether Picasso did that. “No,” the artist is said to have replied, “you did.” Ultimately, after the deaths of Picasso and Franco, as well as much-affronted negotiation, the painting came “home” to Spain—where it had never been before. Van Hensbergen transmits the familiar stories of rampant minotaur Picasso, his coterie, his ménage, his women, and his influence on other artists, relating them to one of the most documented paintings in history. The result is a text with scant analysis of the work itself but much on its political and polemical background.

Workmanlike story of a mighty work of art and its adventures in the world. (8-page color insert and b&w illustrations throughout, not seen)

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 2004
ISBN: 1-58234-124-9
Page count: 288pp
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1st, 2004


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