Imaginative cultural historian Martin (Beethoven’s Hair, 2000, etc.) crafts a well-integrated and fascinating account of Picasso’s famous painting and the horrible events that inspired it.
The author’s signature approach to seemingly offbeat subjects is careful research filtered through a novelistic sensibility to grasp the inherent story, which he unfolds in the engaging, almost offhand manner of a fictional amateur sleuth. Martin is, first and foremost, a consummate storyteller who deftly weaves such multiple disciplines as politics, history, art, science, and even current events into a narrative forming a coherent whole. A case in point is his handling here of the motivation behind Picasso’s change of heart regarding his previous, adamantly apolitical stance on the Spanish Civil War, then only a few months old. Commissioned by a Republican delegation to devise a prominent work for the courtyard of the Spanish Pavilion at the 1937 World’s Fair in Paris, Picasso, who disdained “poster” (i.e., political) art, originally contemplated a mural whose subject would be the artist in his studio. But the brutal attack on the civilian population of the Basque town Gernika, intended by Franco and his Nazi allies to inspire terror and capitulation, had an energizing effect on the artist. Within two weeks of Gernika’s bombardment and strafing by Goering’s Luftwaffe, Picasso was hard at work on the monumental canvas that was to become the most political artwork of the 20th century. Martin goes beyond the obvious, however, in providing additional, less well-known motives for Picasso’s sudden engagement. Having agreed to become the titular director of the Museo del Prado in September of the previous year, the artist was outraged by Franco’s barbaric disregard for the safety of the nation’s treasures and quietly agreed to their removal to safety in Valencia.
An engrossing story of a landmark work of art and the struggle “to fashion meaning out of unimaginable evil, once more to offer hope.”