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Guernica, a martyr city and a universal painting

In Guernica, Monday is market day. On April 26, 1937, the small industrial town of the Basque Country, 7,000 inhabitants, between the Cantabrian coast and Bilbao, knew itself in the sights of Franco. With its historic Parliament, its sacred oak, symbols of the culture and independence of Biscay, and its steel mills, Guernica represented a strategic target to annihilate the northern front of the civil war, unleashed in the summer of 1936.

Refuges and bunkers had been built in anticipation of the worst. Watchers on the tops of the hills screamed and waved a flag at the slightest warning. The bells had been ringing to beat the recall and train the public to protect themselves.

On March 31, 30 km away, Durango was bombed on a market day. The day before the attack on Guernica, the Republican troops had retreated. On the morning of this fatal April 26, it had been a question, for a moment, of canceling the market and the ritual part of Basque pelota.

Opened in 1998, on the Place de l'Ancien Poste, the Peace Museum recreates the atmosphere of this tragedy: ominous whistle of bombs, trembling earth, screams, hecatomb in the shaven city. After a first wave, leaving huge craters and considerable losses, the Nazi aviation, supported by the Italian fascists, had poured, without interruption, incendiary bombs and strafed the population who ran in all directions in the streets in flames. The fire could be seen beyond the hills as far as Bilbao.

Picasso, painting as a weapon of war

On the floor of the only Museum of the Basque Country devoted to this war crime, the methodical and deliberate massacre of the civilian population, two paintings strike the eye. The first represents a woman weeping at the foot of a cross where a young man is agonizing; the second, a mother and son entwined in the middle of the ruins. They are the work of a survivor, Luis Iriondo. He was 15 when Guernica was wiped off the map.

The testimony of Luis Iriondo, 97, survivor of the Guernica massacre

He appears, leaning on a carved cane, Basque beret on the chief. He is 97 years old. "It was the middle of the afternoon, He tells. When the bells rang, we started running. The first bombings targeted the bridge. The crowd pushed me towards the back of the shelter. I could not breathe. I was afraid to die, buried there. After the first wave, the residents went out to the bombed area. The bells rang again. I went to the top of the hill. I saw the houses in flames, collapsing one after the other. This second wave was aimed at the whole city. It lasted three and a half hours. " The official toll is 1,654 dead, 889 injured (2). And 5,300 bombs.

Luis Iriondo was able to find refuge in Bilbao. Evacuated by boat, in Bordeaux, it was put in a train. Direction Vernon (Eure) where he landed with 36 Spaniards. Years later, Luis Iriondo discovered Picasso's painting on a Czechoslovakian stamp. "Under Franco, testifies he, a screed of lead covered him. It was even forbidden to refer to it. "

Five years after Franco's death, Guernica enters Spain

Meanwhile, claimed all over the world, Guernica was constantly going back and forth between Europe, the United States, Latin America. Picasso, who never returned to Spain, had forbidden his work to be shown in his native country until the establishment of democracy.

It took another five years, after Franco's death, and the end of long months of negotiations with the New York MoMA that held him, so that Guernica in 1981, for the centenary of the painter's birth, he was welcomed to the Prado Museum. When it is finally exposed, in Madrid, the crowd, coming from afar, flows. It is protected by a thick wall of glass and two civil guards, submachine gun in hand, frame it. There is fear of a pro-Franco attack.

After a long controversy, the Prado did not want to withdraw, arguing that it was part of the continuity of the great Spanish masters, Guernica was transferred in 1992 to the Reina Sofia Museum, devoted to the art of XXe century, of which it remains the main attraction. At the museum shop, Guernica is available in by-products: magnets, bookmarks, bags, mouse pads, notebooks, key rings, computer cases, calendars, puzzles, cups, cases, glasses cases, trays, cork coasters, think -bestes, erasers, and tutti quanti.

"A whole floor revolves around Guernica, explains Joao Fernandes, deputy director of the museum. It's not just a masterpiece. It is also a document on the Civil War, the artistic symbol of resistance to barbarism. In accordance with Reina Sofia's mission, we did not isolate her from the social and political context of the time. A whole room returns to the history of the Spanish pavilion of the 1937 World Fair in Paris, for which Guernica had been commissioned from Picasso. "

A model reproduces the modernist lines of its architecture, with the sculptures of Picasso and the fountain of Calder. Guernica was shown on the back wall, almost in the open air. "In 1937, this work was not yet the universal symbol of peace that it became after the Second World War", reminds Joao Fernandes.

The city of Guernica claims Picasso's painting

The Reina Sofia Museum exhibits the drawings, sketches and preparatory studies in black and white, but also in color, the different states of the painting, photographed in its successive versions by Dora Maar, the companion of Picasso, in these feverish hours. It was through the press that the painter had learned the extent and horror of this massacre of the innocent. Terrible images, including dead children, shocked international opinion. In the first sketches of the composition of the painting, political signs abound (raised fist, wheat, sun). Picasso will erase them to emancipate the ideological conventions of the moment, in favor of universal figures (the dead warriors who refer to the Etruscans, the Pietà, the horse and bull bullfights). In the months that follow, he paints the series Crying woman.

For years, Guernica has been demanding that the Picasso painting be exposed to the very spot where the population was massacred. The provincial government also wanted his transfer to the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. The martyred city of the Basque Country can not bear to see it cornered by Madrid. It also attracts the jealousy of Durango who, with its 336 deaths in similar conditions, feels aggrieved, forgotten … Madrid turns a deaf ear, pushes appointments and wants to hear nothing. Guernica is the jewel of the Reina Sofia Museum. He will not come out anymore.

Guernica is not Oradour. The city was rebuilt by order of Franco, by Republican prisoners. The regime had even organized multiple exhibitions across Spain touting the episodes of its rebirth. And the propaganda hammered that it was "the reds" who had destroyed the city, long left in ruins.

In Guernica, the church, the House of the Assemblies and the base of the sacred oak resisted the bombings of April 26, 1937. Even today, the investiture of the President of the Government of Biscay is formalized before the new tree of freedom .

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