Spain: 'Guernica' at rest

‘Guernica’ by Pablo Picasso.

A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

MADRID – In 1937, Pablo Picasso wanted to ­create an image of a wartime atrocity that would jolt the civilized world into action. The result was “Guernica,” an 11-1/2-by-25-1/2-foot canvas that stands tall among the icons of modern conflict.

If he were alive now, Picasso might have posted a multimedia clip of the devastation visited upon the Basque town of Guernica. The bombing raid was a deadly foretaste of the German blitzkrieg in World War II.

Instead, his arresting painting went on display inside a Spanish pavilion at an exposition in Paris. Visitors came and went; the war went on. Within two years, the republic had fallen, and Picasso and his jumbo-sized painting were exiles.

Picasso died before he could see the restoration of democracy in Spain in the late 1970s. By then, “Guernica” had clocked plenty of air miles, including a long stint at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Finally, in 1981, it came home.

At Madrid’s Reina Sofia Museum, there’s no doubt which of its paintings is the biggest draw. On a recent morning, 40 people packed into a windowless room to peer at the black-and-white painting and its familiar, tormented figures.

“Guernica is a very delicate work. It’s a big canvas, and it would be difficult to move without causing further damage,” says Jorge García Gómez-Tejedor, the museum’s head of restoration. So far, the Reina Sofia Museum hasn’t done any major restoration work on it.

Mr. Gómez-Tejedor doesn’t mention the political tug of war with Basque nationalists who say it belongs where the atrocity occurred. Such arguments revive the buried passions of the civil war here, as well as modern anxieties about breakaway Spanish regions.

Will it ever tour again? “We are studying what we can do in the future. But we don’t want to move it right now,” he says.

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