Wednesday, 26 April 2017

80th anniversary of the horror that was Guernica

                                  Pablo Picasso's Guernica

April 26 marks the 80th anniversary of the bombing of Guernica in 1937 during the Spanish Civil War. During the afternoon and early evening of Monday, April 26th, 1937,  the German and Italian fascist air forces destroyed the Spanish town of Guernica in a raid lasting three hours. The war crime was ordered by the Spanish nationalist military leadership and carried out by the Congor Legion of the German luftwaffe and the Italian Aviazone Legionairre. Designed to kill  or main as many civilians as possible, Operation Rugen was deliberately chosen for a Monday afternoon when the weekly town market would be at its most crowded. Guernica, in the Basque  country where revolutionary sentiment among workers was deep, was defenceless from the bombers, which could fly as low as 600 feet.The airplanes made repeated raids, refuelling and returning to drop more bombs. Waves of explosive, fragmentary, and incendiary devices were dumped in the town. In total, 31 tons of munitions were dropped between 4.30 in the afternoon and 7.30 in the evening. In the aftermath of the raid, survivors spoke of the air filled with the screams of those in their death throes and the hundreds injured. Civilians fleeing the carnage in the fields surrounding the town were strafed by fighter planes. Human and animal  body parts littered the market place and town center, such , such horror.Guernica was effectively wiped of the map. From a population of 5,000 some 1,700 residents were killed and a further 800 injured. Three quarters of the buildings were raised to the ground. Farms four miles away were flattened.
The destruction of Guernica was part of Franco's wider, brutal campaign against the existence of the Spanish Republic. This campaign led not just to widespread destruction of property, but thousands of civilian casualties too, as well as widespread displacement. Many sought refuge abroad, as many as 3,800 Basque children were evacuated to England and Wales for the duration of the war. The British Government at the time callously refused to be responsible for the children, but  throughout the summer children were dispersed to camps throughout Britain. Eight of these colonies were here in Wales. They were received with a mixture of hostility and kindness, but they had all managed to escape the grips of Franco's fascist Spain.
The significance of Guernica is that it was the first time that civilians were deliberately targeted in an air attack; it was the first time that a population centre was carpet bombed from the air; and it was one of the first times that a population was used as a target from the air by a foreign power  to test the effectiveness of its aircraft and the effectiveness of terror on the civilian population.Guernica changed the mode of war. Before then, civilians in cities and towns away from the front were by and large relatively safe. In wars before then air power was not capable of such bombing attacks. In World War I, by and large, troops slugged it out in trenches on the front and there was no air war.
Picasso immortalized the bombing of Guernica in his mural, a raw and anguished anti-war statement, a haunting piece of work that  still became a universal howl against the ravages of war. On a large canvas more than seven metres (23 feet) wide, he painted deformed figures of women and children writhing in a burning city.A broken sword in hand, a dismembered fighter lies with wide open eyes, an impassive bull, a wounded dove and an agonising horse nearby. Picasso did not agree with Franco´s regime and he was living in France for a long period of time until his death in 1973 when he was 91 years old. One of the most famous passages about his life is when he was interrogated by the Gestapo while the Nazi occupation  in Paris. When the officers saw the Guernica  they asked him “Did you paint that?” and he replied “No, you did”
Picasso's picture still resonates with tragedy, capturing the full terror and horror of this terrible moment in history.The Reina Sofía Museum, in Madrid is marking the anniversary with an exhibition. called ' Pity and terror in Picasso.' The show which opened on  4 April which will run for five months  will examine the making of the black-and-white mural, as well as its critical reception at the Paris Exposition in 1937 and display at the Whitechapel Gallery in London in 1939. That same year, Picasso transferred Guernica to the care of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York. It toured the US throughout the 1940s and then headed for Brazil, travelling there from 1953 to 1956.
The exhibition will explore the painting’s role in Spain’s post-war reconstruction and as an international image of peace as well as its influence on contemporary artists. Guernica returned to MoMA in 1957 and remained there for 24 years. The painter gave the museum clear instructions — the canvas belonged to the Spanish people and would
only be given back “when they have recovered the freedoms that were taken away from them.”
Finally in 1981, the painting arrived in Spain, which was transitioning to democracy after the death of Francoand went on display at the Prado museum after democracy was restored to the country. In 1992, it was transferred to the Reina Sofía museum.
At the United Nations last year, French Ambassador Francois Delattre compared the destruction in the Syrian city of Aleppo to Guernica.“Aleppo is to Syria what Guernica was to the Spanish war, a human tragedy, a black hole destroying all we believe in,” he said.
It is important and timely to reflect on this tragic occasion  in this context given the emphasis on bombing in the past couple of weeks: the bombing of Syria “in retaliation” for the use of chemical weapons; the Mother of All Bombs being dropped in Afghanistan; and the threats by North Korea to pre-emptively use nuclear bombs. In these strange and worrying political times we are going through,  the anniversary of Guernica is still very poignant.  Guernica must be remembered , for our time, and for future generations, a terrifying rendition of the slaughter of  innocents. Lest we forget.

Guernica - Norman Rosten  (1/1/15 -7/3/95)

In Guernica the dead children
Were laid out in order upon the sidewalk,
In their white starched dresses,
In their pitiful white dresses.
On their foreheads and breasts
Are the little holes where death came in
As thunder, while they were playing
Their important summer games.
Do not weep for them, madre.
They are gone forever, the little ones,
Straight to heaven to the saints,
and God will fill the bullet-holes with candy.

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