Picasso’s War by Russell Martin


One of my favorite pasttimes is reading. While I never feel quite up to writing a full review of the books I read, I do like to at least write down my thoughts, so that I can remember better what I read. From time to time, I’m going to share the thoughts I have on some of the books I’ve read. Today, I’m posting my thoughts on two books I read a while ago, Picasso’s War and A Whale Hunt.

Started reading: ~05/01/03
Finished reading: 05/26/03
Notes written: 05/28/03

This book tells the story of Guernica, the famous painting by Picasso. It tells the whole story, starting with the events that lead to the creation of the painting and following Guernica as it moves from museum to museum, becoming ever more the important symbol it has become today. In the telling of the story of Guernica, we come to understand better the current political climate in Spain and the Basque Country, and why things are still so difficult in the region, why some things are so difficult to forgive.

Any history of the painting Guernica necessarily starts with the town Gernika and the Spanish Civil War. This book does an amazing job of recounting that market day when the town was destroyed by German bombers, when the fleeing citizens where gunned down by machine gunners flying overhead. A sense of outrage filled me as I read the recreation of that day, based on accounts of people that were there, an outrage that left me angry at the governments that did this, that let this happen by ignoring events in Spain. Even though I was only reading about it nearly 65 years later, I still felt an anger that can only pale to that felt by the people that went through this, who’s grandparents were there, and it helped me understand why people are still angry today.

After the bombing comes Picasso’s creation. The book follows the efforts of the Spanish Republic to get Picasso to paint something for its exhibit at the world fair in Paris and the creative process that led to Guernica. We follow the painting from Picasso’s studio, to the world’s fair, to New York where it is held in safe keeping until democracy returns to Spain, and finally to Madrid, where it currently resides. We learn that efforts to get the painting to the Basque Country, to be displayed near the site that inspired it, have been met with rejection. That this symbolic act of reconciliation between the Basques and the Spanish government has yet to occur.

The story of Guernica is very much a history of the modern Basque Country. Guernica has become the modern symbol of the horrors of warfare, resonanting not only with the Basque people, but also with the Japonese, the Germans, and other peoples who have first hand witnessed these horrors. It is a telling fact that the US asked a reproduction of Guernica at the UN to be covered when the resolutions on military action in Iraq were being brought to a vote. This painting symbolizes all that is horrible and aweful in war, all of the suffering that occurs. In telling the story of the painting, Picasso’s War reminds us that all wars result in suffering, and that forgiveness is not easy.

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