Guernica: Warsaw, London, Munich, New York

This essay on the afterlives of Picasso’s painting ‘Guernica’ appeared in Polish in Nigdy więcej. Sztuka przeciw wojnie i faszyzmowi w XX I XXI wieku, a book published by the Muzeum Sztuki Nowoczesnej in 2019.


‘Guernica’ in the Reina Sofia, Madrid, photographed by Andrea-ga reproduced under a CC license.

Art student Stanisław Kulon recalled the scene outside the entrance of the Academy of Fine Art in the centre of Warsaw in October 1956:

A large copy of Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ was mounted on the front gate of the Academy, on Krakowskie Przedmieście. In the evenings, the celebrated ceramic dishes – geese, cockerels – by Hasior [a sculptor] were placed in front of the famous painting to collect money for the victims of Soviet aggression against the Hungarian nation. Every now and then, it was necessary to empty the full bowls of the pennies. The passers-by were very generous. Candles were lit in front of the setting formed by ‘Guernica’ and Hasior’s birds. In addition to giving money, Varsovians made bouquets of flowers …’.[1]

With the Hungarian Uprising being put down by Soviet troops and the State Security Police at that moment, art students in Warsaw deployed a reproduction of Picasso’s history painting to channel popular support for the Hungarian people. A period of political turmoil, Poland was undergoing its own rapid de-Stalinisation and the threat of invasion by Soviet tanks seemed all too real.

Speaking after the event, Kulon’s memory was most likely mistaken. The copy on display on an easel shrouded in black fabric outside the Academy was of a painting by Picasso, but it was not ‘Guernica’ (or at least no evidence has come to light of its appearance there). Documentary photographs and films of the shrine outside the Academy all feature ‘Massacre in Korea’ (1951), Picasso’s denunciation of American militarism. This was a painting that had been seen by the citizens of Warsaw: in 1952 it had been shown in a major exhibition of contemporary French art in the Zachęta Gallery. Ryszard Stanisławski recalled in 1955:

‘No, painting is not made to decorate apartments. It is a weapon in an aggressive and defensive war against the enemy.’ These are the words of Pablo Picasso. The image of ‘Massacre in Korea’ illustrates them. The painting was in Zachęta and probably aroused the greatest interest in the exhibition of contemporary French art. The name of the author of ‘Guernica’ and ‘The Dove of Peace’, and the winner of the Great Peace Prize, is known in Poland to everyone.[2]

If Stanisławski exaggerated the depth of Picasso’s fame in Poland, he did so only slightly.[3] Not only was the Spanish painter well-known to artists (where ‘Guernica’ had been a touchstone of debates about realism in the late 1940s as Polish culture ‘fell into line’ under pressure from Moscow[4]), he was a regular face in the media too. In September 1948, the Spanish artist had come to participate in the World Congress of Intellectuals in Defence of Peace in Wrocław, an event which attracted almost five hundred leading artists, writers, scientists and academics from all over the globe.[5] The first in what was to become a series (New York in 1949, Paris and simultaneously in Prague 1949, and Sheffield and then Warsaw when delegates were barred from entering the UK, 1950), the Congress revived the tradition of anti-fascist meetings in the 1930s. It was organised to secure a major propaganda coup for the Soviet Union and its allies in the early stages of the Cold War. Picasso was the star of the stage, being awarded the Lenin Peace Prize in Warsaw for the dove poster which he had produced for the Salle Pleyel Paris-Prague Conference of November 1949.[6] Nevertheless, press reports in Poland went far beyond the ‘required’ enthusiasm for a prominent communist visitor. At thirteen days, Picasso’s stay was long and busy, and reported in considerable, even obsessive detail; visits to museums to see folk art in Wrocław and historical monuments like the Wit Stwosz Altar in Kraków, as well as the site of the Nazi Death Camp at Auschwitz and the Ballet in Warsaw; meetings with medical doctors and veterans of the Spanish Civil War; an inspection of new housing estate (where he decorated an apartment with a large drawing of a hammer-wielding Siren); and evenings the concert halls of the capital.[7] And ‘the author of Guernica’, as Picasso was invariably described, was a willing subject, always ready for the camera.

Eight years later, Cold War politics turned 180 degrees, and ‘Massacre in Korea’, a painting by ‘the most famous communist in the world after Stalin and Mao-Tse-Tung’ (and with a far more extensive ‘cult of personality’), was being used by Poles to criticise the violent actions of Soviet forces in the Hungarian capital.[8] Picasso’s image of helmeted men lined up to shoot a group of women and children, their nakedness declaring their innocence, was displayed to indict the Kremlin.

But ‘Massacre in Korea’ was not ‘Guernica’.

A Migrant Picture

Why did Kulon place ‘Guernica’ on the streets of Warsaw in 1956? Perhaps his ‘false memory’ is not surprising. Picasso’s painting protesting the bombardment of the citizens of the Basque town of Guernica in April 1937 by German fighter planes at Franco’s behest had already become a kind of ubiquitous and ever-present image, widely reported in the international media. From the outset, it had been commissioned by representatives of Republican Government as the centrepiece of its pavilion at the 1937 Paris Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Moderne to attract world-wide support and to condemn Franco. And, despite his own doubts about producing a work that could do justice to the dead and injured,[9] Picasso did much to ensure that it achieve these ends. A during the weeks when he worked on the painting in his Paris studio, photographer (and his lover) Dora Maar made regular visits to record his progress.[10]

After display in Paris in 1937, the enormous canvas became a migrant picture, sent on tour abroad to draw funds for Hunger Relief in Spain. First it went to the Kunstnernes Hus in Oslo, Statens Museum for Kunst in Copenhagen, the Konsthall Liljevaich in Stockholm and the Konsthallen in Göteborg in the spring and early summer of 1938. Roland Penrose, an artist and writer with close associations with the surrealists in Paris, and Herbert Read, art historian and philosopher, then arranged for ‘Guernica’ to travel to Britain along with dozens of preparatory sketches. In Britain, the tour started in the prestigious New Burlington Galleries in London and Oriel College at Oxford University, and then drew large working class audiences in Leeds City Art Gallery and in Manchester where it was shown in a disused Ford car showroom. In early 1939, it was in London at the Whitechapel Gallery in the East End of the city (where visitors could gain entry by trading a pair of boots that could be sent to the Spanish front: ‘ranks of working men’s boots were left like ex votos at the painting’s base’[11]). Leader of the Labour Party, Clement Attlee, delivered a ringing speech in front of the canvas, railing against the ‘thrusting barbarism’ of Spanish nationalism and Japanese imperialism. Even after Franco’s victory in early 1939, the painting continued to do its work supporting Spanish refugees with ticket sales. It was sent across the Atlantic to be exhibited, first at the Valentine Gallery in New York and then in other venues in the country over a three month tour. At the end of 1939, Guernica was back in New York at Museum of Modern Art where it was shown in a retrospective of the artist’s work, Picasso: Forty Years of His Art. In 1953 it began its international travels again, being sent to São Paolo, Brazil, and to various European cities; now being tasked, as I will show, with new functions.

‘Guernica’ travelled yet further still in the form of reproductions: as postcards including those sold in the Spanish Pavilion; in newspaper reports and newsreels, where it sometimes formed an emotive backdrop for political speeches like that given by Attlee; as stamps (in Czechoslovakia the image was used to commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of the formation of the International Brigades in Spain in 1936); the covers of books and LPs (my battered copy of Jean-Paul Sartre’s The Age of Reason is a 1967 paperback with a large detail of the painting, focusing on the hand thrust skyward, on the cover). Filmmakers turned the still image into powerfully moving one. Alain Resnais, for instance, made a sombre short with the title ‘Guernica’ (1950) which combined photographs, newspaper clippings and, above all, details from the artist’s paintings and sculptural works. Documentary images of the city in ruins overlap and dissolve with the figures from well known, early canvases like Famille de saltimbanques (1905). Combining fragments and accompanied by dissonant music, this short film essay was bound together by Paul Éluard’s poem, ‘La victoire de Guernica’ recited as a voice over. Éluard’s reflections on the violence done to citizens of the Basque city seem to attach themselves to Picasso’s early portraits, as if marking the tragic fate of these familiar faces. Only late in Resnais’ short film do details from ‘Guernica’, the painting, appear, connected in fast, diagonal pans. In this way, Resnais sought to restore the disturbing effects of viewing the contorted jumble of limbs and faces, and animals for the first time; the struggle to make sense of a picture that does not unfold in a neat narrative form, or present a distinct space to the viewer. Appearing so frequently in print and film by the early 1950s, ‘Guernica’, the painting, could never again be encountered ‘for the first time’, such was the clamour which had already been attached to the work and its author.

Later, the painting drew the attention of the new medium of television in the UK, West Germany and France. In the UK, the painting was the subject of a live section of a programme broadcast in 1958, ‘Should Every Picture Tell a Story?’ (ATV), in which the young Marxist critic John Berger explained the symbolism of the painting to the former director of the National Gallery, Kenneth Clark. A patrician clad in tweed, Clark cast himself as an unlikely proxy for the ‘man on the street’. Standing before a half-size reproduction of the painting in the TV studio, he ends the discussion by editorialising: ‘I am bound to say that a lot of the forms, of the distortions are hard to explain to the average man. This [painting] can have an impact on an ordinary person but it cannot be popular painting. It can only really be understood by people who’ve trodden the long, hard road of modern art, don’t you think?’ Despite their doubting tone, such critiques did little to damage the painting’s reputation: ‘Guernica’ was a painting which compelled attention.

With origins in the press reports that Picasso had read of the bombing of the Basque city in 1937 (particularly George Steer’s moving eye-witness account for The Times which appeared in translation in l’Humanité[12]), and its own considerable afterlife in print and celluloid, ‘Guernica’ was deeply enmeshed in the modern media.[13] It might serve as ‘early’ illustration of what theorists identify as characteristic features of much digital media today; namely the tendency for words and images to travel widely and fast, ‘jumping’ between media often without the approval or the knowledge of their originators. The phenomenon is not new; it is simply accelerated by digital tools. What is noteworthy about the process of ‘remediation’, as it is sometimes called, is the extent to which an ‘original’ work is not only amplified by reproduction but also extended.[14] In appearing in new settings before new audiences, an image comes to acquire new meanings. Here the question is whether the migrant picture acquires heightened efficacy and political force by its reproduction, or whether remediation is actually an entropic process. To ask this question of ‘Guernica’, one should examine the painting’s appearances after 1945. In the aftermath of the defeat of the Third Reich, what effects did knowledge of the Holocaust and the threat of nuclear annihilation have on the ways in which Picasso’s 1937 painting was viewed?

Warsaw, 1955

Perhaps Kulon’s memory of ‘Guernica’ on the streets of Warsaw was less a mistake of recall than an error in transposition. One year earlier, in 1955, a copy of ‘Guernica’ had been on display on the streets of the Polish capital. During the fifth Światowy Festiwal Młodzieży i Studentów – an international gathering that brought young people to the People’s Republic from both sides of the Cold War divide and from the global south in August 1955 – the streets of the city had been decorated with brightly coloured flags and enormous friezes featuring loud declarations against war, images of doves and other symbols of the post-war peace movement. For a few weeks, they had formed a living gallery showing the kind of bold modern art that had been prohibited during the Stalin years.[15] On Marszałkowska street, architect Jerzy Hryniewiecki arranged a series of billboard-sized images under the slogan ‘Żądamy zakazu broni atomowej’ including Paul Colin’s 1947 poster ‘Varsovie Accuse’ and Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ repainted by the Polish artist Wojciech Fangor.[16] In Hryniewiecki’s design, the painting was given a trapezoid form and was framed by wedge-shaped blocks, both giving the illusion of spatial depth. ‘Guernica’, on the streets of Warsaw, seemed to occupy an interior space under regular roof beams, albeit a rather schematic one. In fact, Hryniewiecki’s design made reference to the interior of the Spanish Pavilion for which ‘Guernica’ had been produced eighteen years earlier. This had an orderly effect on an image which eschewed spatial order: inside and out, proximity and distance, above and below are all powerfully and meaningfully confused in ‘Guernica’. In Warsaw, the shattered spaces of post-cubist art were purposely reorganised by Hryniewiecki’s scenography.

Set in the ruins which still dominated the Polish capital a decade after the end of the Second World War, Hryniewiecki’s frieze underlined the shared fates of the Spanish town and Warsaw. According to contemporary reports, other images in the series pulled this timeline of catastrophe even closer to the present by making reference to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima in August 1945 and the recent war in Korea.[17] ‘Guernica’ was identified, rightly, as a kind of prototype for massive, industrialised and anonymous violence conducted on civilian populations in order to demoralise the survivors and speed their surrender. Here, on the streets of a destroyed city, was an illustration of the observation made by British art critic John Berger in his 1965 book The Success and Failure of Picasso, namely that ‘Picasso’s painting Guernica is said to be a protest against modern war, and is even sometimes claimed to be a kind of prophetic protest against nuclear war.’[18] Hryniewiecki and Fangor’s version of ‘Guernica’ under the slogan ‘Żądamy zakazu broni atomowej’ proved his point.

Berger doubted ‘Guernica’s’ capacity to be the basis of progressive politics, seeing the work in terms of Picasso’s own ‘private’ anguish about the war in Spain, his homeland:

When Picasso painted ‘Guernica’ he used the private imagery which was already in his mind and which he had been applying to an apparently very different theme. But only apparently – or anyway, only superficially different. For ‘Guernica’ is a painting about how Picasso imagines suffering; and just as when he is working on a painting or sculpture about making love the intensity of his sensations makes it impossible for him to distinguish between himself and his lover, just as his portraits of women are often self-portraits of himself found in them, so here in ‘Guernica’ he is painting his own suffering as he daily hears the news from his own country.[19]

For Berger, the exceptional power of the art work was to be found in the way that it ‘abstracts pain and fear from history and returns them to a protesting nature’. In other words, it does not explain the trauma of Guernica in terms of the tragic event which had befallen the city or the forces at work but renders it through affect.

London, 1939

As its title indicates, The Success and Failure of Picasso was a bold book in which Berger forms an assessment of the artist after having engaged deeply with his art for many years and sharing his politics. Berger’s writing is fresh and iconoclastic, bristling with disdain for Picasso’s pop culture celebrity (crowning him the ‘King of California’) but also awe at his art. At the same time, it was shaped by debates on the Left about the correct forms of engaged art that can be traced back to arguments in the Left in the 1930s. Berger’s views were formed the orbit of the Artists International Association (AIA), an organisation formed in 1933 to fight fascism with art. Within two years of the publication of its statement of aims in International Literature in 1934, the AIA had grown rapidly from 32 founders to nearly 1,000 members and scored extraordinary success in attracting leading painters, graphic designers and sculptors to its ranks.[20] The AIA organised exhibitions, encouraged the production of various forms of graphic propaganda, raised funds for causes such as the International Brigades fighting in the Spanish Civil War; and was the sponsor of congresses and lectures addressing questions of how artists should respond to the changing political climate of the 1930s.

The AIA was a broad anti-fascist alliance in the 1930s but at its core was a small number of activists – many active communists – for whom aesthetics and politics could not be separated. They debated keenly the ‘appropriate’ form and role of ‘committed’ art, many demonstrated their commitment to the Soviet Union by advocating forms of Socialist Realism. Anthony Blunt, for instance, reviewed the Paris 1937 Exposition Internationale, calling out Picasso’s ‘Guernica’:

The gesture is fine and even useful in that it shows the adherence of a distinguished Spanish intellectual to the cause of his government. But the painting is disillusioning. Fundamentally, it is the same as Picasso’s bull fight scenes. It is not an act of public mourning but the expression of a private brainstorm which gives no evidence that Picasso has realised the political significance of ‘Guernica’.[21]

Blunt laid down a critique which could have been shaped by Moscow. Art, according to the Soviet proponents of Socialist Realism, was to be optimistic pointing to the inevitability of communist victory; it was also to be legible to the workers and peasants that the artist was to serve. The action of bringing ‘Guernica’ to the East End of London and to the north of England in 1938 by Penrose and Read was designed, at least in part, to prove Blunt wrong. Not only had the exhibition in these drawn large audiences and triggered animated discussion; in the Whitechapel Gallery, it had raised considerable funds for Spanish Relief. ‘The misgivings of those who imagined that Picasso’s work would mean nothing to the working classes have been proven false’ reported Penrose, with evident satisfaction.[22]

Munich, 1955

Berger in his assessment of The Success and Failure of Picasso suggested that this intensely personal register of ‘Guernica’ was accompanied by a disavowal of History, in the sense of concrete material conditions or political struggle:

‘Guernica’ … is a profoundly subjective work – and it is from this that its power derives. Picasso did not try to imagine the actual event. There is no town, no aeroplanes, no explosion, no reference to the time of day, the year, the century, or the part of Spain where it happened. There are no enemies to accuse. There is no heroism. And yet the work is a protest – and one would know this even if one knew nothing of its history.[23]


This emphasis on subjectivity may have contributed greatly to the painting’s considerable appeal in Europe after 1945, albeit not necessarily in the terms outlined by Berger. After the Second World War, the word ‘freedom’ came to have considerable currency: it was used, for instance, by Cold War ideologues in the West to attack the lack of real democracy or the abuses of human rights in Eastern Europe under communist rule. It was also a central term in Existentialist thinking. (As Jean-Paul Sartre put it in 1945, ‘Man is free in the fullest and strongest sense. Freedom isn’t in him as a property of his human essence he does not exit first, and then be free later. He is free by the fact he exists. There’s no distance between his being and his freedom’[24]). It was a branch of philosophy which was reinvigorated by the experience of the Second World War. Occupation, not least of Paris by the Germans, provided a living test of how to act in the face of a brutal and absurd force. (Picasso ‘passed’ by giving out postcards of ‘Guernica’ to German soldiers who came to visit the famous artist in his studio[25]). And the rapid rise of National Socialism in Germany – built on the illusions of the führerprinzip (leadership principle) and ganzheit (national wholeness) and myths of ethnic ubermenschen (supermen) – provided clear evidence of the dangers of uncritical faith in a redemptive ideology.

According to his post-war champions, Picasso’s art was not only ‘dedicated to freedom, but is freedom itself’.[26] These words were written in the German catalogue a major survey of his work at the Haus der Kunst in Munich entitled ‘Picasso 1900-1955’ that opened in October 1955. Featuring 256 paintings, sculptures, prints, ceramics and drawings, the blockbuster had been first shown in Paris in the Musée des Arts Décoratifs. Over three months in Munich, 108,000 people paid the price of entry, making it one of the most successful exhibitions in post-war Germany. And, in its own dedicated space, ‘Guernica’ was the centrepiece of the show.

At the time of the preparations for the exhibition, Picasso’s status as a leading communist intellectual was the cause of anxiety on the part of the authorities in Federal Republic of Germany. The German Foreign Office asked the Haus der Kunst ‘to leave behind those works which are political in character (the Dove of Peace) and that might possibly give cause of political demonstrations’.[27] At this time, the West German state was particularly preoccupied with the ‘threat’ of communism from without and within (banning the Communist Party in 1956). The direction from Foreign Office’s was, of course, not followed: political works including ‘Guernica’ and ‘Massacre in Korea’ were put on display. However, the motivation for showing the former appears to have been less a desire for noisy demonstrations than for personal introspection.

In Munich, ‘Picasso 1900-1955’ was the first survey of the work of a figure who had become synonymous around the world with modern art, in a country that under Hitler had been schooled to view his art as a sign of cultural ‘degeneracy’. In 1937, the city had been the setting for the notorious Entartete Kunst exhibition in which the work of fauvist, cubist, expressionist and surrealist artists that had been confiscated from state institutions and presented for public ridicule. Other confiscated works that were put up for auction at the Galerie Fischer in Lucerne in 1939 included paintings by Picasso. And in 1942, during the occupation of Paris, the Wehrmacht put works by the city’s leading modern artists to the torch.

In the post-war years, Nazi abuses of modern art were taken as proof of modern art’s innate connections to intellectual and expressive freedom. The 1955 Picasso show in Munich was mounted to exorcise Nazi cultural policies. It was displayed in a monumental building which had been erected in the 1930s as a Nazi ‘temple to German art’. The bombastic monumentalism of Nazi propaganda display was now, in 1955, replaced by a more contemplative mode, with the curators eschewing exhibition labels and providing contemporary style seating for slow, thoughtful viewing (alongside an extensive programme of lectures and tours).

This was the setting in which ‘Guernica’, the rallying image of anti-fascism, was to be conscripted into the project of remaking Germans into citizens capable of reintegration with the other peoples of Europe. The painting was by no means universally celebrated, but it was seized by those who imagined that Picasso could play a key role in healing the wounds of the past and restoring the nation. Anticipating that Picasso’s artistic distortions of space and the human form would not be comprehended easily (much like Clark above), they presented the task of viewing the painting as one of self-education. In Der Zeit, for instance, Carl Georg Heise wrote:

The first impression, of course, is startling and confusing … [but] he who is honest with himself will feel that he himself has much to learn, much to correct … Which other aesthete or intellectual could have created a work so deeply moving as ‘Guernica’ that employs all means of pictorial invention in the service of shocking human hearts, with the result that all the anti-war manifestos of the world fade beside it? Every day in the exhibition, one can see that even the scoffers fall silent in the crowded wall of observers which lines up in front of this huge canvas and holds its breath … [28]

For Heise, Picasso was the guide to ‘new possibilities of dignified existence beyond the rubble, in a spiritualized world (vergeistigten Welt)’. It is perhaps not surprising then that contemporary reports of the exhibition placed as much emphasis on the viewer as on the artist. Photographers reporting the show concentrated on the faces of the audience – sometimes puzzled, sometimes deep in thought, sometimes smiling – as if to find ways of gauging the art’s civic effects on ‘ordinary Germans’.

What these effects were is, of course, difficult to know. In a recent lecture, Martin Schieder notes that few contemporary commentators identified the role played by Germany in the destruction of the Basque town in their reviews and articles.[29] The perpetrators of the violence, undepicted in Picasso’s painting, were unremarked in their words. Here, the idea that Guernica was a prophetic work allowed for a kind of empathetic connection to be made between victims in Spain and elsewhere. If ‘Guernica‘ anticipated future atrocities, then surely they included the aerial bombardment of civilian populations in German cities during the Second World War too. What Berger had characterised an intensely subjective work of art was also a universal one, precisely because its engagement with primal feelings like fear. In this way, the painting or, to be more precise, the silences which accompanied it, contributed to the amnesia which pervaded Adenauer’s Germany in the 1950s, a phenomenon that Schieder calls the ‘collective suppression of historical responsibility’.

New York, 1970

After 1958, ‘Guernica’ remained in the Museum of Modern Art in New York (until eventually returning to Spain in 1981 after Franco’s death[30]). Despite its fixed location, it remained a focus of international politics. In the second half of the 1960s, for instance, it was conscripted in the protests against the American war in Vietnam.

The Art Workers’ Coalition (AWC) formed in New York in early 1969, calling for social and economic justice in the production and display of art. ‘The AWC’, reported the New York Times, ‘is a loose‐knit group of museophobic artists, writers, film makers and ephemeralists, who seek—without the aid of foundation money—to reform the art world structure. They have presented MoMA with an 11‐point list of demands, ranging from free admission at all times to the establishment of a section devoted to the work of black and Puerto Rican artists.’[31] The ACW’s relationship with MoMA was ambivalent and somewhat opportunistic: it attacked the Museum’s sponsorship arrangements but also sought to tap its resources. This included the securing an agreement that the Museum distribute a poster protesting the murders that had taken place in a Vietnamese hamlet called My Lai on US Army maps in March 1968. There, a troop of soldiers massacred hundreds of unarmed Vietnamese people, mutilating the bodies of some and raping others. The terrified faces of the villagers and the bodies of the dead were recorded by a US army photographer and, when his images eventually found their way into newspapers, magazines and television reports in late 1969, the event triggered a storm of outrage and shame across the country. Public opinion was already turning against the War, and the media was no longer willing to accept the government foreign policy unquestioningly.

Members of the AWC combined a colour photograph taken at My Lai with a short extract of an interview on television with one of the troops to create a poster known as ‘And Babies?’ Union lithographers donated their services, and paper was obtained without cost. On hearing about the project, the president of the board of trustees of the Museum withdrew the institution’s support. Nevertheless, the AWC went ahead, publishing the poster in an edition of 50,000 copies, which it then distributed ‘free of charge all over the world’ including in the Museum’s lobby. The group issued a press release reflecting on this turn of events:

Practically, the outcome is as planned: an artist-sponsored poster protesting the My-Lai massacre will receive vast distribution. But the Museum’s unprecedented decision to make known, as an institution, its commitment to humanity, has been denied it. Such a lack of resolution casts doubt on the strength of the Museum’s commitment to art itself, and can only be seen as a bitter confirmation of this institution’s decadence and/or impotence.[32]

The group also mounted a ‘lie-in’, parading the poster in front of ‘Guernica’ in the Museum’s galleries.[33] In effect, this was a ‘Photo Op’, an event which was organised to attract media attention. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the action in front on Guernica was reported in the New York Times.[34] Various art magazines also committed to publishing this image on their covers.[35] ‘And Babies?’ was already an incendiary image: the ‘lie-in’ in front of ‘Guernica’ not only ensured its remediation in the press, it redoubled the accusation made by Nixon’s critics that the president’s foreign policies were an American form of fascism. It also had the unfortunate effect of putting the victims in Guernica even further into the shadows of anonymity, behind another pile of unnamed and uncounted victims.

In March 1970 the AWC also demanded that Picasso withdraw the painting from MoMA in solidarity with their anti-Vietnam War campaigning. (This was in fact, a repeat of an request first made in 1967, the Angry Arts Petition[36]). 250 artists and writers signed a letter to the artist in Paris:

… What the US government is doing in Vietnam far exceeds Guernica, Oradour and Lidice [SS atrocities in France, 1944, and Czechoslovakia, 1942]. The continuous housing of ‘Guernica’ in the Museum of Modern Art, New York, implies that our establishment has the moral right to be indignant about the crimes of others – and ignore our own crimes American artists want to raise their voices against the hundreds of Guernicas and Oradours which are taking place in Vietnam. We cannot remain silent in the face of Mylai. We are asking for your help. Tell the directors and trustees of The Museum of Modern Art in New York that ‘Guernica’ cannot remain on public view as long as American troops are committing genocide in Vietnam. Renew the outcry of ‘Guernica’ by telling those who remain silent in the face of Mylai that you remove from them the moral trust as guardians of your painting. American artists and art students will miss ‘Guernica’ but will also know that by removing it you are bringing back to life the message you gave three decades ago.[37]

In other words, by remaining on display in MoMA, ‘Guernica’ supported the illusion that America was a champion of democracy and human rights around the world. [38]

One final attempt to deploy ‘Guernica’ as a weapon for peace in Vietnam occured in 1974 when Toni Shafrazi, a young Iranian-born artist who had studied in London in the 1960s and was a member of the ACW, sprayed ‘Kill Lies All’ in red paint across the surface of the painting in MoMA. Apparently protesting at the release of the only soldier punished for the crimes at My Lai, Lieutenant William Paley, who had been issued a limited pardon by President Nixon, Shafrazi presented his actions as a those of an artist.[39] (He had already notified the Associated Press news agency and, when confronted by security guards, he reportedly said ‘Call a curator. I am an artist’[40]). Writing to the director of MoMA, members of the ACW demanded Shafrazi’s release and that all charges be dropped: ‘Toni Shafrazi’s art action is, as was Picasso’s originally, a profound, tormented, humanistic expression against the callousness barbarity of a nation.’[41]

When looking on ‘Guernica’ – whether in the gallery or in reproduction – viewers often experienced deep flashes of recognition of their own needs and anxieties. The histories discussed here – a handful of cases from the many, many examples of the remediation of ‘Guernica’ that could be considered – point to different forms of forgetfulness that sometimes accompanied the shock of painful or angry recognition.

‘Guernica’ had and continues to have, it seems, a extraordinary capacity for refraction. T.J. Clark acknowledges this, observing in 2017 that:

There are photographs by the hundred of versions of Guernica – placards on sticks, elaborate facsimiles, tapestries, banners, burlesques, strip cartoons, wheat-paste posters, street puppet shows – being carried in anger or agony over the past thirty years in Ramallah, Oaxaca, Calgary, London, Kurdistan, Madrid, Cape Town, Belfast, Calcutta; outside US air bases, in marches against the Iraq invasion, in struggles of all kinds against state repression, as a rallying point for los Indignados, and – still, always, everywhere, indispensably – an answer to the lie of ‘collateral damage’.[42]

In all cases, it should be obvious what is being marked (after all, that is the purpose of these conscriptions of ‘Guernica’). But one might wonder what is being forgotten too?


[1] Kulon cited by Maryla Sitkowska, ‘Spotkania sztuki z polityką’ in Powinność i bunt. Akademia Sztuk Pięknych w Warszawie 1944-2004 (Warsaw, 2004) 304.

[2] Ryszard Stanisławski ‘Sztuka francuska walczy o pokój’ in Przegląd Artystyczny 2 (1955), 55.

[3] See Piotr Bernatowicz, Picasso za żelazną kurtyną. Recepcja artysty i jego sztuki w krajach Europy Środkowo-Wschodniej w latach 1945-1970 (Kraków, 2006) for a comprehensive analysis of the influence of Picasso in Eastern Europe under communist rule. See also Eleonory Gilburd ‘Picasso in thaw culture’, Cahiers du monde russe, 47, 1-2 (2006) available on-line and Piotr Bernatowicz and Vojtěch Lahoda, ‘Picasso and Central Europe after 1945’ in Lynda Morris and Christoph Grunenberg, eds., Picasso: peace and freedom (London, 2010), 44-51.

[4] See Piotr Bernatowicz, ‘Picasso w Polsce “zaraz po wojnie”’ in Artium Quaestiones, XI (2000), 155-220.

[5] On the politics of the Congress see Katarzyna Murawska-Muthesius ‘Modernism between Peace and Freedom: Picasso and Others at the Congress of Intellectuals in Wrocław, 1948’ in David Crowley and Jane Pavitt, eds., Cold War Modern. Design 1945-1970 (London, 2008), 33-42.

[6] Sarah Wilson ‘From Monuments to Fast Cars’ in David Crowley and Jane Pavitt, eds., Cold War Modern. Design 1945-1970 (London, 2008), 29.

[7] The details of Picasso’s participation in the Congress and the events of his tour of Poland after are recorded in Mieczysław Bibrowski, Picasso w Polsce (Kraków, 1979)

[8] Murawska-Muthesius, ‘Modernism between Peace and Freedom’, 28.

[9] See T.J. Clark and Anne M. Wagner, Pity and Terror: Picasso’s Path to ‘Guernica’ (Madrid, 2017), x.

[10] They were reproduced in a special issue of Cahiers d’art, 4-5 (1937) reporting the Spanish Pavilion in Paris.

[11] Gijs van Hensbergen, Guernica: The Biography of a 20th Century Icon (London, 2005), 95.

[12] From our own correspondent (Steer) ‘The Tragedy of Guernica. Town destroyed in air attack’ in The Times (27 April 1937)

[13] The Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sophia has put the results of its extensive research into the history of the painting and its afterlifes on a remarkably extensive website entitled Rethinking Guernica – See also TJ Clarke’s

[14] See Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin, Remediation. Understanding New Media (Cambridge, MA, 1999).

[15] A. Krzywicki, Poststalinowski karnawał radości. V Światowy Festiwal Młodzieży i Studentów o Pokój i Przyjaźń, Warszawa 1955 rok (Warsaw, 2009).

[16] By a curious turn of history, Fangor had seen ‘Guernica’ in the Spanish Pavilion in the Paris Expo in 1937 as a teenager. See Z Wojciechem Fangorem rozmawia Stefan Szydłowski (Warsaw, 2009) available at

[17] Hanna Onoszko makes this claim in her article ‘Dekoracje festiwalowe’ in Przegląd Artystyczny, 3-4 (1955), 70.

[18] John Berger, The Success and Failure of Picasso (Harmondsworth, 1965), 24.

[19] Ibid, 168.

[20] See Lynda Morris and Robert Radford, The Story of the AIA. Artists’ International Association 1933-1953 (Oxford, 1983).

[21] Anthony Blunt, ‘Art’ in The Spectator (6 August 1937), 17.

[22] Roland Penrose writing in London Bulletin (January-February 1939), 59.

[23] Blunt, a vocal supporter of the Soviet Union in the 1930s, was made keeper of the royal art collection after the Second World War. After an illustrious career as an art historian, he was exposed as a Soviet spy in 1979. See Miranda Carter, Anthony Blunt: His Lives (London, 2001).

[24] ‘Interview at Café Flore’ in John Paul Sartre, The Last Chance: Roads of Freedom IV (London, 2009), 17.

[25] This often-reproduced story was told by Simone Téry in Les Lettres francaises (24 March 1945). It appears in translation with the ‘Painting is Not Done to Decorate Apartments’ in Ellen C. Oppler, ed., Picasso’s Guernica (New York, 1988), 151-53.

[26] Maurice Jardot cited by Carl Georg Heise,Picasso und kein Ende’ in Der Zeit (1 December 1955) available at

[27] Cited in Sabine Brandl, Histories in conflict. Haus der Kunst and the ideological uses of art, 1937-1955 (Munich, 2017), 40.

[28] Heise, Der Zeit

[29] Martin Schieder, ‘Guernica in Germany’, a lecture presented at the third International Picasso Congress, Barcelona (April 2017) – available on My discussion of the 1955 exhibition is indebted to Schieder’s analysis.

[30] In October 1969 reports appeared in the French and US press that the Franco government wished to see the painting in Madrid, soliciting the renewed response from Picasso that he would never allow the painting to hang there until Spain was a republic again.

[31] Grace Glueck, ‘Yanking The Rug From Under’ in New York Times (25 January 1970).

[32] Cited in Lucy Lippard, ‘The Art Worker’s Coalition: Not a History’ in Studio International (November 1970) 15.

[33] See Francis Frascina, Art, Politics and Dissent: Aspects of the Art Left in Sixties America (Manchester, 1999), 160-208.

[34] Glueck, New York Times (25 January 1970).

[35] See Michael Israel, Kill for Peace: American Artists Against the Vietnam War (Austin, Texas, 2013) 135. In the event, it only appeared on the cover of the November 1970 issue of the British art magazine, Studio International.

[36] David McCarthy, American Artists Against War, 1935 2010 (Berkeley, CA, 2015) 80

[37] Art Workers Coalition, ‘Artists and Writers Protest to Picasso’ in Oppler, ed., Picasso’s Guernica, 240.

[38] Apparently, Picasso never received the open letter. Harris suggests that the artist’s dealer and close friends – including Roland Penrose – ensured that it did not reach him. See Jonathan Harris, The Utopian Globalists: Artists of Worldwide Revolution, 1919 – 2009 (Hoboken, NJ, 2013), x.

[39] van Hensbergen, Guernica, 276.

[40] Michael T. Kaufman, ‘Guernica Survives a Spray‐Paint Attack by Vandal’ in New York Times (1 March 1974).

[41] Guerrilla Art Action Group, ‘Guernica/Mylai’ in Oppler, ed., Picasso’s Guernica, 244.

[42] T.J. Clark, ‘Picasso and Tragedy’ in The London Review of Books (27 August 2017), 33.


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