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Guernica

I was last-minute Googling decent coffee shops for our trip to Madrid when, through a random link, I learned that Guernica was on permanent display in the city. Guernica!

Pablo Picasso’s Guernica. Oil on canvas, 1937.

Excited, I reconfigured our free day around a visit to Reina Sofia and a chance to stand before one of the most significant paintings in history.

When I see a famous or meaningful artwork up close, I study the things less discernable in reproduction. I enjoy the imperfections, the subtlest textures, all the marks and drips not visible in books. I especially like the edges. The canvas pulled around the stretcher; signs of construction, travel and wear. Perhaps in the case of Guernica, the most valuable thing you can never get from reproduction is the immense scale. It’s vast. All-encompassing. Over 11 x 25 feet. It’s hard to believe that it toured the world. That it once went to Leeds.

I noticed — for the first time — the floor tiles that provide a handy perspective grid, a means to map the whole composition. The general structure of it is claustrophobic: everything trapped within a terrifyingly confined space, but the painting is so vast you lose the edges, and it drags you in with the chaos. I spotted an arrow I hadn't seen before. The skull formed from the nose and teeth of the horse and the hidden bull ploughing through the central turmoil, both more apparent in person.

With Les Demoiselles d'Avignon at MoMA, 2013. sketch
With Les Demoiselles d'Avignon at MoMA, 2013. Photo by Geri Coady.

When the Luftwaffe obliterated the town, Picasso knew what he must do with the open commission (for the Spanish pavilion at the 1937 Paris World’s Fair), and he worked fast. Guernica was current affairs, the artist’s response to fascism. The painting was fresh news, a stark headline. Black and white and deadly serious. I was lucky enough to stand before another favourite I never expected to see, his Les Demoiselles d'Avignon at MoMA in Spring 2013, but Guernica is something else. Guernica still has so much to say about our world, and the direction we’re heading in. Fuck fascism!, it shouts.

We stood with the crowd, but dead centre and nearest the rope. Voices all around; mostly hushed, but some sharp and obtrusive. Militant attendants watched every move. No photographs, not even through the entrance from the adjoining room.

Painting can be so powerful. I couldn’t believe I was there, in the presence of Guernica. My eyes ran miles, and my brain recounted what I knew of the work; its historical context and deep symbolism.

Standing there, I found myself playing — for myself, in my head — the Stone Roses track of the same name. Their best and darkest backwards collage; a jabbing and twisting noise. Made of Stone in reverse, with barely discernible lyrics forced to fit. “Watch me at war really up / You wanna hurt me stop the row.” Hardly poetry but it works, a kind of audible cut-and-paste cubism. “See gargoyles can you see the wonder? Yes I fear the carbine.”

The people of Guernica feared the rifle, but it was the unexpected death from above that so motivated Picasso. His is an image that speaks to us still, and will always remind us of the horror of war.