Picasso's War

Russell Martin

Read March 2004

Russell Martin was in Madrid, looking at Picasso's Guernica, when calamity hit New York on September 11, 2001. The relationship between the two events drove Martin to write this book. The prologue, which describes this while rising above the maudlin, is the single most powerful section of this book. The rest of it is considerably less moving, but it compensates by being a thoroughly serviceable history of that painting.

Russell puts the painting in perspective with a useful recounting of the curious nature of the Basques, and of the importance of the town of Gernika (as the Basques call the town) to their identity. He then provides a brief survey of events in the Spanish Civil War, particularly of Franco's curious, almost inexplicable relationship with Hitler and Mussolini. He recounts the changing account given over the years by Franco's (one-time) rebels of the attack on Gernika, culminating rather bizarrely in their demands for the painting to return to Spain from the US. He also describes Picasso's relationship with Franco's Spain. The book includes a lengthy account of the shenanigans including the numerous entities battling for control of Picasso's estate and legacy (a problem the painter could have largely avoided by leaving a will, Martin reminds us), which paints New York's MOMA in a distinctly unsympathetic light without making heroes onf the Spaniards either—the location of the painting remains controversial even today, with many Basques believing it belongs in the Guggenheim Bilbao or elsewhere on their soil.

A lot of this is fairly routine history, and is probably better read in other sources. Martin is strongest at describing the development of the painting itself, presenting its evolution from a series about an artist in a studio to a remarkable evocation of the horrors of war. It's a pity Martin doesn't (can't?) reproduce the photographic sources he describes, since words can't really do justice to such richly visual material. Martin's description of the Spanish corrida (bullfighting) tradition—which influenced Picasso considerably—truly illuminates the work, revealing many details of the work that otherwise appear entirely abstract to the lay viewer.

In addition to the somewhat ordinary writing, the book has several unfortunate flaws. There are punctuation and writing flaws, as well as some flatly inconsistent dates (so goodness knows how many are merely wrong) that copy-editing should have caught. The lack of a name or place index and chronology make this a frustrating book to read in more than one setting, and a map wouldn't have hurt none, either. Abstraction is not Martin's strongest suit, and some remarks like “arts flourish only in open societies” (p. 19) leave you wondering about his grasp of art history.

Curiously, it appears the phrase “weapons of mass destruction”, at least now so inextricably linked to America's controversial involvement in Iraq, was coined to describe the atrocity of Gernika. This must be a rich source of irony for Martin, but he appears to be unaware of it (or at least doesn't comment on it).