Thursday 2 September 2010

Guernica and Guernica

Guernica - 39

Sun 9 - Mon 10 May

Guernica (Gernika in Basque) is a small market town, upstream from Bilbao, but it has been a place of major significance for the people of the Basque Country since at least the mid-14th Century, with a communal and political rôle which belies its size.

Throughout history the Basques have always been fiercely independent. Over a period of a thousand years they resisted successive conquests by Romans, Arabs and other invaders, and from the Middle Ages through to modern times would only accept the authority of the rulers of Spain if their own laws and privileges (fueros) were respected.

For several hundred years each new King of Spain swore an oath to this effect under the symbolic oak tree of Guernica, a custom revived by the current King Juan Carlos some 30 years ago, during Spain's transition to democracy after 40 years of fascist dictatorship.

During the Spanish Civil War, Hitler's German Air Force, in support of the rebellion of the Nationalist forces under General Franco, bombed Guernica on market day, destroying most of the town and killing hundreds of people. This attack, on 26 April 1937, was the first time a civilian population had been the target of aerial bombing, and it caused shock-waves throughout the world.

The Spanish Government had asked Pablo Picasso to submit a work of art to represent Spain at the Paris International Exhibition later that year. He produced a massive, monochrome painting commemorating the bombing, an immensely moving portrayal of the horrors of war, which has become one of the world's best-known works of art.

Picasso's painting is currently housed in the Reina Sofía museum in Madrid, although many Basques feel it rightly belongs in Guernica itself. The picture heading this post is of a reproduction in ceramic tiles, displayed in a matter-of-fact way on a street corner in the town; the caption calls for the painting "Guernica" to be returned "to Guernica".

There are many other pointers in the town to its history and significance, including the Basque Assembly, with its stained glass depictions of Basque people and places, and several incarnations of the Guernica Oak in its grounds, and a nearby park with monumental peace sculptures by Eduardo Chillida and Henry Moore. There's also a statue to George Steer, the British journalist who was the first to report the bombing; it's on the pavement at a central junction so must be passed by thousands every day.

Over 45 years I have found my way to many parts of Spain, but this was my first visit to Guernica, and I'm so glad that we managed to include it in our journey this year.

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