Picasso’s greatest painting meets the 21st century in Guernica Remastered

Art | Gregory Beatty | Nov. 18, 2021

Guernica Remastered
Remai Modern
Until Feb. 27

Saskatoon’s nickname, “Paris of the Prairies”, is maybe a tad aspirational in the sense Paris is an international capital with a dramatic and influential history dating back centuries while Saskatoon is, well, not. But in one specific instance, the comparison works.

The link? Pablo Picasso.

Generally regarded as one of the 20th century’s greatest artists, Picasso (1881–1973) was born in Spain but spent his youth through his mid-sixties in Paris. The city even has a Picasso museum.

Saskatoon doesn’t have the Musée Picasso, but it does have a world-recognized collection of over 400 linocuts and proofs by the artist along with 23 ceramic works. The collection is at Remai Modern and parts of it appear regularly in mini shows on different subjects and themes.

Guernica Remastered builds on that but takes the tradition in an exciting new direction. The Alma Mikulinsky curated exhibition explores the legacy of one of Picasso’s most famous works through 10 artistic recreations in diverse media — painting, photography, prints, video and installation.

The Picasso work that’s being “remastered”, of course, is the mural Guernica he created in response to an April 26, 1937 Nazi air attack in support of fascist leader Francisco Franco in the Spanish Civil War. The Basque town of Guernica was the target. Most of the men were away at the time, so the bulk of the estimated 250 casualties from the two-hour raid, which included bombing and strafing, were women and children. It was a defining moment in the history of warfare that saw advanced technology unleashed against civilians, foreshadowing the horror to come in a few years.

Picasso had previously been commissioned by the Spanish government (which Franco was trying to overthrow) to do a mural for the country’s pavilion at the 1937 Paris International Exposition. When he learned of the atrocity, he painted Guernica. It was instantly acclaimed as a powerful anti-fascist/anti-war statement.

After the expo closed, the muralwent on tour to raise funds for Spanish War relief. At Picasso’s request, it then stayed at New York’s Museum of Modern Art until Franco’s death in 1975, when it was returned to Spain.

Enduring Power

Given the rocky political times we live in, it’s tempting to see Guernica Remastered as a cautionary warning about the dangers of nationalist populism and fascism.

But in a recent phone interview, Mikulinsky said that wasn’t her intention.

“None of the works I’ve selected comment specifically on our current reality,” said Mikulinsky, an art historian and Picasso specialist who works as a curator and consultant. “But at particular historical moments, artists have found the need to reach to Guernica to make a statement. It has an enduring power that seems to be always relevant.”

The Vietnam War is one example, she says. “Guernica was in New York for several decades. Part of that time coincided with the Vietnam War, and you see several pieces by American artists who used it as an impetus to express their opposition to the war.”

That’s not always the motive though, says Mikulinsky.

“At other times, artists do it to comment on our image-saturated world, and do the exact opposite, where they say there is no longer value in a piece like this because it is so often reproduced and the statement has become diluted.”

Nothing illustrates that dichotomy better then another famous moment in Guernica history. It came in 2003, when the United States was pressing its case at the United Nations to declare war on Iraq under what turned out to be false pretenses (the U.S. “Weapons of Mass Destruction” lie).

The spot where the U.S. delegation (headed by Secretary of State Colin Powell) gave press conferences had long been decorated with a tapestry version of Guernica co-created by Picasso and French artist Jacqueline de la Baume Dürrbach in 1955. Concerned about the optics of arguing for war under such an iconic anti-war masterwork, U.S. officials had the mural covered with a large blue curtain.

“It’s perhaps telling about the limitations of art,” says Mikulinsky. “Or perhaps you could say it the other way around — that it reflects the power of art. Because if the announcement had been made with Guernica in the background, the atrociousness of war would’ve been too much to ignore.”

Image Overload

Picasso started work on Guernica just days after he learned of the slaughter in a Paris newspaper report, says Mikulinsky.

“There was one image displayed in newspapers across Europe that showed collapsed buildings,” she says. “But it wouldn’t have shown the pain of individuals who had been attacked. Images in Guernica like the mother screaming to the sky after losing her child came from his imagination. He was trying to recreate the scene in his mind and translate that into an artistic composition.”

Nowadays, artists (and the rest of us) live in a totally different media environment, with 24/7 news networks, social media, the Internet, and more. That’s something Mikulinsky wanted to explore.

“Images of violence find their way to us so regularly that we become a little numb,” she says. “It becomes a question of how do you find empathy, where you’re deeply touched or inspired to act in a world where we see and are aware of so much? At the same time, people may choose to shield themselves from some of these horrors.”

Guernica’s most notable physical features are its size (7.8 m wide by 3.5 m tall), and grayish-white palette (reflecting the fact Picasso didn’t personally witness the massacre with all its bodies, blood and viscera, but rather read about it in a newspaper).

Mikulinsky kept those criteria in mind when selecting the works.

“The show is largely two-dimensional,” she says. “The one three-dimensional work is by Adad Hannah, and it was created on-site from objects the artist found while scavenging throughout Saskatchewan with support from the museum team. The way the piece is positioned, you can’t go inside, but it is three-dimensional.”

Found objects, to a certain extent, suggest litter and the general waste and excess of consumer culture — and by extension, the devastation being wrought on our environment. A Guernica for climate change? Why not? Suffering and hardship are already happening.

Which isn’t to say that’s Hannah’s intent — it’s just a thought I had. The exhibition inspires such ideas.

Another work by London-based, Polish-born artist Goshka Macuga references the Guernica tapestry incident, only subbing in Prince Charles at Whitechapel Gallery in London in 2009 for Powell and the American delegation atthe United Nations in 2003.

Initially, Mikulinsky had planned a larger exhibition. But when Covid struck, it threw a wrench into contacting different museums to arrange for loans (and transport) of works she wanted to show.

Two casualties were works Mikulinsky had hoped to include to demonstrate the true global stature of Guernica as a symbol of resistance to fascism and war.

“One is by a Lebanese artist that’s found today in the Tate Modern collection in London,” she says. “So that’s the Middle East. There’s also a Guernica recreation from India I was interested in. But even when demonstrations and protests are held all over the world, you see the images being used as almost a universal statement about the unbearable violence of warfare.”

Alma Mikulinsky will give an online curatorial talk Nov. 26 at 2 p.m., and host two curatorial tours on Nov. 27.