Although I’ve been lucky enough to see some of the greatest Western art housed in the some of the greatest art museums on the planet, it wasn’t until I got to Madrid that I cast my eyes on two of the greatest paintings ever painted – one classical, one modern.
But don’t take my word for it.
Las Meninas – The Greatest Painting Ever Created?
Is it a work of realism? Every person depicted in the picture, including the King and Queen reflected in the mirror, is a real person of recorded history painted in almost photographic detail. The large canvas with its effects in perspective seems to make the King and Queen, also the viewer, life-sized, part of the picture, dissolving the canvas between them. Or does the intellectual Velazquez seek to answer the artist’s question, once and for all, is painting merely craft, or art? Is the artist’s place in society functionary, or noble?
“Apparently spontaneous but in the highest degree worked out, it is both Velázquez’s most complex essay in portraiture and an expression of the high claims he made for the dignity of his art. Luca Giordano called it ‘the Theology of Painting’ because ‘just as theology is superior to all other branches of knowledge, so is this the greatest example of painting’. Posterity has endorsed his verdict, for in a poll of artists and critics in The Illustrated London News in August 1985, Las Meninas was voted – by some margin – ‘the world’s greatest painting’.”
– From http://www.wga.hu/tours/spain/velazqu1.html
The Web Gallery of Art
“…Velázquez – a painter, albeit one with favour at court, who had the gall to photobomb a royal portrait. Velázquez has made the painting but also lives in the world of the painting; he is on our side looking in, but also in the painting looking out. Never before in western art had an artist depicted himself as the equal of princes, but Velázquez must have been so confident in the endurance of Las Meninas that he was ready to turn a royal commission into a self-portrait. Philip IV, anyway, seems to have approved. As Hapsburg Spain collapsed around him, he kept Las Meninas in his personal study, and no-one was permitted to gaze upon it except the man so slightly depicted in the mirror at rear. In 1659, Velázquez was inducted into the Order of Santiago, and when the artist died the next year Philip ordered a revision to Las Meninas – adding to the painter’s chest a grand red cross.”
– Jason Farago, BBC
You could also check out my Northern Spain Reading and Watch List at the top for a youtube video of Sister Wendy on Las Meninas.
Picasso, too, opined on the painting. He made no less than 58 paintings based on the Velazquez work, one of them painted on December 30, 1957.
A wealth of other masterpieces are in the Prado’s collection, including:
Goya’s nude was the first depiction of a nude woman, all previous depictions were mythological goddesses. The two hang side-by-side at the Prado.
Guernica – A Call to Arms?
“Guernica, the most ancient town of the Basques and the centre of their cultural tradition, was completely destroyed yesterday afternoon by insurgent air raiders. The bombardment of this open town far behind the lines occupied precisely three hours and a quarter, during which a powerful fleet of aeroplanes consisting of three types of German types, Junkers and Heinkel bombers, did not cease unloading on the town bombs weighing from 1,000 lbs. downwards and, it is calculated, more than 3,000 two-pounder aluminium incendiary projectiles. The fighters, meanwhile, plunged low from above the centre of the town to machinegun those of the civilian population who had taken refuge in the fields.” For a full account, see the page at the top, April 28, 1937 New York Times article on the Bombing of Guernica.
In January 1937, the Spanish Republican government commissioned Picasso to create a large mural for the Spanish display at the Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Moderne at the 1937 World’s Fair in Paris. At the time, Picasso was living in Paris, where he had been named Honorary Director-in-Exile of the Prado Museum. He had last visited Spain in 1934 and never returned. However, it was only on May 1, having read George Steer’s eyewitness account of the bombing of Guernica (originally published in the April 28th, 1937 article), that he abandoned his initial project and started sketching a series of preliminary drawings for Guernica, and which he would finish in early June 1937.
The German Luftwaffe’s Condor Legion did the bombing at the request of Gen. Francisco Franco, who led a military rebellion against Spain’s democratically elected government. Franco enlisted the help of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini, who were eager to practice modern techniques of warfare on the defenceless citizens of Spain. The bombing of Guernica was the first complete destruction by aerial bombardment of a civilian city in European history. While homes and shops were destroyed, several arms-manufacturing facilities, along with a key bridge and the rail line, were left intact.
PIcasso’s masterpiece depicts the horrors of war, etched into the faces of the people and the animals on the canvas. It would not prove to be the worst attack during the Spanish Civil War, but it became the most famous, through the power of art.
Franco himself recognized the significance of Picasso’s silent protest. Madrid sent propaganda posters to Paris, insisting they be hung outside the pavilion.
Picasso’s mural showed the world Spain’s fate under Franco’s regime. Artists from across Europe (including, of course, the brazen Ernest Hemingway) went to Spain and took up arms in support of the Republicans. There can be little doubt that Republicans themselves took up arms after word spread of Guernica, the bombing, and Guernica, the mural.
I prefer this view: Franco started the Spanish Civil War. Guernica inspired the courage to stop him. Unfortunately, it took 38 years to stop him, and another five years for Picasso’s Guernica to return to Spain. In the meantime, Picasso, in 1944, joined the French Communist Party. He attended an international peace conference in Poland, and in 1950 received the Stalin Peace Prize from the Soviet government, but party criticism of a portrait of Stalin as insufficiently realistic cooled Picasso’s interest in Soviet politics.
Picasso, an unceasing voice against Franco and fascism, died in 1973, just three years before Franco died and democracy was restored to Spain. Although Guernica returned to Spain, Picasso was never able to return to his homeland himself.
Where does Guernica belong?
On September 10, 1981, Spanish artist Pablo Picasso’s monumental anti-war mural Guernica is received by Spain after four decades of refugee existence. In 1939 at the outset of World War II, Picasso gave the painting to New York’s Museum of Modern Art on an extended loan and decreed that it not be returned to Spain until democratic liberties were restored in the country. Its eventual return to Spain in 1981–eight years after Picasso’s death–was celebrated as a moral endorsement of Spain’s young democracy.
The painting was occasionally lent to European museums at the request of Picasso, and there are original letters at the gallery showing MOMA’s extreme reluctance to loan Guernica, doing so only with the intervention of Picasso himself.
On September 10, 1981, Guernica arrived in Madrid under heavy guard. The painting was to be housed in a new annex of the Prado Museum, only two blocks from the Spanish parliament, which had been the scene of an abortive military coup in February 1981. King Juan Carlos defused the revolt by convincing military commanders to remain loyal to Spain’s democratic constitution. The mural was hung behind thick bulletproof glass.
A number of groups in Spain, particularly Basque nationalists objected strongly to Guernica‘s permanent exhibition in Madrid. Complaints escalated after the painting was relocated to the new Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid in 1992. Since the 1997 opening of the Guggenheim Bilbao Museo, Basque nationalists have been calling for its transfer there.
I can’t do the huge mural (11.5 feet by 25.5 feet) justice with these small images. You will have to see it for yourself, at the lovely Reina Sofia. They have said for the protection of the canvas it will never be moved again. But perhaps you should confirm its location before you go…..
Does Guernica endure?
Guernica is to painting what Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (“Ode to Joy”) is to music [and, it could be added, what Beethoven’s opera, Fidelio is to freedom]: a cultural icon that speaks to mankind not only against war but also of hope and peace. It is a reference when speaking about genocide from El Salvador to Bosnia. Alejandro Escalona, on the 75th anniversary of the painting’s creation. said Guernica has become a universal and powerful symbol warning humanity against the suffering and devastation of war. Moreover, the fact that there are no obvious references to the specific attack has contributed to making its message universal and timeless.
“Some works of art…even in reproduction, won’t stay ‘uninvolved’. Although some people are turned off by its cubist composition or its cartoon-like images, ‘Guernica’ persists in reminding us about horrendous events that happen outside the museum. Rather than remaining a memorial specifically intended to recall the bombing of ‘Guernica’ in 1937, it has become a ‘picture of all bombed cities.’ At first, it was a powerful symbol representing the Loyalist cause during the Spanish Civil War and then the Allies during WWII, but the international Communist Party also took it up and, in the late 60’s, it was used by American artists opposing the Viet Nam War. It was an emblem of the international Peace movement, appearing, among other places, on postage stamps of the late Czechoslovakia and the United Republic of Cameroon in Africa. Basque separatists and even the survivors of the attack on the World Trade Center used it. Most recently, it has been a symbol of the anti-Iraq War movement. It has become a universal allegory about the massacre of innocents. It is archetypal and iconic.”
– (Leo Segedin)
Perhaps a question for us now, is, what artist will make a work of art so powerful that it will inspire ISIS to stop destroying humanity’s precious cultural monuments?
Other powerful art at the Reina Sofia:
1 thought on “A Question of Art”
An incredibly interesting art history lesson…surpasses any university lecture in my past.