Reviewed by Ann Skea (email@example.com). ************************************************ This is a slim, large-format, richly illustrated book with a dramatic cover, but it is far more than the coffee-table pictorial browser that it might seem. For one thing Alain Serres tells the story of Picasso and his creation of Guernica in prose which is spare, poetic and powerful, and his Spanish has been translated into English by Rosalind Price with no loss of that poetic power.
Serres begins his story with Thomas Edison's demonstration of electric light. The year is 1881 and "Night will get brighter on Earth". New fast trains mean that "the distance between countries is shrinking" and there is new hope for unity and accord in the world. And in Spain, on 25 October, 1900, Pablo Ruiz Picasso is born.
A picture of doves painted when Picasso was eight years old, shows his precocious talent. His own self-portrait and the portraits of his mother and father, painted when he was fourteen, are amazingly sophisticated. And his picture of a child holding a white dove, which has become one of his most famous and popular images, was painted when he was just nineteen. So talented was he, that his father, a painter and teacher at the School of Fine Arts in Barcelona, gave up his own artistic efforts when Picasso was thirteen and presented his son with his palette and brushes. By the time of his death, Picasso had created more than 30,000 works of art.
Central to this book, however, is the masterpiece, Guernica ,and the way in which Picasso came to create this enormous, intense and shocking response to the horrors which devastated a small Basque market-town on Monday 26 April, 1937. In this book, the colourful pages of Picasso's early work give way to sombre reproductions of photographs, newspaper cuttings, sketches, and constantly changing images of bulls, horses, people. And the text tells with stark simplicity the story of the bombing, strafing and death inflicted by German and Italian planes on defenceless civilians. Picasso's reaction to this destruction and pain hurled him into a fury of creation which produced the great canvas, Guernica, which he exhibited at the International Exhibition in Paris later that year. Serres repeats the telling story of a German visitor to the exhibition who pointed at Picasso's harrowing depiction of the Guernica massacre and asked "Did you do this?". "No", replied Picasso, "You did". And Serres looks closely at the imagery of the painting and suggests some of the meanings to be found there.
This was not the end of the story. Picasso never forgot his dream of world peace and, as war receded his paintings (and the pages of the book) grow more colourful. Light and lightness and playfulness returned to his work. His aim, Serres says was "to create, the way children create": to lighten the darkness, as Edison's lamp did, but with "lamps no one can extinguish" - art works that "speak to men, women and children" of hope.
The story of Guernica is never ending. The creation of the painting and all its stages and development were documented by Dora Marr, and her photographs together with Picasso's sketches, plans, changes and the finished canvas now hang in the Reina Sophia National Art Museum in Madrid, Spain. Images from the work have appeared, and still appear, in anti-war protests and demonstrations around the world, and the life-size tapestry reproduction of the painting, commissioned by Nelson Rockerfeller in 1955, hangs permanently outside the Security Council at the United Nations Headquarters in New York. Just last year, the tapestry was loaned to the Whitechapel Galley in London, where the painting had hung in 1939 to raise support for the Republicans fighting in the Civil War in Spain, and its anti-war message is still as strong and as necessary as ever.
At the heart of Serres book, a four-page foldout of Picasso's painting conveys some of the shocking impact of the huge original: enough to let us share some of the anger, horror and despair Picasso was feeling as he created this moving masterpiece.
************************************************ Copyright © Ann Skea 2010 Website and Ted Hughes pages: http://ann.skea.com/
Dr Ann Skea, Sydney, Australia. [firstname.lastname@example.org] Website and Ted Hughes pages: http://ann.skea.com/