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The Genesis of a Masterpiece : PICASSO’S GUERNICA History, Transformations, Meanings <i> by Herschel B. Chipp (University of California Press: $37.50; 248 pp.) </i>

<i> Thomas is the author of "Spanish Civil War" (Harper & Row)</i> .

Guernica, as everyone now knows, is a small town in the Basque provinces. It was heavily bombed, unexpectedly, in the course of the Spanish civil war by German aircraft in the service of Gen. Francisco Franco’s nationalist forces advancing on Bilbao. About half the town was flattened and about 1,000 people were killed. The Basques had no aircraft for defense.

The outrage does not seem large by the standards of later years, but, at the time, there was a real outcry. Friends of the Spanish Republic seized on the event as an indication of how far the Nazi air force would go in pursuit of power. The protest was such that the Spanish nationalist propaganda department in Burgos fabricated an extraordinary tale claiming that the Basques themselves had blown up Guernica.

It was not possible to check or expose this story, because Franco’s troops occupied the town a day or two later. But in Paris, a city where the international protest had been the most vehement, Pablo Picasso, a resident for many years, set about his famous painting that makes the name of this Basque town a historic landmark.

The full story of Picasso’s painting is well told in a beautiful and scholarly volume by Herschel B. Chipp, professor of art history at UC Berkeley. The originality of the book is threefold: First, and most important, he integrates the history of the painting with the history of the Spanish civil war and its aftermath.

Second, he discusses in a way that no one else has, to my knowledge, the various inspirations of Picasso for the painting. (These were not all political, since Picasso was not a political person and had only once before, in the series “The Dream and Lie of General Franco,” ventured into painting that was connected with contemporary events.)

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Third, the book is sumptuously illustrated with 50 large plates and a great many smaller ones that illustrate the possible influences on Picasso at the time.

Chipp does not allow himself to be drawn into any new interpretation of the events leading to the destruction of Guernica. This is rather a pity, for there still remain, 51 years after the event, questions of whether Franco knew of the bombing before it happened, and whether, if he did, he was aware of the sacred meaning the town held in Basque life. My guess is that he did not know either.

The background to the concealment of the Guernica affair is also something that I should myself like to know more about. I suspect, however, that Luis Bolin, who seemed a most courteous man when I knew him as Spanish consul general in New York in the 1960s, carried that secret with him to the grave. But whoever thought up this propagandistic tale could scarcely have believed that it would be fewer than 33 years before the truth would begin to be told in Spain by writer Vicente Talon, whom Chipp quotes.

On the other hand, the book has two exceptionally revealing chapters on how “Guernica” traveled from the Museum of Modern Art in New York to Madrid in 1981. The complexities attending this great return were compounded by the desire of Picasso to return the painting to a republican, not just a free, Spain. But then, on one occasion, he gave conflicting instructions. This was all sorted out successfully by lawyers, among whom Roland Dumas, now foreign minister of France, seems to have played a main part. MOMA deserves congratulations for its intelligent forbearance in the affair.

As for the art criticism in the book, Chipp is particularly illuminating in his discussion of where “Guernica” fitted in the series of paintings, or drawings, in which Picasso had explored, before 1937, the theme of bullfighting. His tauromaquiacal phase was, in 1937, just ending.

The reader also may be interested to know the extent to which the appearance of women in the painting can be related to Picasso’s previous depictions of his then-companion Marie-Therese Walter. Walter had not long before she finally supplanted Picasso’s wife, Olga, but soon would be dethroned herself by Dora Maar.

The analysis of the criticisms that “Guernica” received at the time is interesting too--particularly the patronizing blast delivered at the Spanish artist by an arch-conventional critic of Marxist persuasion, Anthony Blunt.

The notes and appendices in the book seem to be a model of careful scholarship. Included also is a copy of the accounts that the Spanish Embassy in Paris kept in 1937 showing that Picasso netted the sum of 150,000 francs for his expenses.


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