The horrible inspiration behind one of Picasso's great works

Painted in the wake of a 1937 fascist bombing, "Guernica" has grown to stand for war atrocities experienced all over the world.

Pablo Picasso had been searching for three months for something to paint in April 1937. Living in Paris, the Spanish artist had been given a commission to produce a mural for the Spanish Pavilion of the 1937 Paris World’s Fair. Turmoil had disrupted his process, both in his private life and in the civil war raging in Spain. The horror of this war would give Picasso his inspiration to paint a bold, unflinching vision of the devastation and savagery of modern warfare on everyday people. Picasso’s work, “Guernica,” is one of the 20th century’s greatest works of art and a strong statement against war.

In July 1936 the authoritarian Spanish general Francisco Franco had launched a semi-successful coup against Spain’s democratic republic; a swath of Spain fell under Franco’s control, while the other half was retained by the republic. As global tensions soared on the eve of World War II, Spain’s bitter civil war rapidly internationalized: The republic received aid and arms from the Soviet Union, while Franco was armed by fascist Germany and Italy.

On April 26, 1937, crew members on the British battleship H.M.S. Hood watched warplanes assembling over the coast of northern Spain. What they saw was a mixed formation of German and Italian bombers on a mission to bomb the small Basque city of Guernica. The attack began around 4:30 p.m. and lasted for three hours as high explosives and incendiaries laid waste to the undefended town.

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