Peer Reviewed

Exclusive to M/m Print Plus

Guernica, Inc.: Art, Exile, Recirculation

At the 2017 Whitney Biennial in New York City––a show attuned to the intense political divisions and racial tensions in the United States today––one artist stood out for her reuse of images of resistance from various moments in the history of modernity, marked by figures such as Marx and Engels, Muhammad Ali, and the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. Celeste Dupuy-Spencer’s Veterans Day (2016), a large oil painting on linen, stages these images in a domestic interior space with yellow wallpaper speckled with flowers and a vintage stereo emanating visual notes that unfurl throughout the room (fig. 1).

Celeste Dupuy-Spencer, Veterans Day (2016).
Fig. 1. Celeste Dupuy-Spencer, Veterans Day (2016). Oil on linen. 165.1 × 216.1 × 6.4 cm. Promised gift of Jenny Brorsen and Richard DeMartini. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY, U.S.A. Digital image © Whitney Museum of American Art / Licensed by Scala / Art Resource, NY.

The most salient image for understanding how Veterans Day represents the transnational scale of civil war is the small reproduction of Pablo Picasso’s Guernica (1937), which is dwarfed by the much larger photographic depiction of American brigadiers who volunteered to fight in the Spanish Civil War (fig. 2). On close examination, one can see, through her signature style of cartoonish wit, that Dupuy-Spencer portrays Guernica as kitsch––a small poster that has been ripped in half and torn from the top, stopping at the horrific screams of the horse and obscuring the lightbulb (fig. 3). The poster seems to have undergone a life of movement, having been stuck and unstuck from other walls, affectionately moved from other spaces. Guernica endures as an object in exile—unmoored from its own historical context and adrift among other contexts. For Dupuy-Spencer, Guernica enables her to register an historical relation between the legacies of the Spanish Civil War and the United States’ own Civil War and to cite and revise the aesthetic practice of modernism.

Pablo Picasso, Guernica (1937).
Fig. 2. Pablo Picasso, Guernica (1937). Oil on canvas. 349.3 x 776.6 cm. Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía. Photo Credit: Erich Lessing / Art Resource, NY. © 2020 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Detail of Celeste Dupuy-Spencter, Veterans Day (2016).
Fig. 3. Detail of Celeste Dupuy-Spencer, Veterans Day (2016).

More precisely, as the title suggests, Veterans Day reveals Dupuy-Spencer’s attempt to render the historical present through the circulation of images that harken back to a time when artists mobilized art to resist war. I want to underscore the formal ways in which she signals the recirculation of images and ideas, thematized through the almost magical-realist form of musical notes that ripple out from the stereo and caress the frames of the reproductions on the wall. Through the reproduction of Guernica, she simultaneously enlists and questions the symbolic power of the painting’s politics while embedding it within a grid of other visual signs.

By representing Guernica in the form of a poster on a wall, Dupuy-Spencer signals the likelihood that a contemporary viewer in the United States has seen a reproduction of Guernica rather than the original now on display at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid. The poster registers the aporia of representation that has become the defining feature of Guernica—a work of art that it is at once universal and serially specific. By serially specific, I mean to capture the ways in which the image of Guernica makes meaning synchronously across a range of specific cultural contexts—how its reproduction demonstrates, as Greil Marcus has contended, that the art object can “supersede the event” that occasioned its originary production.[1] Marcus recounts how owning and displaying a poster of Guernica throughout his early adulthood occasioned this realization: “In 1965, when I moved into my first college apartment, one of my roommates tacked a poster of Guernica up in our kitchen. It was an odd thing to eat under, people said, all those mute screams and twisted shapes; we’d turned a cliché, the requisite famous art in a student apartment, into a conversation piece, but we got used to it, and soon the carnage was just decoration” (Marcus, “Escape,” 188). The space of the kitchen transforms the political poster into decoration, evacuating it of any shock value. Through her use of another domestic scene for the poster of Guernica, Dupuy-Spencer also dramatizes this impoverishment of meaning through what Walter Benjamin so memorably theorized as technological reproducibility. But Dupuy-Spencer does not simply rehearse another story of reproduction; rather, Veterans Day materializes—through the nearly imperceptible rips of the poster—the reproduction’s prior movement and longevity.

Dupuy-Spencer’s Veterans Day helps us to understand that the loss of aura occurs through circulation. As Boris Groys has argued in his interpretation of Benjamin, “To reproduce something is to remove it from its site, to deterritorialize it—reproduction transposes the artwork into the network of topologically undetermined circulation.”[2] However, by virtue of this topological relation, art documentation in installations has the capability “to reterritorialize the copy,” thus initiating “a complex play of . . . deterritorialization and reterritorialization, of removing aura and restoring aura” (Groys, Art Power, 63, 64). The complex field of visual signs in Veterans Day reterritorializes Guernica: the bookcase with texts of leftist resistance, which holds a red book with “¡No Pasarán!” (They Shall Not Pass!) written on its spine, revoices the rallying call that Republicans would yell in opposition to the encroachment of General Francisco Franco’s fascist insurgency. This discursive representation provides a trace of historical context. This trace might also signal the danger of reproducing Guernica during the long oppressive reign of Franco’s military dictatorship. To be sure, in Francoist Spain, as Paula Barreiro López points out, “reproductions of Guernica that were kept in dissidents’ households as a symbol of protest were ripped off the walls or confiscated and destroyed when they were found during searches by the Brigada Político-Social throughout the 1960s and the 1970s.”[3] Describing the importance of Guernica for a generation of Spaniards who grew up during the Transition, Estrella de Diego argues that displaying a poster of Guernica was a political act that redefined the concept of the political: “manufacturamos la pintura. La convertimos en un product de consumo, como antes, como siempre” (“we manufacture the painting. We transform it into a product of consumption, as before, as always.”)[4] The meaning of reproduction varies across political contexts; whereas the reproduction of Guernica might be innocuous within Marcus’s student apartment in Berkeley, that same reproduction would have elicited censorship and punishment in Francoist Spain during the time of Guernica’s exile. Indeed, both Marcus and Dupuy-Spencer foreground the vicissitudes of Guernica’s complex recirculation along different routes of global distribution wherein the image attains its serial specificity.

It is undeniable that we live in a cultural moment of Guernica’s recirculation into various scenes of manifestation—a term I use to caption the event of an object’s appearance in a physical space—an exhibition, a textual debate, another work of art. These scenes of manifestation are often institutional, but they can also be quotidian contexts wherein Guernica constructs political meaning outside the museum. For example, the Spanish-born Latin pop sensation Alejandro Sanz released his seventh album No Es lo Mismo (2003) with a cover that featured his tattoo of the bull from Guernica. Sanz explained in a 2017 interview that he chose this tattoo after the 1952 tapestry version of Guernica, which had hung outside the United Nations Security Council Chamber from 1985 to 2009, and was covered with a blue curtain during US Secretary of State Colin Powell’s speech in which he argued for the invasion of Iraq with mendacious evidence of weapons of mass destruction.[5] The reproduction of Sanz’s tattoo on his album cover, released six months after the U.N. controversy, manifests Guernica in a layered historical scene that illustrates how the painting has been (mis)used in such diverse contexts as international diplomacy and pop music.

While recognizing that the contemporary recirculation of Guernica occurs more and more through mass media, I focus on the institutional and artifactual contexts through which Guernica has moved in order to provide more nuanced ways to understand the painting’s complex and often problematic scenes of manifestation both inside and outside the museum.[6] I specify the movement of Guernica as recirculation because before Guernica went on its debut tour of Scandinavia in the Spring of 1938, reproductions had already circulated internationally. From its first installation at the Spanish Pavilion of the 1937 World’s Fair in Paris, Guernica was immediately reproduced as a postcard that the Spanish Republic distributed to publicize the atrocities that Franco, with the assistance of Nazi Germany, had inflicted on noncombatants in the Basque town of Gernika.[7] By omitting any direct attribution of blame to Germany or to Franco, the postcard already generalized the tragedy of Guernica as a threat to all of Europe, laying the foundation for the painting’s contemporary status as “an abstract image of total war.”[8] From this original scene of manifestation at the Pavilion, Guernica was always already situated within a transnational imaginary of civil war—a phrase I use to describe the aesthetic processes by which nationally specific civil wars are aggressively decontextualized and reattached to transnational coordinates. In this way, the recirculation of Guernica also entails the processing of the memory of the Spanish Civil War within other contexts of civic strife and violence, however oblique, as in the case of Dupuy-Spencer’s painting, or explicit, as demonstrated by Fawwaz Trabousli’s poetic essay “Beirut-Guernica: A City and a Painting” (1982) in which he interweaves the iconography of Guernica with images of aerial bombings on civilians in Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War.[9]

Although these reproductions (poster, postcard, album cover, essay) bear witness to the complexities of Guernica as both object and image, scholars have yet to underscore the extent to which institutional structures facilitated the political histories of the object, from its highly politicized exhibition at the Pavilion to its more aestheticized installation at MoMA in 1939. The nomadic adventures of the object testify to the painting’s nebulous relationship to aesthetics and politics, as well as to their dynamic interaction. Until Guernica’s repatriation to Spain in 1981 (after the death of Franco and the country’s transition to democracy) Guernica lived as an object in exile, documenting the atrocities of total war even as it served as a pedagogical tool for postwar American abstraction (routinely sketched by Jackson Pollock at MoMA and reproduced by Ad Reinhardt in his series “How to Look”).[10] In order to analyze how this long period of exile was marked by important acts of artistic appropriation, I spotlight a few of the many re-materializations of Guernica in other art objects and installations. I also explicate the legacy of Guernica’s critical reception in order to tell one story of an object’s unstable signification, as it oscillates between being viewed as representational (in the art-historical tradition of academic painting), or as abstract and thus unable to incite political action. The interpretative instability and thus underdetermination of Guernica derive from its having been produced during a time when artists and writers felt an overwhelming urgency to represent war and its effects, which posed significant challenges to aesthetic form. In order to comprehend these challenges to form and the institutional contexts in which those challenges take shape, I demonstrate how Guernica becomes differently animated as it moves out of its original context and becomes a global flashpoint for political action, critical fascination, and ideological calibration. After considering the contemporary signification of Guernica in recent scenes of manifestation, I focus on two interlaced moments––the reception of Guernica in the late 1930s and after the Second World War––in order to approach the painting’s relationship to Robert Motherwell’s series Elegy to the Spanish Republic, which he began in 1948 and continued into the 1970s. I argue that the exilic status of Guernica––constantly recirculated, recontextualized, rematerialized, and revalued––magnifies the problems of homelessness, displacement, and itinerancy that the painting’s form already implies through its complex representation of the aerial bombing of a noncombatant population. I suggest that Guernica’s exilic status is not only a constituent element of its own formal negotiations of art’s relationship to politics but also that the industry of Guernica continues to stimulate contemporary discussions of that same topic, as exemplified most recently at a major exhibition organized by the Museo Reina Sofía: “Piedad y Terror en Picasso: Camino a Guernica” [Pity and Terror: Picasso’s Path to Guernica] (2017).

Guernica and the Institutions of Art: A Meta-Biography

T. J. Clark and Anne M. Wagner curated the exhibition at the Reina Sofía in Madrid, which marked the eightieth anniversary of the painting’s first installation at the Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Moderne as part of the 1937 World’s Fair in Paris. The objective of the exhibition was, as Clark writes in the exhibition catalogue, to display how Picasso’s oeuvre establishes “a way from monstrosity to tragedy.”[11] Guernica is the product of that chemical reaction. For Clark and Wagner, Guernica incorporates the optics of interior rooms and female bodies that are at the center of Picasso’s earlier experimentations with monstrosity during the 1920s and early 1930s. The architecture of the exhibition guided museum-goers along this path with rooms that explicated the monstrous distortions of the interwar paintings in order to frame their viewing of the mural-size painting of Guernica itself. The exhibition concluded with three rooms of what the curators call the painting’s “exile” that visualized a brief biography of the painting’s tours through Scandinavia (1938), England (1938-39), and the United States (1939-49). Clark and Wagner selected a wide range of archival materials that elucidated the conversation and debate around the politics of Guernica. The US room emphasized the politicization and institutional apparatus of Guernica at MoMA in New York City under the directorship of Alfred H. Barr, Jr., who organized seminars and lectures that sought to consecrate the painting as a modernist art object.[12] As Gijs van Hensberger confirms, the institutional force of MoMA was instrumental to the neutralization and universalization of Guernica’s political content by removing “all references to Franco and the Spanish Civil War on the painting’s explanatory label [and indicating instead that] ‘the mural expresses [Picasso’s] abhorrence of war and brutality.’”[13] Indeed, MoMA’s curators and administrators privileged the aesthetics of the painting over and against the specificity of its historical origins. By the time Guernica had been permanently installed in its own room with a spare wooden bench in 1943, MoMA had consolidated its hold on modernist culture in the United States, marking a critical transition from the idiosyncratic private collections displayed in opulent domestic settings to the public curation of art objects in large sanitized museums. As Jeremy Braddock argues, MoMA has worked to solidify the amorphous meanings of modernism since 1939 when it “canonized modernism primarily as both field and period, not as an ever-renewing and evolving set of aesthetic and cultural practices.”[14] Guernica not only attracted international attention to the museum but also became a pawn in the chess match over the cultural politics of representation. At the center of the museum’s collection, Guernica might then be seen as investing MoMA with the cultural authority to institutionalize modernism.

The exhibition at the Reina Sofía insinuated as much. To further substantiate Clark and Wagner’s argument that Barr can be credited with having delimited subsequent interpretations of Guernica, the vitrines included correspondence between Barr and Picasso’s art dealer Daniel Henry Kahnweiler wherein the museum director asks Picasso for clarification about the symbolism of the bull and the horse. On November 25, 1947, with the motive to calm the noise of interpretative squabbling—critics could see the bull as a representation of either the barbarism of Francoism or the resilience of the Spanish people, for example––Barr convened a symposium at MoMA, which assembled Joseph Lluís Sert, Jerome Seckler, Juan Larrea, Jacques Lipchitz, and Stuart Davis.[15] At the beginning of the event, Barr set the stage for the subsequent remarks: “The controversy about the Guernica has been waged about two questions: first, what is the value of the painting in the light of Picasso’s intention; and, second what is the detailed symbolic meaning of the painting? The first is a question primarily of general value and importance; the second, of iconography.”[16] The question of value becomes entangled with an incredible effort to ascertain the painting’s symbolic meanings. Throughout the symposium, Seckler (who had interviewed Picasso in 1945 to ascertain those meanings) and Larrea (who had recently published an interpretation that contradicted them) butted heads over the correct interpretation. Larrea, a Spanish poet living as an exile in Mexico, undertook an allegorical reading of the painting’s symbolism in order to restore Guernica to the complexity and specificity of its original context, the Spanish Civil War. Seckler, by contrast, advanced a highly formalist reading of the “biological and animal imagery that gives the element of timeliness and universality to the Guernica, even though it was the struggle in Spain that immediately generated it” (“Symposium,” 18). For Barr, who vehemently opposed Larrea’s arguments and had presumably invited Seckler to deliver a more correct interpretation, the exegesis of Guernica and the need to forge institutional frameworks that would facilitate appropriate lines of questioning were of supreme importance. As Barr wrote in a letter to Larrea before the symposium, “We must all agree that the interpretation of this great painting is one of the most important critical problems before us” (quoted in Giunta, “Power of Interpretation,” 7). While Barr erected the plinth on which Guernica continues to rest, he simultaneously aimed to censor certain ways of looking at the painting.

Whereas the narrative at the Reina Sofía exhibition ends with the close of Guernica’s US tour and its more permanent installation at MoMA, Clark’s catalogue essay extends Barr’s conviction that the painting stages a critical drama that magnetizes global concerns over war and violence. After acknowledging the repertoire of images that recycle Guernica as image through a variety of media—from protest posters to tapestries and political cartoons—Clark argues that “Guernica has become our culture’s Tragic Scene” (“Picasso and Tragedy,” 20). Clark asserts that the “our” in his sentence is “not just Western shorthand”; rather, the grammar of the plural pronoun works to capture the global circulation of images––the fact that Guernica has been a source of aesthetic production and political activism in cities as far-flung as “Ramallah, Oaxaca, Calgary, London, Kurdistan, Madrid, Cape Town, Belfast, [and] Calcutta” (20). Clark is not alone in recognizing the global significance and exceptional value of Guernica, despite the fact that, as he admits, “many people will dispute the idea that Guernica is the best image we have of ‘modern society’—of the twentieth century and its legacy” (54). Nevertheless, scholars often deploy extraordinary rhetoric when arguing for the relevance of the image to global political problems.[17] But these same scholars occlude the economic structures and institutions that have been essential to the reproduction and recirculation of Guernica. Clark concludes by rearticulating the abstruse pronouncement with which his essay began: “Modernity is a system of incessant opsis. So the prominence of war in modernity—and the fear that it may be modernity’s truth—is not a matter of more and more (or less and less) actual conflict, but of violence as the form—the tempo, the figure, the fascinus—of our culture’s production of appearances” (“Picasso and Tragedy” 55). Clark chooses to recruit Guernica as an object through which to universalize the relation between modernity and war. For Clark, Guernica persists in our cultural consciousness because it represents “a kind of nostalgia” for a time before our hyper-visible contemporary war culture marked by the global dissemination of images of asymmetrical violence and terrorism; it allows us to breathe new life into something like the romanticization of war through which “[t]he bomb made history” and the subsequent work of art has the capacity to incite action (56). Pausing on Clark’s diagnosis that “we pin our hopes on Guernica” to resuscitate the political ideals of collective resistance to violence, I want to dilate the question of why Guernica continues to provoke a universalizing impulse through an affective dimension; and in order to answer this question, we must scrutinize the ways in which value has accrued to the object (56). In fact, Clark’s argument might be read as an updated version of the declarations that some critics made on seeing Guernica at the 1937 Spanish Pavilion in Paris. An argument like Clark’s, while it participates in the accretion of value to the object, must also reckon with the possibility that its universalizing impulse effaces the heterogeneity of Guernica’s locales and geneses.

Art historians have provided comprehensive biographies of Guernica that figure the painting as an object that travels through the world, living a life of its own, and grafting onto different cultural contexts.[18] As a result of the recent material turn in cultural studies, there are countless biographies of things that respond to Arjun Appadurai’s proclamation that “commodities, like persons, have social lives.”[19] I do not seek to replicate the art-historical biographies of Guernica but rather to critique their hagiographical impulse, and to advance something like a meta-biographical inquiry that interrogates the structures of circulation and recirculation that enable Guernica to incite critical and popular interests that demand that the art object be at once universal and serially specific.[20] This line of inquiry demonstrates the importance of institutional histories to an understanding of Guernica as a transnational cultural phenomenon. In the case of Guernica, we might conceptualize its scenes of manifestation at museum symposia and exhibitions as something like Appadurai’s “tournaments of value,” which names a category of theatricalized events, such as art auctions, wherein the actors orchestrate the “disposition of the central tokens of value in the society in question” with an eye toward the success of those objects’ prospective movement (“Introduction,” 21).

Screenshot of Gigapixel feature on the “Repensar Guernica” website.
Fig. 4. Screenshot of Gigapixel feature on the “Repensar Guernica” website.

This section reconsiders the scenes of Guernica’s manifestation that enliven the biography of the object, but it argues for an analytic that attends to the structures that underlie those scenes. A scene of manifestation––at the Reina Sofía exhibition, for example––provides an aperture onto two levels of recirculation: the material circulation of correspondence, money, and labor that then enables the wider cultural circulation of Guernica as an image. In addition to the exhibition, with the financial support of Telefónica, a Spanish multinational telecommunications provider, the Reina Sofía orchestrated a massive institutional undertaking to digitize about two thousand public and private archival documents that relate to the itinerary of Guernica from 1937 until today. Titled “Repensar Guernica” (Rethinking Guernica), the website guides users through a virtual environment that both teaches about history of the painting and houses a module called “Gigapixel,” which invites users to analyze the materiality of the canvas itself by zooming in and out on high-resolution images taken by visible, ultraviolet, infrared lights, and x-ray; to make sense of this assemblage of images, the module incorporates a dossier of exegetical information gleaned from the museum’s extensive restoration studies (fig. 4).[21] While Clark and Wagner were invited primarily to curate an exhibition, “Repensar Guernica” mobilized the cross-departmental resources at the Reina Sofía in order to make visible key historical and institutional contexts through which the painting and its image acquired multitudinous meanings.[22] Capitalizing on the most cutting-edge technology and the vision of universal access that the Internet ostensibly proffers, the Reina Sofía seems to resurrect Barr’s institutional ambitions at MoMA. For the entire life of Guernica, museums have dispensed an extraordinary sum of energy and money to ensure that the painting remains inscribed on the human sensorium, and the Reina Sofía’s “Gigapixel” represents the most recent and technologically advanced episode in this saga of high-profile corporate spending. While modernist impresarios––Barr at MoMA and Clark at Reina Sofía––proclaim that there exists something essential in Guernica that makes it endure, we must also bear in mind the institutional heavy lifting that enables and encourages critics to select Guernica as an object in the first place, among any number of other politically attuned objects, on which to bestow the quality of universality.

The Politics of Figuration and Abstraction at the 1937 Spanish Pavilion

On April 26, 1937, assisting General Francisco Franco as he challenged the democratic government of the Second Spanish Republic, the German Condor Legion carried out an astonishing aerial bombing of the ancient and symbolically significant Basque town of Gernika. The event at Guernica (the Spanish word for Gernika) announced to the public the ominous category of total war and its threat of annihilation from the air. However, as Ian Patterson has shown, the event itself was plagued by contradiction. The fascists denied ownership, alleging that Basque Republicans, with the help of the Catalonian anarchists, had perpetuated the bombing on themselves. In Francoist Spain, misinformation about the conflict continued for forty years and, as Patterson contends, the bombing of Guernica has remained “a case study in propaganda, ethics and international law.”[23] In a quest to rally international support, the Republic produced counterpropaganda to portray fascism as barbaric and the Republican cause as a beacon of peace and progress. Indeed, Guernica catalyzed a protracted ideological war that was fought through the medium of art. Projecting an image of national heritage that amplified National Catholicism, Franco’s regime produced posters and postcards that regulated and sanitized public space. Francoist propaganda discourse sought unification in order to erase the supposed infiltration of foreign influence that it ascribed to the international communism of the Republic. To do so, Francoist posters enlisted an historical parallel to the Reconquista and the Crusades through which Queen Isabelle and King Ferdinand achieved Catholic unification in 1492 by violently expelling Muslims and Jews from the Iberian Peninsula.[24] Fascist propaganda seduced the Spanish public with the promise of imperial regeneration. The Republic’s most potent arena in which to intervene in this war of information was the 1937 World’s Fair in Paris—an international art event that infamously drew into proximity the mounting fascist regimes of Italy and Germany and the socialist enterprise of the Soviet Union at a time when Europe felt itself to be on the brink of an uncertain transformation. A fierce competition of aesthetic styles transpired between the soon-to-be warring nations. It was the Republic’s opportunity to guide an international audience through the atrocities of civil war and to demonstrate art’s humanizing role in a society beset by violence.

By assembling various aesthetic styles, the Spanish Pavilion dramatized a struggle between social realism and modernist abstraction. As Jordana Mendelson has argued, “It is with the 1937 pavilion that the distance that had rhetorically separated institutional and avant-garde polemics around these issues collapsed under the demands of war.”[25] The tension among what could be considered appropriate aesthetic responses to war were visualized most theatrically within and around the commissioned centerpiece itself: Pablo Picasso’s Guernica.[26] In January 1937, a few months before the bombing of Guernica, the architect of the Spanish Pavilion, Josep Lluís Sert, with the support of other Republican members of the artistic intelligentsia, asked Picasso to contribute a mural-sized painting. The bombing of Guernica delivered the subject matter of the commission, and Picasso composed the painting in his Paris studio over the course of a month and a half, along with hundreds of sketches and drawings. He relied on accounts in the international press to visualize the bombing at Guernica.

Guernica has been a contested site of interpretation from its inception—its initial scene of manifestation at the Spanish Pavilion provoking critics to argue over the painting’s aesthetic style and its relationship to political commitment. This historical moment has become a vibrant set piece within biographies of Guernica that serves to seed the flourishing romanticization of the painting. I feature this set piece not to rehearse an historical moment that has no doubt been sufficiently analyzed by many art historians, but rather to reveal that this moment scaffolds the structure of those histories and regulates the ways in which art institutions have subsequently politicized and aestheticized Guernica. We will come to see how an object that originated outside its national context and remained in exile for most of the twentieth century adapts to the vicissitudes of institutions that proselytize conflicting aesthetic, economic, and political convictions.

The decision to exhibit Guernica at the Pavilion was surrounded by controversy. Through the very architecture of the Pavilion, the Republic sought to present a unified nation and thus on the whole preferred social realism. As Miriam Basilio points out, “Cubism, for example, was deemed to be outside the parameters set for Republican art.”[27] Surprising as it is to us today, the majority of first-time viewers found Picasso’s painting to be too abstract and therefore evacuated of politics. Within a more panoramic view of the history of twentieth-century art, Guernica might be said to be a return to historical painting. However, in the late thirties, the value of the aesthetic had shifted so far from a modernist agenda that the figurative aspects of Guernica were, so to speak, invisible. The aesthetic procedures of high modernism gradually fell out of favor in the thirties, thereby generating a kind of recidivism of form that privileged genres like the historical novel, documentary, and social realism for their ability to objectively register social and political realities. The hallmarks of modernist aesthetics––fragmentation, defamiliarization, bricolage, to name a few––now required cogent defense. Thomas S. Davis claims that “late modernism designates the moment when modernism no longer recognizes itself” as a way to explain the crisis of representation that prompted artists to embrace earlier modes of realism.[28] This misrecognition haunts the critical discussions around Guernica. Late modernism does not entail a ban on earlier modernist aesthetics; rather, the recidivism of form coexists with the complex afterlives of modernist aesthetics, thereby short-circuiting our literary/art-historical proclivities to classify works as either realist or modernist. When configured as an object in exile that circulates and thereby accrues meaning from the various contexts and material environments through which it passes, Guernica demonstrates powerfully an oscillation between these two poles.

However, a more reductive line of argument thrived in 1937, bifurcating the aesthetics of social realism and the abstractions of modernism (surrealism and cubism). To those who were flummoxed by Guernica’s abstract style at the Pavilion, the painting required exegesis and narrative. The British art critics Anthony Blunt and Herbert Read argued extensively in the press, parrying with each other over the representation of Guernica. Read praised the universality of Guernica as a transnational representation of human suffering that expanded concentrically from its specific context: “Not only Gernika, but Spain; not only Spain, but Europe, is symbolized in this allegory.”[29] However, contending that Picasso’s painting was nothing more than a “mere nightmare picture” that retreated inward, Blunt, a staunch Marxist, hewed to an aesthetics of social realism, championing instead Diego Rivera’s mural at the Institute of Art in Detroit for its ability to communicate world-historical issues to society.[30] Addressing a group of construction workers at the Pavilion in 1937, Max Aub further explicates Guernica’s difficulty and opacity that critics like Blunt decry as the features of abstraction:

Picasso has represented here the tragedy of Guernica. It is possible that this art may be accused of being too abstract or difficult for a pavilion like ours that wishes to be above all and before everything else a popular expression. But I am certain that with a little will, everyone will perceive the rage, the desperation and the terrible protest that this canvas signifies. Our time is that of realism, but each country perceives the real in its own way . . . That is why Goya and Picasso are realist painters even if they appear to other nations as extravagant personalities. (quoted in Basilio, Visual Propaganda, 101)

While helping the workers to comprehend the painting’s imagery, Aub argues for a version of painterly realism that is specific to the Spanish tradition, aligning Picasso with Goya, whose early nineteenth-century series of sketches entitled Los desastres de la guerra (The Disasters of War) (1810-20) had rendered in protest the grisly details of armed conflict. Aub acknowledges that Guernica risks opacity and does not adequately consolidate the nation’s attempt at a “popular expression.” Feeling the pressure of war and displacement, the immediate reception of Guernica at the institution of the Spanish Pavilion was incapable of comprehending the fine gradations of abstraction; instead critics tended to lump all abstract art under the unsavory sign of a version of modernism that was increasingly understood as anachronistic.

But others, like Aub, saw in Guernica a refuge for and representation of a modernism that self-consciously indexes that which exists outside the frame, thus “perceive[ing] the real in its own way.” Continuing its movement as an object in exile, Guernica quickly embarked on a tour of England, debuting at the New Burlington Gallery in London. On viewing the painting, Stephen Spender remarks, “it is certainly not realistic,” drawing attention to the fact that Picasso’s experience of the bombing was in fact heavily mediated through a “kind of second-hand experience, from the newspapers, the news-reel, the wireless.”[31] For Spender, the “flickering black, white and grey lights” of Guernica register such processes of mediation as the moving image of the newsreel and the reported words of the wireless. Spender, moreover, recognizes a meta-rhetorical gesture in the painting: Guernica self-consciously indexes the mediation involved in its own production and foresees its reproduction as postcard at the Pavilion. Despite his attempt to remove the painting from the grasp of realism, Spender actually resignifies Guernica as an index of the new regime of information that mediates society’s experience of the Spanish Civil War––and, indeed, all war. In Spender’s formulation, when abstract art takes war as its referent, its form indexes and is structured by all that exists outside the frame.

In his contribution to this intellectual genealogy, Theodor Adorno would later diagram his own defense of abstraction in his 1965 essay “Commitment,” which had been broadcast in 1962 on Radio Bremen. Adorno framed his argument as a rejoinder to Jean-Paul Sartre’s What Is Literature? (1948). For both philosophers, the value of the aesthetic exists under the specter of postwar ruination in Europe, and as Adorno admits early on, both are concerned with the fact that works of art are “decaying into cultural commodities.”[32] But they differ on the way in which art should represent itself and the extent to which it should interact with its audience. Arguing against Sartre’s preference for engaged writing that opens a space of freedom in which both writer and reader interact, Adorno proclaims, “Art is not a matter of pointing up alternatives but rather of resisting, solely through artistic form, the course of the world, which continues to hold a pistol to the heads of human beings” (“Commitment,” 80). For Adorno, Sartre’s paragon of engagement, what translators have rendered as “commitment,” risks appropriation by the culture industry and thus the processes of commodification; only autonomous works of art, through their immanent form and abstractness, mediate sociopolitical realities without manipulation by market forces.

This postwar debate over the relationship between aesthetics and politics restages the drama of the Spanish Pavilion while also maintaining Guernica as the perennial object of provocation. Sartre had first questioned the primacy of aesthetic form in abstract painting, which relies on “[a]n infinity of contradictory things . . . adhering to the canvas in a state of profound undifferentiation.”[33] To emphasize his point, Sartre attacks the political efficacy of Picasso’s painting, asking “And that masterpiece, ‘The Massacre of Guernica,’ does any one think that it won over a single heart to the Spanish cause?” (What is Literature?, 11). In granting that “something is said that can never quite be heard,” Sartre acknowledges the way in which Guernica renders the affective dimensions of war and destruction in a similar way that “Picasso’s long harlequins . . . are emotion become flesh, emotion which the flesh has absorbed . . . and emotion which is unrecognizable . . . and yet present to itself” (11). Sartre does not simply dismiss the abstractness of Guernica but rather he argues that only “the writer deals with significations” (11). Because the painter creates an aesthetic object that confuses rather than elucidates a discursive message, according to Sartre, we must not ask visual artists (and poets) to engage.

Several years after Sartre published his book, Adorno deploys Guernica as a heuristic through which to dismantle Sartre’s literature of commitment. To do so, Adorno relates the apocryphal but oft-cited story that depicts Picasso’s encounter with a Nazi officer who asks the artist in the studio, “standing before the Guernica, ‘Did you make that?,’ Picasso is said to have responded, ‘No, you did’” (“Commitment,” 89). Adorno goes on to describe the significance of Guernica as an exemplar of autonomous art that defies late capitalism: “Even autonomous works of art like the Guernica are determinate negations of empirical reality; they destroy what destroys . . . The unqualified autonomy of works that refrain from adaptation to the market involuntarily becomes an attack” (89). It is worth pausing a moment to note the mythic qualities of Adorno’s reuse of the apocryphal story, as many conflicting versions exist. James Attlee has pointed out that the Nazi officer could not have seen Guernica in Picasso’s studio because the painting had already left Paris by the time German troops arrived in June 1940. Other iterations of the story depict the Nazi officer looking at a postcard of Guernica. For Attlee, the mythology of the story demonstrates that “the painting has dematerialized, acquiring the magical quality to tour America’s principle art museums while remaining in the artist’s studio in Paris.” [34] What is most fascinating about Adorno’s appropriation of Guernica is that the object in fact works to destabilize his argument. Both the dematerialization of the painting and the uncertainty of the version to which the Nazi officer refers (postcard or painting?) undermine Adorno’s attempt to assert the singularity of Guernica; rather, the apocryphal story discloses Guernica’s initial scene of manifestation at the Spanish Pavilion. Adorno admires the abstractness of Guernica for the way in which the materiality of the object mediates sociopolitical realities independently of the artist’s intentions or audience’s reception. However, despite Adorno’s asservations, the image of Guernica is inextricable from the many reproductions and redistributions along transnational routes that multiply the monadic work of art.

Nonetheless, through the various scenes of its manifestation––at exhibitions and within textual debates––Guernica persists as an object of provocation. But critics, curators, and other purveyors of art are not the only agents who facilitate the very intentional modes of redistribution that keep Guernica afloat. Due to Guernica’s grand presence at MoMA, many postwar American artists related to the painting as a pedagogical tool for the practice of modernist aesthetics and for the understanding of transnational politics in the context of war. Indeed, the proliferation of Guernica did not merely take place through its myriad reproductions but also, more obliquely and imperceptibly, within the representational strategies of abstract art.

Censoring Guernica: Robert Motherwell’s Elegy to the Spanish Republic (1948-1970s)

At the end of its US tour, after the civil war had ended, and Franco claimed victory, Guernica entered what would become its forty-two-year period of exile at MoMA in New York City. As Gijs van Hensberger argues, Guernica “kickstarts a whole renaissance” in postwar American art, becoming a huge source of inspiration for the abstract expressionists (Guernica, 156). Not only did Guernica serve as a direct influence on modern art, but it also spurred artists to think about the historical context of the Spanish Civil War. Robert Motherwell’s decades-long series Elegy to the Spanish Republic queries the phantasmatic attachment to Guernica that postwar artists nurtured during their time of artistic maturation. Many, like Jackson Pollock, would commune with the painting by frequently visiting it to grapple with its complex forms through the act of sketching. In the postwar moment that defines and canonizes American modernist abstraction, Guernica continues to fan the fire that fuels the tension between abstraction and figuration, spreading from its position within the discursive debates within art criticism and theory to consume the space of art practice.

Motherwell’s series Elegy to the Spanish Republic––which constituted over 170 paintings and prints that he produced from 1948 and through the 1970s––does not resemble the visual vocabulary of Guernica, but it metabolizes the intensities of the Spanish Civil War as refracted through Picasso’s painting (fig. 5).[35] Even though the Elegy approaches pure abstraction, it nonetheless indexes the greyscale iconography of Guernica in its signature use of black ovoid shapes that resonate with the imagery of the bull; moreover, the huge scale of the Elegy approximates the mural-size scale of Guernica. Despite oblique references to both the war and Picasso’s painting, Motherwell’s Elegy has been neglected in art-historical accounts of the Spanish Civil War. Addressing the surprising absence of Motherwell and his Elegy from broader discussions of politics and art, Dean Rader has recently claimed that “[t]he rise of nationalism around the globe, the backlash to the [US] 2016 presidential election, and the increasing expectations of art, particularly poetry and painting, to enact or to embody resistance, make Motherwell’s work—especially the Elegies—particularly salient at this moment in history.”[36] However, the opacity of the Elegy has contributed to the difficulty of seeing the ways in which aesthetics and politics merge and interact through the abstract painted shapes against a large canvas. In a mode that draws attention to the elegy qua elegy, Motherwell’s series persistently stages scenes of censorship that defer the ability to conceive and therefore mourn the Republican loss of the Spanish Civil War while also evacuating the meaning of the event that has been delimited by Guernica. As I have been arguing, the transnational imaginary of the Spanish Civil War has been conjugated through the recirculation and reproduction of Guernica that figure the image as at once universal and serially specific. Through the work of institutional structures of meaning-making that ensure the global circulation of Guernica’s image, war and aesthetic form have become intimately intertwined in that object. Many of the artists under review here have participated in the processes that buoy the circulatory flow of Guernica. However, other artists have resisted this cultural phenomenon. While confronting the specificity of the Spanish Civil War through an experimentation with the aesthetic form of Guernica, Motherwell’s Elegy develops aesthetic strategies of censorship that seek both to occlude the presence of Guernica by metamorphosing its figurative elements into pure abstractions and to register the loss of the Spanish Civil War as a kind of political melancholia.

Robert Motherwell, Elegy to the Spanish Republic, 70 (1961).
Fig. 5. Robert Motherwell, Elegy to the Spanish Republic, 70 (1961). Oil on canvas. 175.3 x 289.6 cm. Anonymous Gift, 1965. Image copyright © The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image source: Art Resource, NY. © 2020 Dedalus Foundation, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.

The Spanish Civil War existed not only as source material for Motherwell’s artistic experiments but also as a catalyst for his own political awakening. It is no secret that Motherwell had a complicated relationship with Guernica. The painting both provides him with an aesthetic connection to the Spanish Civil War and with the legacy of the thirties as a historical moment in which artists sought to form alliances with the working class. However, Motherwell revered the modernist art of Spain for its experimentations with abstraction, and he expresses anxiety in his writings around the resurgence of figuration in the thirties. To illustrate his implicit point that figuration risks the loss of individuality that the artist needs in order to create distance from modern society, Motherwell turns to the “relative failure” of Guernica at the Spanish Pavilion; by contrast, Picasso’s cubism and experiments in papier collé are “great successes.”[37] In “The Modern Painter’s World” (1944), Motherwell investigates the social function of the artist who has been historically forced to relate to the bourgeoisie and the state but now recognizes that the “role of the individual is too great” and must forgo that relation (“Modern Painter’s World,” 27). It is individuality that Motherwell sees as that which conditions the “function of the modern artist [which] is by definition the felt expression of modern reality” (28; emphasis in original). To achieve this affective expression of the historical present, modern artists use strategies of abstraction that demonstrate their “rejection, almost in toto, of the values of the bourgeois world” (28). The artist grapples with the materiality of historical realities that both precede and instantiate him. For Motherwell, the most pressing issue for modern art is “the problem of the modern individual’s freedom,” a problem that resonates with the plight of the working class (29). Because “modern artists have not a social, but an individualist experience of freedom,” there exists a schism between artists and the working-class political parties, by which the former retreats to what Motherwell calls “the spiritual underground” (28).

However, abstract art attempts to mediate between society and artist through form. For Motherwell, “[i]n the public mural, it is a question of [Picasso’s] solidarity with other men,” that is to say, to the social classes to which Guernica addresses itself. Picasso’s cubist experiments with the collage technique of papier collé channel the impulses of Romanticism and formalism to reject society, whereas Guernica invites society through its tempering of abstraction with figural elements. In his “Preface to Apollinaire’s The Cubist Painters” (also published in 1944), Motherwell contends that Picasso’s painting “is constructed on the principles of papier collé.”[38] Guernica fails because of its systemic formal ambivalence, as neither wholly abstract nor figural: “Guernica hangs in an uneasy equilibrium between the now disappearing social values, i.e., moral indignation at the character of modern life . . . as opposed to the eternal and the formal, the aesthetics of papier collé” (“Painter’s Modern World,” 30). It is this “contradiction” of unity of form that seems to motivate Motherwell’s critique of Guernica, despite the fact that he clearly admires the painting. For Motherwell, the shortcomings of Guernica are most apparent in its use of figuration as a forlorn attempt to establish connection with a society that has forsaken artists. Motherwell regrets that formalism and thus a purely aesthetic practice of painting removes the artist from society, invariably positioning him as the opposition. Prefiguring Adorno’s argument in “Commitment,” Motherwell asserts that due to the saturation of modern society with market forces—“the love of property”––the artist must deploy aesthetic form as an immanent critique of the society in which he finds himself (35). Formalism, or pure abstraction, provides aesthetic distance, or what Adorno would call autonomy, from the world of property.

Motherwell’s writings on aesthetics uphold the dichotomy of figuration and abstraction, and they do so by deploying Guernica as its paradigmatic exemplar. Because Guernica represents a time when artists could create figurative objects in order to foster a political relation with society, Motherwell sees the painting as a failure; it cannot succeed under the regime of capitalism. Even though Motherwell does not explicitly license this point, we might understand his use of property as also connoting the reproduction of art that has contributed to the overdetermination of particular art objects. In Motherwell’s lecture, Guernica figures as an art object but also as an image that bears witness to the processes of technological reproducibility that dilute the meaning of the object through the processes of recirculation and redistribution.

Motherwell uses the example of Guernica as a heuristic in his writings about society’s love of property, but he must also work to destroy the object in the process of creating his own, subsuming the figurations into the play of his own abstractions. We might interpret this process of destruction as the production of something like censorship that enables Motherwell to release the event of the Spanish Civil War from its inextricable relation to the culture industry of Guernica. The act of censorship, therefore, enables Motherwell to produce paintings that, in the tradition of abstract expressionism, might be considered beautiful; as Arthur Danto has noted, “The beauty of the paintings does not translate into thinking that what these forms represent are themselves beautiful. ‘How beautiful those mourning women are beside the shattered posts of their burned and bombed houses, standing against the pale morning sky’ is not a morally permissible vision.”[39] Danto probes the relationship between the beauty of art and political commitment, and questions the appropriate uses of beauty in art that responds to tragedy and violence. For Danto, Guernica is not beautiful because it expresses disgust at a tragic event, whereas the Elegy inhabits beauty as a way to comment on the inconceivable loss of a political ideology. Censoring becomes a strategy of abstraction in Motherwell’s work such that his Elegy can be seen as lamenting through “visual meditations . . . the death of a form of life” (“Beauty and Politics,” 110). The elegiac mode, according to Danto, nurtures a universalized aesthetic moment in which a political community can contemplate its own death.

It is the long-durational period of creating the Elegy that signals Motherwell’s censorship and political melancholia, while undertaking a temporalized evacuation of how Guernica has overdetermined the way in which American culture visually relates to war. The endless repainting of the Elegy mirrors the processual nature of the technological reproducibility of Guernica. Motherwell acknowledges the fact that his Elegy does not lend itself to reproduction; in fact, through the iterative repainting, he seems to resist reproduction by taking on that work by the handle of his brush. Motherwell paints the Elegy throughout the entirety of his career, which corresponds to the long period of oppression within Francoist Spain. Each painting consists of deep black ovals in varying degrees of distortion and animation; some are accompanied with color, but most remain restricted to black and white. Due to the unrelenting iteration, we are asked to conceive the Elegy as a single object, thereby permitting us to see the affinity between the searching temporality of Motherwell’s series and the exilic circulation of Guernica. Both Guernica and the Elegy attest to the ways in which the aesthetics of temporality must figure into any representation of war. Both encode the unrepresentability of war into their form, thereby registering the experience of war as belated, that is, an experience from which we are epistemologically exiled through the processes of mediation. Mary Ann Caws describes the ontology of the Elegy as a “recycling and re-making possible of something once living and always relivable in its working out.”[40] By experiencing the Elegy as an elegy, we are thrust into a state of political melancholia, recognizing the lost object of politics in excess of something that might be apprehended as the political experiment of the Spanish Republic.[41] In other words, the Elegy enacts a process of becoming that serves to document the ways in which the tragic event of the Spanish Civil War exceeds its historical delimitation, animating Motherwell’s (and our own) historical present. Therefore, the long-durational form of the Elegy––that the object materializes along a plane of becoming––resonates with the formal movement of Guernica’s transnational (re)circulation. Both objects stage the process of sensing the experience of war and apprehend the mourning of the event as ongoing, with its tendrils reaching into the present.

The image of Guernica figures as what we might call a conspicuous absence in the Elegy.  Coupled with the idea of the Spanish Civil War, Guernica is the lost object that the Elegy seems to mourn. Looking at the iterations of the Elegy, the spectator is held within yet another rematerialization of Guernica––for example, the undulating black ovoid shapes against a white background suggest the rips and tears of monochromatic forms in Guernica. We can still detect the ghostly presence of Guernica in those black ovoid shapes that insinuate the iconography of the bull. Motherwell modulates and intensifies the grayscale of Guernica into the austere black and whites that are reminiscent of El Greco and Goya’s black paintings. However, as a consequence of the Elegy’s more extreme abstract style, Motherwell invites us to see and experience other events of global human suffering within the displacement and violence that follow in the wake of the Spanish Civil War. The Elegy renders the Spanish Civil War as an emblematic site, as that lost object, in which to visualize and mourn other events of transnational violence.

Because of its undeniable connection to the Spanish Civil War by virtue of its title, Motherwell’s Elegy was also itself a target of censorship. When MoMA’s proselytizing show of abstract expressionism, The New American Painting (which traveled to eight European cities) made its stop at the Museo Nacional de Arte Contemporáneo in Madrid in 1958, the censors of Franco’s regime eventually barred the display of Elegy to the Spanish Republic no. 35 after it was briefly shown.[42] The censors demanded a change to the title, which Motherwell refused. Despite its aspiration toward pure form and abstractness, the Elegy is affixed to the context of the Spanish Civil War. But, just as modernist impresarios sought to extricate Guernica from its origins, the same critics worked to decontextualize the Elegy. The figuration implied by the title works to temper the pure abstraction of Motherwell’s Elegy; the discursive content becomes like the unconscious of the visual work of art. Motherwell may have used strategies of censorship to displace the hegemony of Guernica so that he could create his own work of art, but the long-durational form of the Elegy suggests the impartiality of that act of censorship in spite of its attempts at totalization—that meaning will always seep through the cracks of representation.

Redact, Reproduce, Recirculate

In his large-scale charcoal drawing Guernica Redacted (After Picasso’s Guernica, 1937) (2014), the American artist Robert Longo overlays horizontal black bars of varying sizes on the original image of Guernica, calling to mind the censorship of Hollywood movies or the redaction of classified information in official governmental reports (fig. 6). This drawing exists as part of Longo’s larger project of redactions that he applied to a selection of Picasso’s masterpieces, such as Acrobat on a Ball (1905) and Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), which were exhibited in the show “Picasso Redacted” at Cahiers d’Art in Paris during 2016. Through the reproduction of Guernica, Longo’s redactions suggest a flickering movement as they blot out the screams of the mother holding her dead child, the mouth of the bull, and the eyes of the horse. The sensorial experience of destruction is neutralized, and the representation of war is scrambled, thus insinuating a kind of disturbance in the air that impedes a visual transmission. But how do our eyes interact with the entropic black bars that suck in and dispel the meaning of the visual signs? More generally, what happens when we see redacted text or censored images?

Robert Longo, Guernica Redacted (After Picasso’s Guernica, 1937) (2014).
Fig. 6. Robert Longo, Guernica Redacted (After Picasso’s Guernica, 1937) (2014). Charcoal on mounted paper. 283,2 x 620,4 cm. © Robert Longo / ARS New York, 2020. Courtesy Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, London • Paris • Salzburg.

Rather than banish and destroy the figuration of Guernica, as Motherwell repeatedly does in his Elegy, Longo subordinates the original painting, portraying it in the form of traces and decontextualized fragments. Longo’s material use of redaction does not seem to fully obliterate the meaning of Guernica due to the fact that most viewers can reconstruct the original through the images that have been embedded in their memories. Guernica Redacted centers and exploits the industry of Guernica that has saturated our culture with reproductions, recyclings, and reworkings of the image.[43] Guernica might indeed be, to restate T. J. Clark’s claim, “our culture’s Tragic Scene,” but the painting more importantly serves to remind us of the structures by which our culture circulates and reproduces sameness in the name of difference.

In this essay, I have traced the nomadic itinerary of Guernica through emblematic scenes of manifestation in order to demonstrate how the painting and the critical and artistic appropriation of its image contribute to the emergence of a transnational imaginary of the Spanish Civil War. Artworks like Motherwell’s Elegy and Dupuy-Spencer’s Veterans Day materialize this imaginary in ways that probe the complex political meanings of the Spanish Civil War as a transnational phenomenon. While it is true that the recirculation of Guernica creates new political meaning, scholars have commented on how the industry of Guernica denudes the original painting of its historical context. To tourists planning trips to see Guernica in Madrid, Robert F. Reid-Pharr warns, “don’t bother. The famed painting is not visible, nor has it ever been.”[44] Despite the physical space allotted to the permanent exhibition of this consummate twentieth-century masterpiece and the cottage industry that has ensured its contemporary recirculation, Reid-Pharr argues that “In Sala 206, where Guernica is presumably housed, it is the tourists themselves who are visible . . . We ourselves are what we have come to experience and witness” (Archives of Flesh, 215). Indeed, as I have demonstrated, when we look at Guernica or encounter one’s of its many reproductions amid the media ecology of the twenty-first century and the various shows of the art world, we must reckon with the fact that we are being kept––indeed, are exiled––from the painting’s original horrific context due to the complexly braided histories of the image’s recirculation. Longo’s painting is instructive here because it does not so much seek to represent absence or to inter meaning behind the black bars than to signal the ubiquitous presence of the forms of Guernica that have been inscribed within our cultural unconscious—that we can so easily image the painting in our minds even when we cannot see it. If Guernica can be seen in the Elegy as a conspicuous absence through which the series perpetually mourns the Republican loss of the civil war, then in Longo’s painting, it is the conspicuous presence of Guernica that modulates the black bars to be at once regulatory mechanisms of redaction and apertures that open up to the historical past of modernism and progressive politics. In this way, it might be said that reproductions of Guernica exist not only in the gift shop, on the t-shirt, or on the protest poster, but also in the dematerialized form of memories that feed our more general concepts of war and political resistance. The image of Guernica always seems ready-to-hand when we need to conceptualize our collective resistance to the state-sponsored infliction of violence on noncombatants in times of war and upheaval.

In an interview for Studio International in 2017, Longo explains that he chose to redact Guernica because he noticed the cultural forgetting that had elided the painting’s multitudinous contexts of war––that people no longer comprehend Picasso’s painting as a meaningful site of antiwar resistance. Longo implied that he desires Guernica to catalyze the kind of scenes of controversy that plagued MoMA during the Vietnam War protests. Longo seems to have in mind the protest in 1974 when the artist Tony Shafrazi sprayed in red paint “KILL ALL LIES” directly onto the canvas, condemning the American occupation of Vietnam while pointing to the hypocrisy of a major American art museum displaying an anti-war painting. At the end of the interview, Longo relates what he interprets as an event of reenergization, of art reclaiming its power to do things in the world, to undertake political work. As Longo states, when Guernica Redacted was on view at Ohio State University’s Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio, “the museum was closed, a disgruntled security guard came in and started shooting a bunch of art. He put two bullet holes in the drawing, and then shot himself in front of it. So Guernica still provokes.”[45] Through this anecdote, Longo manipulates the circumstances of the event in order to stage his own transnational scene of Guernica’s manifestation as a tool of provocation that his reproduction seeks to promote. For Longo, the aesthetic mode of provocation overcomes the technological reproducibility of Guernica that has supposedly attenuated the painting’s original political meaning. However, his reductive version of the event at the Wexner Center troublingly instrumentalizes an instance of campus gun violence and suicide in the interest of further buttressing the institutions of art that might continue to grow the industry of Guernica. In this way, Guernica as a universal antiwar icon seems most significant precisely because of its capacity to reproduce and recirculate the political affects that inflame provocation across a range of specific cultural contexts.



I’d like to thank Bill Brown, Maud Ellmann, and Rachel Galvin for generously reading and commenting on drafts of my dissertation chapter from which this essay is drawn. I also want to thank the two anonymous readers for their suggestions for revision, as well as the members of the 20th and 21st Century Cultures Workshop at the University of Chicago and the audience at the 2017 MSA conference in Amsterdam.

[1] Greil Marcus, “Escape from New York,” in The Dustbin of History (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995), 185–91, 188.

[2] Boris Groys, Art Power (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008): 62.

[3] Paula Barreiro López, “Classified Files: Picasso, the Regime and the Avant-garde in Francoist Spain,” in Picasso and the Politics of Visual Representation: War and Peace in the Era of the Cold War and Since, ed. Johnathan Harris and Richard Koeck, (Liverpool, UK: Liverpool University Press, 2013): 89­–107, 101.

[4] Estrella de Diego, “Explorando España, exportando ‘España’: el Guernica como icono cultural y la formación de ‘lo español,” in El Guernica de Picasso: el poder de la representación. Europa, Estados Unidos y América Latina, ed. Andrea Giunta (Buenos Aires: Editorial Biblos), 115–127, 125. All translations my own unless otherwise noted.

[5] Alejandro Sanz, “ ‘Guernica,’ como obra, es muy poderosa’” (Basque Radio Television, 2017), video, 4 min.

[6] While I appreciate the many ways that Guernica has appeared in consumer culture and mass media (e.g. coffee mugs), I limit my focus to artistic appropriations of Guernica in order to clarify how the institutional recirculation of Guernica has been instrumental to the construction of a transnational imaginary of the Spanish Civil War.

[7] For example, Janice Loeb sent Alfred H. Barr, Jr., one of these postcards, emphasizing the way in which Paris felt “overwhelmingly exciting,” never indicating the dark clouds that hovered over Europe at the time. I quote from the postcard in Alfred H. Barr, Jr.’s papers in the archives at the Museum of Modern Art.

[8] See Otto Karl Werckmesiter, “Picasso’s Guernica Return to Germany,” in Icons of the Left: Benjamin and Eisenstein, Picasso and Kafka after the Fall of Communism (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1999): 67–96, 87.

[9] See Fawwaz Traboulsi, “Beirut-Guernica: A City and a Painting,” trans. John Berger and Fawwaz Trabousli, Middle East Report 154 (1988), 29–37.

[10] See Jordana Mendelson, “Learning from Guernica,” in Teaching Representations of the Spanish Civil War, ed. Noël Valis (New York: Modern Language Association, 2007), 328–38.

[11] T. J. Clark, “Picasso and Tragedy,” in Pity and Terror: Picasso’s Path to Guernica (Madrid: Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, 2017): 19–64, 23; emphasis in original.

[12] Alfred H. Barr, Jr. became the founding director of MoMA in June 1929. Until his forced resignation in 1943, Barr “institutionalized the structure of modernism” (Sybil Gordon Kantor, Alfred H. Barr, Jr. and the Intellectual Origins of the Museum of Modern Art [Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003], 212).

[13] Gijs van Hensberger, Guernica: The Biography of a Twentieth-Century Icon (New York: Bloomsbury, 2004), 186.

[14] Jeremy Braddock, Collecting as Modernist Practice (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012), 213.

[15] For a discussion of the correspondence between Barr and Kahnweiler, as well as a reading of the 1947 symposium on Guernica, see Andrea Giunta, “The Power of Interpretation (or How MoMA explained Guernica to its audience),” trans. Jane Brodie, Artelogie 10 (2017): 1–17.

[16] Alfred H. Barr, Jr., et al., Proceedings from the “Symposium on Guernica” (The Museum of Modern Art, November 25, 1947): 1–2.

[17] Gijs van Hensberger uses the language of globalization to describe the circulation of the painting-as-image and as an idea around which people of the world congregate: “Every community in the world that has suffered an appalling atrocity has become synonymous with Guernica and Gernika the town, the brutalised spiritual heartland of the beleaguered Basques” (Guernica, 5).

[18] See Herschel B. Chipp, Picasso’s Guernica: History, Transformations, Meanings (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), Gijs Van Hensbergen, Guernica: The Biography of a Twentieth-Century Icon (New York: Bloomsbury, 2004), and James Attlee, Guernica: Painting the End of the World (London: Head of Zeus, 2017).

[19] Arjun Appadurai, “Introduction: Commodities and the Politics of Value,” in The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective, ed. Arjun Appadurai (Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 3–63, 3.

[20] For an account of the hagiography of Picasso scholarship, see Rosalind Krauss, “In the Name of Picasso,” in The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1986): 23–41.

I draw on Igor Kopytoff’s 1986 essay when I invoke the phrase “biography of things,” which has since come to designate the field of object-based studies, such as the series Object Lessons published by Bloomsbury and edited by Christopher Schaberg and Ian Bogost. Kopytoff initially conceptualized the processes by which objects circulate and become commoditized and then singularized by such public institutions as art museums. For Kopytoff, the biography of a thing reveals its historicity (see Kopytoff, “The Cultural Biography of Things: Commoditization as Process,” in The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective, ed. Arjun Appadurai [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986], 64–91).

[21]Repensar Guernica,” Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia.

[22] For an extensive treatment of pivotal moments in Guernica’s institutional history from a member of the research team that worked on “Repensar Guernica,” see Rocío Robles Tardío, Informe Guernica: Sobre el Lienzo de Picasso y su Imagen (Madrid: Ediciones Asimétricas, 2019).

[23] Ian Patterson, Guernica and Total War (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), 17.

[24] For an extended analysis of Francoist propaganda during the civil war, see Miriam Basilio, “Genealogies for a New State: Painting and Propaganda in Franco’s Spain, 1936–1940” Discourse 24, no. 3 (2002): 67–94.

[25] Jordana Mendelson, Documenting Spain: Artists, Exhibition Culture, and the Modern Nation, 1929–1939 (University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 2005), 127–28.

[26] Even though Mendelson has persuasively argued for the centrality of Joseph Renau’s photomural as “the visual and conceptual guide for pavilion visitors,” I continue to emphasize Guernica due to its lasting importance for art historians and institutions of art (Documenting Spain, 135).

[27] Miriam Basilio, Visual Propaganda, Exhibitions, and the Spanish Civil War (New York: Routledge, 2013), 95.

[28] Thomas S. Davis, The Extinct Scene: Late Modernism and Everyday Life (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015), 11.

[29] Quoted in Russell Martin, Picasso’s War (Tucson, AZ: Hol Art Books, 2012), 140.

[30] Anthony Blunt, “Two Artists and the Outside World,” The Listener, July 28, 1938. For an account of the series of arguments between Blunt and Read, see Hensberger, Guernica: The Biography of a Twentieth-Century Icon, 76. For an analysis of Blunt’s changing criticisms of Picasso and their relation to the art historian’s polarizing views on politics of abstraction and realism, see Christopher Green, “Anthony Blunt’s Picasso” The Burlington Magazine 147, no. 1222 (2005): 26–33.

[31] Quoted in Picasso’s Guernica, ed. Ellen C. Oppler, (New York: Norton, 1988), 216.

[32] Theodor Adorno, “Commitment,” in Notes to Literature, vol. 2 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1992): 76–94, 76.

[33] Jean-Paul Sartre, What Is Literature?, trans. Bernard Frechtman (New York: Philosophical Library, 1950), 10–11.

[34] See James Attlee, Guernica: Painting the End of the World, 171. Other art historians valorize the story as an occasion through which to critique the dominant acceptance of social practice in contemporary art. James Hellings, for example, argues that “[t]he Picasso anecdote, as interpreted by Adorno, turns historico-philosophical aesthetics away from a reception theory of art toward a sociology of art, which is always already a critical theory of society” (Adorno and Art: Aesthetic Theory Contra Critical Theory [New York: Palgrave, 2014], 88).

[35] I refer to Motherwell’s series in the singular Elegy, rather than the common pluralized Elegies, in order to conceptualize his aesthetic project as a single object that assembles various iterations into a becoming.

[36] Dean Rader, “Elegy as Ecstasy: Rereading Motherwell,” Blog of Los Angeles Review of Books, February 2, 2017.

[37] Robert Motherwell, “The Modern Painter’s World” [1944], in The Writings of Robert Motherwell, ed. Dore Ashton and Joan Banach, (Berkeley: The University of California Press, 2007), 27–35, 29.

[38] Robert Motherwell, “Preface to Apollinaire’s The Cubist Painters” [1944], in The Writings of Robert Motherwell, 24–26, 25.

[39]Arthur Danto, “Beauty and Politics,” in The Abuses of Beauty (Peru, IL: Open Court, 2003), 103–24, 110.

[40] Mary Ann Caws, Robert Motherwell: What Art Holds (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996), 7.

[41] My understanding of melancholia and the lost object benefits from Bill Brown’s reading of Freud and Agamben that motivates his argument, in a very different context, that “the commemorative 9/11 commodities were part of an effort to organize—to reprocess, to sanitize, to discipline—a suddenly chaotic object culture and the psycho-ontological ramifications of that chaos” (Other Things [Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2015], 278). More generally, see Brown, “Commodity Nationalism and the Lost Object,” in Other Things, 271–90.

[42] See Elisabet Goula Sardà, “‘Someone Who Did Not Forget’: The Reception of Robert Motherwell’s Elegies to the Spanish Republic in Spain,” trans. Julie Wark, Revista Forma (Fall 2009): 77–91.

[43] I am drawing on James Attlee’s observation that “Guernica now sits at the centre of an endlessly multiplying constellation of replicas, refractions and reworkings in physical and digital form” (Guernica, 172).

[44] Robert F. Reid-Pharr, Archives of Flesh: African America, Spain, and Post-Humanist Critique (New York: New York University Press, 2016), 215.

[45] Joe Lloyd, “Robert Longo: I’m making artworks out of dust,” Studio International, September 9, 2017.