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15 Fascinating Facts About Picasso's Guernica

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You already know Pablo Picasso’s 1937 painting Guernica is among his most revered works, but do you know how and why he created the anti-war masterpiece?

1. GUERNICA WAS A COMMISSIONED PAINTING.

As the 1937 World’s Fair approached, members of Spain’s democratic government wanted the Spanish pavilion at Paris’ International Exposition Dedicated to Art and Technology to feature a mural that would expose the atrocities of Generalissimo Francisco Franco and his allies. Naturally, these organizers set their sights on one of Spain’s most celebrated painters, Pablo Picasso, who had first gained recognition in the 1910s with his adoption of cubist artistic expression.

2. PICASSO HADN’T BEEN TO SPAIN IN OVER THREE YEARS.

Picasso didn’t have to go far to work on a piece for the Paris exhibition—he had lived in France since 1904. An expat who was vocal about his opposition to the militant autocracy of his home country, Picasso crafted the tribute to the war-torn Spanish city without having set foot within the nation’s borders since 1934. He would never return to Spain.

3. FRANCO’S FORCES BLAMED THE BOMBING DEPICTED IN THE PAINTING ON THEIR RIVALS.

Picasso’s painting depicts the bombing of the Basque town of Guernica on April 26, 1937. Franco’s German and Italian allies in the Spanish Civil War carpet-bombed Guernica, a stronghold of Republican opposition to Franco’s Nationalists, for hours. Casualty estimates vary from 200 to 1000 deaths. To make matters worse, Franco and his allies blamed the horrific attack on Republican forces.

4. AN ARTICLE IN THE TIMES INSPIRED PICASSO.

Picasso didn’t witness the Guernica atrocities firsthand, but he was deeply moved by a report of the event written by South African-British journalist George Steer for The Times. The article, titled, “The Tragedy of Guernica: A Town Destroyed in Air Attack: Eye-Witness’s Account,” was attributed in print to “Our Special Correspondent.”

5. HE BEGAN WORKING ON THE PAINTING AT THE LAST MINUTE.

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Picasso was so affected by Steer’s Guernica story that he scrapped all pending plans to devote himself to the pavilion mural. The artist began work on what would be one of his earliest politically inclined pieces on May 1, 1937, approximately three weeks before the scheduled launch of the exhibit. Guernica was not completed until early June, about two weeks after the pavilion opened.

6. PICASSO SIMULTANEOUSLY PUT TOGETHER ANOTHER CRITIQUE OF FRANCO.

The fact that Picasso cranked out what is now known as one of the most famous paintings of the 20th century in just over a month is impressive enough in its own right, but Guernica wasn’t even the sole focus of the artist’s attention during this time. In January 1937, Picasso had published a set of etching and aquatint prints, collectively titled The Dream and Lie of Franco. On June 7 of the same year, around the same time that he delivered Guernica to the Spanish pavilion, Picasso added a second batch of images to The Dream and Lie of Franco.

7. AN EARLY VERSION OF THE PAINTING WAS MORE EMPOWERING.

Unsurprisingly, Guernica evolved between its inception and completion. One of Picasso’s earliest drafts of the painting included a raised fist, a universal symbol of solidarity in resistance to oppression. Opponents of Franco’s reign had embraced the emblem during the Spanish Civil War. Picasso depicted the fist empty-handed at first, then grasping a sheaf of grain. Ultimately, he deleted the image altogether.

8. ANOTHER STAGE OF GUERNICA INVOLVED COLOR.

Guernica is one of history’s most recognizable grayscale paintings, but at one point during the piece’s development, Picasso entertained the idea of adding color to the project. He included a red teardrop sprouting from a crying woman’s eye, as well as swatches of colored wallpaper. None of these elements made the final cut.

9. PICASSO REFUSED TO TALK ABOUT THE PAINTING’S SYMBOLISM.

Scholars have long tried to decode the significance of the symbols in Guernica, especially the horse and bull figures. Naturally, Picasso was probed to explain the use of these creatures in his painting. He never offered anything more revelatory than “This bull is a bull and this horse is a horse,” adding, “If you give a meaning to certain things in my paintings it may be very true, but it is not my idea to give this meaning. What ideas and conclusions you have got I obtained too, but instinctively, unconsciously. I make the painting for the painting. I paint the objects for what they are.”

10. EARLY REVIEWS OF THE PAINTING WEREN’T ALL POSITIVE.

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Today, Guernica is celebrated as one of Picasso’s premiere achievements. But it wasn’t always hailed as a masterpiece. Among the piece’s leading detractors were American critic Clement Greenberg (who called Guernica “jerky” and “compressed”), French painter and communist Edouard Pignon (who maligned the painting for its misplaced political message and lack of empathy for the working class), French philosopher Paul Nizan (who shared Pignon’s sentiments, and further called Guernica a product of the bourgeoisie mentality), and American abstract painter Walter Darby Bannard (criticizing in particular the painting’s counterintuitive scale).

11. NAZI GERMANY TOOK POTSHOTS AT GUERNICA.

Due to both Guernica’s antifascist message and Adolf Hitler’s personal aversions to modern art, the official German guidebook for Paris’s International Exposition recommended against visiting Picasso’s piece, which it called “a hodgepodge of body parts that any four-year-old could have painted.”

12. YEARS LATER, GERMANY USED THE PAINTING IN A MILITARY CAMPAIGN.

Apparently misunderstanding the nature of Guernica and its antiwar stance, the German military used the painting in an ill-conceived recruiting advertisement in 1990. The ad featured the slogan, “Hostile images of the enemy are the fathers of war.”

13. THE PAINTING INSPIRED A PICASSO EXCHANGE WITH A GESTAPO OFFICER.

Almost as famous for his biting wit as he was for his artistic prowess, Picasso once treated a German Gestapo officer to a sharp rejoinder in reference to the painting’s depiction of the atrocities of fascism and war. When asked by an officer about a photo of the painting, “Did you do that?” Picasso is said to have replied, “No, you did.”

14. THE PAINTING WAS VANDALIZED BY AN ANTIWAR ACTIVIST.

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At one point its long residency at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art, Guernica suffered an act of politically-charged defacement. In 1974, Tony Shafrazi—who would later become a respected art dealer—spray-painted the words “KILL ALL LIES” over the painting. Upon his apprehension by museum security, Shafrazi famously shouted, “Call the curator. I am an artist.”

15. THE PAINTING WAS COVERED UP DURING A SPEECH MADE BY COLIN POWELL.

From 1985 to 2009, the United Nations adorned the entrance of its Security Council with a tapestry reproduction of Guernica. In February 2003, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell delivered a televised speech on site at the UN, testifying in favor of America’s imminent declaration of war on Iraq. A large blue curtain covered the tapestry during Powell’s speech.

Conflicting reports attributed the decision to obscure Guernica both to journalists thinking the violent imagery would be unpleasant for viewers of the broadcast, and to the Bush Administration deeming the display of such a recognizable antiwar painting inappropriate for the backdrop of Powell’s promotion of military action.

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Art
5 Things You Might Not Know About Ansel Adams

You probably know Ansel Adams—who was born on February 20, 1902—as the man who helped promote the National Park Service through his magnificent photographs. But there was a lot more to the shutterbug than his iconic, black-and-white vistas. Here are five lesser-known facts about the celebrated photographer.

1. AN EARTHQUAKE LED TO HIS DISTINCTIVE NOSE.

Adams was a four-year-old tot when the 1906 San Francisco earthquake struck his hometown. Although the boy managed to escape injury during the quake itself, an aftershock threw him face-first into a garden wall, breaking his nose. According to a 1979 interview with TIME, Adams said that doctors told his parents that it would be best to fix the nose when the boy matured. He joked, "But of course I never did mature, so I still have the nose." The nose became Adams' most striking physical feature. His buddy Cedric Wright liked to refer to Adams' honker as his "earthquake nose.

2. HE ALMOST BECAME A PIANIST.

Adams was an energetic, inattentive student, and that trait coupled with a possible case of dyslexia earned him the heave-ho from private schools. It was clear, however, that he was a sharp boy—when motivated.

When Adams was just 12 years old, he taught himself to play the piano and read music, and he quickly showed a great aptitude for it. For nearly a dozen years, Adams focused intensely on his piano training. He was still playful—he would end performances by jumping up and sitting on his piano—but he took his musical education seriously. Adams ultimately devoted over a decade to his study, but he eventually came to the realization that his hands simply weren't big enough for him to become a professional concert pianist. He decided to leave the keys for the camera after meeting photographer Paul Strand, much to his family's dismay.

3. HE HELPED CREATE A NATIONAL PARK.

If you've ever enjoyed Kings Canyon National Park in California, tip your cap to Adams. In the 1930s Adams took a series of photographs that eventually became the book Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail. When Adams sent a copy to Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, the cabinet member showed it to Franklin Roosevelt. The photographs so delighted FDR that he wouldn't give the book back to Ickes. Adams sent Ickes a replacement copy, and FDR kept his with him in the White House.

After a few years, Ickes, Adams, and the Sierra Club successfully convinced Roosevelt to make Kings Canyon a national park in 1940. Roosevelt's designation specifically provided that the park be left totally undeveloped and roadless, so the only way FDR himself would ever experience it was through Adams' lenses.

4. HE WELCOMED COMMERCIAL ASSIGNMENTS.

While many of his contemporary fine art photographers shunned commercial assignments as crass or materialistic, Adams went out of his way to find paying gigs. If a company needed a camera for hire, Adams would generally show up, and as a result, he had some unlikely clients. According to The Ansel Adams Gallery, he snapped shots for everyone from IBM to AT&T to women's colleges to a dried fruit company. All of this commercial print work dismayed Adams's mentor Alfred Stieglitz and even worried Adams when he couldn't find time to work on his own projects. It did, however, keep the lights on.

5. HE AND GEORGIA O'KEEFFE WERE FRIENDS.

Adams and legendary painter O'Keeffe were pals and occasional traveling buddies who found common ground despite their very different artistic approaches. They met through their mutual friend/mentor Stieglitz—who eventually became O'Keeffe's husband—and became friends who traveled throughout the Southwest together during the 1930s. O'Keeffe would paint while Adams took photographs.

These journeys together led to some of the artists' best-known work, like Adams' portrait of O'Keeffe and a wrangler named Orville Cox, and while both artists revered nature and the American Southwest, Adams considered O'Keeffe the master when it came to capturing the area. 

“The Southwest is O’Keeffe’s land,” he wrote. “No one else has extracted from it such a style and color, or has revealed the essential forms so beautifully as she has in her paintings.”

The two remained close throughout their lives. Adams would visit O'Keeffe's ranch, and the two wrote to each other until Adams' death in 1984.

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Dan Bell
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Design
A Cartographer Is Mapping All of the UK’s National Parks, J.R.R. Tolkien-Style
Peak District National Park
Peak District National Park
Dan Bell

Cartographer Dan Bell makes national parks into fantasy lands. Bell, who lives near Lake District National Park in England, is currently on a mission to draw every national park in the UK in the style of the maps in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Kottke.org reports.

The project began in September 2017, when Bell posted his own hand-drawn version of a Middle Earth map online. He received such a positive response that he decided to apply the fantasy style to real world locations. He has completed 11 out of the UK’s 15 parks so far. Once he finishes, he hopes to tackle the U.S. National Park system, too. (He already has Yellowstone National Park down.)

Bell has done various other maps in the same style, including ones for London and Game of Thrones’s Westeros, and he commissions, in case you have your own special locale that could use the Tolkien treatment. Check out a few of his park maps below.

A close-up of a map for Peak District National Park
Peak District National Park in central England
Dan Bell

A black-and-white illustration of Cairngorms National Park in the style of a 'Lord of the Rings' map.
Cairngorms National Park in Scotland
Dan Bell

A black-and-white illustration of Lake District National Park in the style of a 'Lord of the Rings' map.
Lake District National Park in England
Dan Bell

You can buy prints of the maps here.

[h/t Kottke.org]

All images by Dan Bell

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