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The art of Basque separatism

A section from Picasso's masterpiece Guernica
A section from Picasso's masterpiece Guernica  

By Paul Sussman, writer

LONDON, England (CNN) -- For most people, the issue of Basque separatism is inextricably bound up with the violent activities of secessionist group ETA.

While the latter makes its point with bombs and guns, however, a very different assertion of Basque identity is to be found in the world of art.

Pablo Picasso's painting Guernica, one of the great masterpieces of modern art, is for many Basques the supreme symbol of their struggle for nationhood.

"It is the most ubiquitous painting in reproduction form in the Basque country," says Juan Vidarte, director of the Guggenheim Art Museum, Bilbao. "It's everywhere, from modern apartments to traditional farm houses."

Picasso painted the huge black and white, oil-on-canvas mural in 1937 in response to the bombing of the northern Spanish town of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War (1936-39).

Basque conflict: Violence in Spain 

The attack, on April 26, 1937, was carried out by German warplanes at the request of nationalist leader General Francisco Franco, and was one of the first instances of saturation bombing being used against a specifically non-military target.

The town was all-but destroyed during the raid, and an estimated 1,500 civilians killed, although the precise death toll has never been firmly established.

The outrage carried particular resonance for the Basque people because of Guernica's status as their ancient capital.

It was here, beneath the giant Oak of Guernica, that they held their annual assembly, and here that successive generations of Spanish kings had, since medieval times, sworn to guarantee Basque autonomy.

The town's destruction, as immortalised in Picasso's painting, thus came to symbolize not merely a human tragedy, but a specifically Basque one.

"The painting has enormous importance for the Basque people," says Vidarte, "Not only in artistic terms, but in social, historical and political ones too."

A gift of the Basque country

The painting's symbolism has been heightened by the fact that, although it portrays one of the key incidents in modern Basque history, it has never actually been displayed in the Basque country.

Picasso painted it in Paris, where he was living at the time, producing initial sketches on May 1, 1937, and, despite its huge size (349.3 cms by 776.6 cms), completing the final canvas by June 4.

It was first displayed in the Spanish Pavilion at the Paris World Fair of 1937, where it attracted huge attention, and was subsequently lodged with the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where Picasso insisted it remain until the fall of Franco's regime.

It was finally returned to Spain in September 1981 (Franco had died in 1975). Rather than going to the Basque country, however, it was placed first in the Prado Museum in Madrid, and then Madrid's La Reina Sofia museum.

"Picasso gave the painting to the whole Spanish people and not just the Basques," says Picasso expert Elizabeth Cowling, of the University of Edinburgh. "It's not something he thought of as a particularly sectarian work of art.

"Although it relates to a specific event it was for him a painting about the Spanish civil war in general."

Despite this, the Basques have always regarded the work as a part of their own heritage, and have campaigned ceaselessly to have it returned to northern Spain.

"The painting is a gift of the Basque country to the world," says Vidarte, whose request for the work to be loaned to the Guggenheim for its opening in 1997 was rejected. "It would be a very historical moment for the painting to come back to the Basque country, to its place of origin."

The fact that it remains in Madrid is seen by many Basques as a further example of Spanish repression, and the issue of its return has thus become linked with the wider issue of Basque independence.

"The painting has become deeply imbued with the idea of Basque separatism," says Cowling.

Whether it will ever be displayed in the Basque country, if only on temporary loan, is uncertain.

"We will request it again," says Vidarte, "Although at the moment, because of the political climate, it is not the best of times.

"We hope they will let us have it eventually, though. It would be a nice gesture, and would make the Basque people very happy."


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