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Weeping over the ruined cities

07 November 2014

Nicholas Cranfield sees Picasso's Guernica studies and works by other moderns

Collection from Museo Reina Sofia, Madrid, Legacy Picasso, 1981, DE00120

Masterpiece in the making: Guernica Composition Study (VII), 9 May 1937, by Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), in a series of studies to be seen in the exhibition at the Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi, in Florence

Masterpiece in the making: Guernica Composition Study (VII), 9 May 1937, by Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), in a series of studies to be seen in the exhi...

THE latest show to grace the wonderful 15th-century Palazzo Strozzi in the heart of Florence opened after a freak hailstorm had caused millions of euros of damage to the city on the day of the private view. Happily, this did not deter the Italian PM (the former mayor of Florence) from attending.

By the time I got there, the principal galleries and museums were back in business, although the Boboli gardens were still closed, and there were trees down around the city, including a tall pine snapped off in the cloister of the Badia like a spent matchstick.

Picasso was already famous by the time of his first visit in April 1917, although he came in amorous pursuit of a ballerina from the Ballets Russes rather than to study the art seriously. On his last visit to Florence, in 1949, he stayed overnight at the Hotel Berchielli on his way back to France from Rome, where he had attended the world congress of the Partisans de la Paix.

Then he lamented the destruction of the houses around the Ponte Vecchio which had not yet been rebuilt, weeping over the city much as his tear-filled Guernica is an internationally recognised lament for the course of human destruction.

In 1963, the prestigious Accademia delle Arti del Disegno, established by Cosimo I on the advice of the artist Giorgio Vasari in January 1563, elected Picasso to an honorary membership, marking their 400th anniversary. It remains a unique honour for any Spanish artist of the 20th century.

In 1931, the art dealer and editor Ambroise Vollard invited Picasso to illustrate Balzac's 1831 short story Le Chef-d'oeuvre inconnu, which he later (1846) included in his Comédie Humaine. Picasso provided 13 etchings and 67 drawings for the edition.

The story tells of Frenhofer, an older but struggling artist in the age of Poussin and Porbus, who has failed to complete a masterpiece for a decade and which he has kept hidden away. When he does finish it, using Poussin's mistress as a model, it finds no favour with the critics, and so he destroys it, dying the same night.

Much like Cézanne, who reportedly once claimed to be Frenhofer, Picasso strongly identified with the artist who failed to be heard and understood in his day. Indeed, there will be many gallery-goers who have stood in front of one of his paintings and been scarcely able to make out more than a foot in the swirl of colours.

Picasso himself always claimed that he never painted a single abstract picture. This exhibition, which deliberately covers only the period from 1917 to 1963, makes clear how much a figurative artist he remained. It opens and closes with paintings from Picasso's 1963 series of The Painter and the Model, autobiographical explorations by an artist who is no longer young but whose yearning for a muse remains an impulsive force, à la Frenhofer.

The exhibition is also very much about the destructive havoc of war. When I last visited the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid (from which all the exhibited works have been exceptionally loaned), I found two museum members of staff seated, rather like umpires at Wimbledon, either side of Guernica on high laddered chairs. They took turns, 15 minutes on and 15 off, to guard the work. For a long time, as I was the only visitor in the gallery, and as closing time drew near, my interest occasioned increasing concern and no little bemusement.

I cannot profess to understand the work that Picasso worked on throughout the first year of the Spanish Civil War in his Paris studio, at the same address in the Rue des Grands-Augustin as Honoré Balzac had assigned to Frenhofer.

As an exile, he was attempting to tell the world the cost of the war that engulfed his home country after the genocide of the Condor Legion. Like the artist himself, the masterpiece never returned to Franco's Spain. Studies for it, linking it to his earlier studies of bulls and of rearing horses, form the core of this exhibition, and are displayed in chronological order.

If Picasso was confronting one side of his personality with the fabled Minotaur (in the Minotauromachy of 1935), the inclusion of the bull-man in the final composition came only after a long period of self-examination and a crisis for this once assured artist.

Other Spanish artists in this carefully organised display did not have the freedom to get away from the carnage of war. Alfonso Ponce de León had moved to Madrid as a five-year-old in 1911. From 1926, he studied alongside Dalí and Maruja Mallo, two of the 35 painters shown in this rich retrospective.


The enigmatic Young People and a Fisherman is one of his last works. Two lovers huddle in the safe seclusion of a covert of reeds while an angler stands on the riverbank behind them. Unlike the harsh reality of the 1930-31 Shipwrecked Men by Aurelio Arteta (1879-1940), presaging abandonment and loss, de León's riverine scene is totally calm, as if the sounds of war belonged to another world.

The luckless de León joined the Falangists shortly before the outbreak of the Civil War and was shot dead outside his Madrid house one evening in September 1936. Arteta had served for three years as the Director of the Modern Art Museum (1924-27) in his home city of Bilbao. He was sacked for overspending on his budget, despite an international outcry by intellectuals who saw him as a victim of the dictatorship of the marquis Fernando Primo de Rivera's government (1924-30). Apparently, it was buying more than 100 Gauguins that did for him.

Arteta left his native Basque country and moved, first, to Madrid, and then, at the outbreak of the Civil War, to the relative safety of Valencia, before he emigrated to Mexico City, where he was killed in a tram accident.

By way of underscoring the purpose of the exhibition, the director of the Strozzi Palace has produced a little book, No More War, which collates children's experience of armed conflict during the past cen- tury.

By bringing together letters from Somalian refugees and Syrian children, pictures of the Killing Fields of the Khmer Rouge, and the memories of a ten-year-old who survived the Dresden bombing of 13 to 14 February 1943, for in- stance, it lets children's voices be heard above the din and confusion of a disintegrating world. In much the same way, Picasso's pen has given us the international Peace Dove.

"Picasso and Spanish Modernity: Works from the collection of the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía" is at the Palazzo Strozzi, Piazza degli Strozzi, Florence, until 25 January 2015. Phone 00 39 055 2645155. palazzostrozzi.org

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