By Giles Tremlett –
A film about the painter’s vision of a key event in Spain’s civil war sheds light on a community finally overcoming the tragic scars of the past
A large cannon fires into the town square of the Basque town of Guernica, scattering small children. Fortunately, in a place tragically famous as Hitler’s testing ground for the bombing of civilian targets, this is just part of the entertainment at the summer fiestas. The shiny weapon shoots watery bubbles at delighted children dressed in swimwear and goggles.
But clues to Guernica’s tragic past abound in a market town levelled 75 years ago during an almost non-stop four-hour bombardment in which Luftwaffe units loaned to Spain‘s Nazi-backed future dictator General Franco practised aerial blitzkrieg.
Buildings across the town currently display two dozen peace posters painted by children from around the world on massive hoardings sized to match the world’s most famous anti-war painting – Pablo Picasso‘s tortured, terrible depiction of the bombardment. His disturbing tableau of screaming women, dismembered bodies, crazed animals and dead children is pinned to walls in shops and bars.
As the Basque country slowly gets used to a peace denied it for almost four decades by the armed separatist group Eta, Guernica is preparing to return to the spotlight in a film starring Antonio Banderas and Gwyneth Paltrow that will depict the 33 days of furious creativity in which Picasso created one of his greatest works.
Banderas and Paltrow, playing the Spanish painter and his photographer muse Dora Maar, will be filming in the town in a specially built replica of Picasso’s Paris studio. “Maar is the protagonist and not just because she was his lover and confidante, but because her photographs are the only proof of how the picture evolved,” director Carlos Saura says. “Guernica was an extraordinary synthesis of Picasso’s creativity,” agrees art historian Gijs van Hensbergen, author of a book on the painting. “Dora was both participant and witness to the creation of the 20th century’s most iconic work of art.”
Tourists come in search of the old quarter. “We have to tell them there isn’t one, that it was bombed to the ground,” explains Luis Iriondo, an 89-year-old artist who lived through the bombing as a child. He recalls how incendiary bombs sent fire sweeping through the town, killing those in bomb shelters and destroying four out of every five buildings. “Each explosion was followed by a blast of air,” he says, recalling that it was a busy market day in a town already packed with refugees. “They were horridly warm, as if they tasted of death.”
“I spent four hours staring up terrified at the sky,” recalls Iriondo’s friend Enrique Aranzábal. “After the Spanish civil war I went to sea and ended up working with a German who had flown in those planes. He told me they treated it as a training mission.”
Three-quarters of a century later, Guernica is perhaps freer of tension than at any time in its modern history. As the town parties, Iriondo and Aranzábal are dressed in Basque peasant outfits, celebrating the patron saint of San Roque with midday gulps of rioja, slabs of battered cod and thin slices of ham. An accordionist and tambourine player, hired every year by this slowly dwindling circle of elderly friends, play as we sit at a long table under the arches of the postwar town centre.
This year’s fiestas are peaceful, untroubled by tensions with Eta supporters or baton charges by twitchy police. “It hasn’t always been like that,” admits mayor José María Gorroño. “On the opening day I stood on the town hall balcony and just saw thousands of happy people.”
Guernica is naturally, comfortably euskera-speaking – typical of the country and fishing towns east of Bilbao. “Long live ETA,” scribbled in marker-pen on a noticeboard, is a reminder that these sorts of places were traditional recruiting grounds for the all-but-defeated terrorist group that announced a definitive end to its 40 years of violence last October. Occasional banners on balconies calling for Eta prisoners to be moved to jails nearer to home show where some sympathies lie.
The historic roots of Basque exceptionalism are visible at one of the few spots to survive the bombardments – the provincial parliament. The ancient oak tree where Spanish monarchs once swore to respect local rights dried out a few years ago, though a younger one sprouts hopefully in its place.
The Basque country’s special system that allows it to gather tax and send a portion to Madrid, rather than the other away around, is an inheritance – much envied in Catalonia – of those rights.
The town’s peace museum displays a telegram from Telesforo Monzón, a Basque politician, sent the day after Hitler’s Junkers 52s and Heinkel 111s joined with Savoia 79s sent by Mussolini to drop almost 40 tons of explosives and incendiary bombs. “Today Guernica is nothing more than burning coals and cinder … It is still burning,” it reads.
Guernica’s museum, like its hotels and restaurants, is enjoying a peace dividend this year. “There are noticeably more people visiting from other parts of Spain,” says the museum’s Idoia Orbe.
Fear of Eta violence, and prejudice, used to keep them away, says Gorroño. He represents a new separatist coalition called Bildu that includes some traditional Eta supporters who harbour a visceral hatred for what they call “the Spanish state”.
At the town hall Gorroño brings out the Guernica Agreement, signed two years ago, in which leaders of Eta’s banned front party finally called for the laying down of arms. “I am proud of that,” he says, explaining that his own non-violent Eusko Alkartasuna party, formed 25 years ago, seeks an amicable break with Spain. “My party has always been peaceful.”
For the past few decades Guernica has busily been putting the record straight about what really happened on 26 April 1937. “Franco claimed it was burned to the ground by ‘separatist reds’, but that was a lie,” says Gorroño. “Part of what we had to do to begin with was allow historians to tell the true story,” says opposition leader Luis Ortúzar as we pass a bust of George Steer, the Times correspondent who alerted the world to the devastating bombardment. The call for the Guernica picture to be moved here from Madrid’s Reina Sofía museum is unlikely to be answered; experts say the vast canvas is too delicate has already travelled too much. It has toured Europe twice and went to the US in 1939 to raise funds for civil war refugees. It did not come to Spain until 1981, following Picasso’s wishes, when democracy had been restored.
The number of dead from the bombing has been put at up to 1,654. The town’s registered population was just 5,630 inhabitants. The fact that the town’s arms factories and main bridge were spared shows that civilians were targeted before more obvious military objectives.
William Smallwood, an American author who learned euskera from Basque shepherds in Idaho, has finally published a book of interviews he did secretly in 1970 – when memories were fresher than today but Franco’s police ensured tongues were silenced in public. “There was a fear among the people of discussing politics,” he writes in The Day Guernica Was Bombed. “Even a total stranger could experience the chilling effect of seeing sullen pairs of the Guardia Civil walking the street.”
But while people in Guernica learned to talk about the bombing only after Franco’s death in 1975, they soon found themselves battling another sort of silence, this time enforced by Eta, which killed seven people here. “Victims’ families had to hide their grief,” reads a board in the peace museum. “Society saw them as collateral damage, a lesser form of evil.”
“It is great to live the fiestas without the added tension that the violence somehow created,” agrees Ortúzar. “I was in a peace group that protested silently whenever someone was killed. Often there was a counter-demonstration. That sort of tension between neighbours in a small town like this can be unbearable.”
But this weekend the town is in fancy dress. Glittery suits, Scottish kilts and bearded women compete to raise a laugh. “I’d ask you out, darling, but I bet you are all booked up,” a carefully coiffured señora quips to a cross-dressing middle-aged man, as her friends squawk in delight.
Guernica is having fun. As the wounds, recent and past, begin to heal, Basques are relaxing. After years of bloodshed, it is an uplifting thing to see in the town that inspired Picasso.
The Guardian –