Entertainment & Arts

Picasso's Guernica in a car showroom

Picasso's Guernica
Image caption Guernica was inspired by the Spanish Civil War. Photo: Bridgeman Art Library

Pablo Picasso's Guernica is one of the world's most celebrated works of art. The last time it was seen in the UK, it was not in an art gallery - but in an extraordinary exhibition in a car showroom in Manchester.

It is now revered as one of the masterpieces of modern art and is deemed so precious and fragile that a robot is currently spending six months scanning every fibre for damage.

But in 1939, the monumental Guernica was entrusted to a group of young artists and political activists who nailed it to the wall of the former showroom of a city Ford dealer.

Guernica was Picasso's searing attempt to convey the horrors of war after the bombing of the town of Guernica in 1937 during the Spanish Civil War.

With the war in Spain still raging and Britain sliding towards conflict with Germany, the artist agreed that the huge canvas should go on a tour of the UK to spread its anti-war message.

After going on display in two more conventional galleries in London, it was delivered to a group called Manchester Foodship For Spain, which sent aid to support the people of Spain in their fight against fascism.

Image caption Picasso said the purpose of the picture was to express the horrors of war

One of the organisers of the Manchester event was Harry Baines, who went on to become a celebrated muralist. Before he died in 1995, Baines told the gallerist and author James Hyman about setting up the unconventional exhibition.

Recounting his interview with Baines, Hyman wrote in his 2001 book The Battle For Realism: "The size of the work ruled out many venues but eventually they decided on a car showroom where they unrolled the canvas, banged some nails through it and attached it to a wall."

Baines' widow Pauline was not present but recalls her husband's accounts of the event.

"He said it arrived rolled up and there was concern as to whether any of the paint had flaked off or anything like that," she says.

"They looked for a gallery but there was nothing big enough, and they found a sympathetic car dealer with a showroom which was large enough to accommodate the whole painting.

"As far as he said, there were a few sympathetic people who helped unroll it, and then it was mounted on battens and hung up so that the weight of it got rid of the creases."

'Bewildered' crowd

The painting's British tour was organised by the artist and Picasso's friend Sir Roland Penrose, who died in 1984.

His son Antony remembers his father saying it was "well received, but by totally bewildered people".

"I don't think it got anything like the press that they hoped, and I think as a fundraising exercise it was very disappointing," he says.

"It was a wonderfully brave and bold moment by Roland and Picasso in that their belief in the power that art had to change things was really the motivation for touring that painting. They thought that this would help.

Image caption The painting is now on show at the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid

"They didn't know what the hell else they could do to make people listen and understand, but they thought this might help, and so they did it with great conviction."

Guernica was in the former HE Nunn & Co showroom for two weeks. The local press reported its arrival, but no photographs of the occasion appear to have survived.

A correspondent for the Manchester Guardian wrote that the showroom had been "competently transformed into a picture gallery, with Guernica itself, 26 feet by 11, taking up the largest wall and leaving an inch or so to spare at either end".

The Manchester Evening News reported how the work was unpacked "from a tremendous box" and predicted that hundreds of people would "see it and puzzle over its meaning".

The paper added: "No-one could fail to be impressed by a tremendous work which, more than any words, condemns the crime of war."

Among the supporters of Manchester Foodship For Spain was Professor Patrick Blackett, who would go on to win the Nobel Prize for Physics nine years later. His wife Constanza helped roll the painting up again at the end of the exhibition.

"We lived in Manchester and I was a teenager," their daughter Giovanna Bloor recalls. "I just remember my mother saying many, many years later that she'd helped roll the Guernica painting up.

"My mother must have been very impressed and was probably later more impressed when she understood all the surrounding history of it."

Image caption A robot is scanning the painting every night after the gallery closes

These days, partly due to the wear and tear incurred by visits to places like Manchester, Guernica never leaves its home at the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid.

But when it was painted, Picasso believed its message was more important than its artistic merit.

Before the work travelled to the UK, Sir Roland Penrose cabled the artist to check whether the tour should go ahead in light of the global political instability.

Picasso replied immediately to say that the purpose of the picture was to express the horrors of war and that it must take its chance.

"Picasso admitted that it was a work of propaganda," according to author Gijs van Hensbergen, who published a biography of the painting in 2005.

"He saw it as an image which should just be used as a propaganda work and I don't think he was massively precious about it. It was a large banner which was to travel and be used and seen by as many people as possible.

"We're used to galleries organising exhibitions with two years notice, but I think these things were done incredibly spontaneously.

"It would be totally in Picasso's mentality to understand that sometimes you have to do these things if you want to show something."

'Ham-fisted' hanging

Tate Britain's new Picasso exhibition, which opens on Wednesday, features some of the preparatory sketches that accompanied Guernica to Manchester, but not the painting itself.

The exhibition's assistant curator Helen Little says: "It's quite extraordinary to think that this is one of the most celebrated artworks of the 20th Century and it was simply, in this rather ham-fisted fashion, unrolled and put up like a big poster."

Given the painting's subject matter, there is a grim irony to the fact that the car showroom was badly damaged in the Blitz the following year, and the area was devastated again by the IRA bomb in 1996.

Today, the site is the unremarkable rear of Harvey Nichols, with no trace of the fact that one of the world's greatest artworks once had an unlikely stay there.

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