Guernica: Alain Resnais’ Haunting Film on Picasso’s Painting & the Crimes of the Spanish Civil War

Note: You will hear sound 37 sec­onds into the film.

Human­i­ty has endured a great many wartime atroc­i­ties since 1937, but to this day, if you think of an art­work born of one such event, you’ll more than like­ly still think of Guer­ni­ca. Pablo Picas­so’s large black-and-white can­vas, which he began paint­ing less than a month after the aer­i­al bomb­ing dur­ing the Span­ish Civ­il War of the small Basque town which gave it its name, ren­ders the hor­ror of sud­den, thor­ough destruc­tion in a way nobody had ever seen before, or has seen again since.

“When I vis­it­ed the town the whole of it was a hor­ri­ble sight, flam­ing from end to end. The reflec­tion of the flames could be seen in the clouds of smoke above the moun­tains from 10 miles away,” wrote The Times’ war cor­re­spon­dent George Steer, in the report that moved Picas­so to take on the sub­ject of Guer­ni­ca for the mur­al the Span­ish Repub­li­can gov­ern­ment had com­mis­sioned for the 1937 World’s Fair. “Through­out the night hous­es were falling until the streets became long heaps of red impen­e­tra­ble debris.”

In 1950, both Guer­ni­ca and Guer­ni­ca inspired an equal­ly haunt­ing short film of the same name [part one, part two] by Alain Resnais and Robert Hes­sens. In black and white just like Picas­so’s paint­ing, the pic­ture uses night­mar­ish cut­ting to com­bine imagery from Guer­ni­ca and oth­er artis­tic sources, a score by Guy Bernard, and the poem “Vic­to­ry of Guer­ni­ca” by Paul Élu­ard. “You hold the flame between your fin­gers and paint like a fire,” said the poet to the painter dur­ing their close friend­ship in the years after the bomb­ing.

Resnais, who would go on to direct such clas­sics of French cin­e­ma as Hiroshi­ma mon amour (anoth­er study of an after­math) and Last Year at Marien­bad, only just end­ed his long and dis­tin­guished film­mak­ing career when he died last year. But in 1950, his career had only just begun, his first for­ays into film hav­ing come in the form of short doc­u­men­taries on work­ing artists in the mid-1940s. Those led to a com­mis­sion to do one on the paint­ings of Van Gogh for a Paris exhi­bi­tion, which led to one on Gau­guin, which led to Guer­ni­ca. Clear­ly, Resnais had the ten­den­cy to unite the arts in his work from the very begin­ning, and many of his fans would say it served him well to the end.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

A 3D Tour of Picas­so’s Guer­ni­ca

Watch Alain Resnais’ Short, Evoca­tive Film Toute la mémoire du monde (1956)

Pho­tos of Hiroshi­ma by Hiroshi­ma mon amour Star Emmanuelle Riva (1958)

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture as well as the video series The City in Cin­e­ma and writes essays on cities, lan­guage, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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