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.
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.