The Gestapo Points to Guernica and Asks Picasso, “Did You Do This?;” Picasso Replies “No, You Did!”

His­to­ry remem­bers Pablo Picas­so first as an inno­v­a­tive painter, and sec­ond as an unin­hib­it­ed per­son­al­i­ty. The lat­ter espe­cial­ly gen­er­at­ed many an anec­dote in his long life, some sure­ly apoc­ryphal but most prob­a­bly true. A short Guardian edi­to­r­i­al on one of his most famous can­vas­es begins with the sto­ry of when, “in occu­pied Paris, a Gestapo offi­cer who had barged his way into Picasso’s apart­ment point­ed at a pho­to of the mur­al, Guer­ni­ca, ask­ing: ‘Did you do that?’ ‘No,’ Picas­so replied, ‘you did’, his wit fizzing with the anger that ani­mates the piece” — a piece that took no small amount of bold­ness to paint in the first place.

Guer­ni­ca, much more of a vis­cer­al expe­ri­ence than the aver­age paint­ing, resists straight­for­ward descrip­tion, but the arti­cle offers one: “In black and white, the piece has the urgency of a news­pa­per pho­to. Flail­ing bulls and hors­es show that the vis­cer­al hor­rors of war are not just an affront to human civil­i­sa­tion, but to life.”

Paint­ed in June 1937 at Picas­so’s home in Paris, in response to the bomb­ing by Nazi Ger­many and Fas­cist Italy of the Basque vil­lage from which the work would take its name, Guer­ni­ca raised aware­ness of (as well as relief funds for) the Span­ish Civ­il War when it debuted at the 1937 World’s Fair in Paris and sub­se­quent­ly toured the world itself.

Call­ing Picas­so’s paint­ing “prob­a­bly the most suc­cess­ful art­work about war ever cre­at­ed,” Slate’s Noah Char­ney cites play­wright Bertolt Brecht’s use of Ver­frem­dungsef­fekt, or the “alien­ation effect,” where­in “the idea was to no longer encour­age the tra­di­tion­al, Aris­totelian approach that the audi­ence of a play (or view­er of an art­work) should engage with the artwork/performance with a ‘will­ing sus­pen­sion of dis­be­lief,’ vol­un­tar­i­ly pre­tend­ing that what is hap­pen­ing on stage is real. Instead, Brecht want­ed to make it clear that the audi­ence was look­ing at a work of art, an arti­fi­cial per­for­mance that nev­er­the­less touch­es on real human emo­tions and issues.” Both Brecht and Picas­so used this tech­nique to effect social change with their work.

Guer­ni­ca also chal­lenges its view­ers in the best way, look­ing almost play­ful at first glance but almost imme­di­ate­ly demand­ing that they con­front the hor­ror it actu­al­ly con­tains. “A real­is­tic image of the bomb­ing of the town of Guer­ni­ca, with corpses and screams in the night, would like­ly have felt melo­dra­mat­ic, sac­cha­rine, dif­fi­cult to look at,” writes Char­ney. “It might have been Roman­ti­cized or it might have been so grit­ty that our reac­tion would be to shut down our abil­i­ty to sym­pa­thize, as a defense mech­a­nism. The fig­ures are almost car­toon­ish, but then of course, when you look more close­ly, when you know the con­text, they are not. But the child­like abstrac­tion pulls us in, where­as the same sub­ject, han­dled as a pho­to­re­al­ist blood-fest, would repel us.”

You can learn more about Guer­ni­ca, the events that inspired it, and the artist that turned those events into one of the most endur­ing images from the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry with the short BBC News clip above, and also this chap­ter in Khan Acad­e­my’s online art-his­to­ry course, this video primer and 3D tour, and Alain Resnais and Robert Hes­sens’ 1950 short film, almost as haunt­ing as the paint­ing itself. After all that, the only step that remains is to go see it in per­son at the Museo Nacional Cen­tro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid, where it has resided since 1992. And though Guer­ni­ca may now be safe from pry­ing Gestapo hands, the need for vig­i­lance against the kinds of destruc­tive ide­ol­o­gy that fired Picas­so up to paint it will nev­er go away.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

A 3D Tour of Picasso’s Guer­ni­ca

How to Under­stand a Picas­so Paint­ing: A Video Primer

The Mys­tery of Picas­so: Land­mark Film of a Leg­endary Artist at Work, by Hen­ri-Georges Clouzot

Picas­so Makes Won­der­ful Abstract Art

Watch Picas­so Cre­ate Entire Paint­ings in Mag­nif­i­cent Time-Lapse Film (1956)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

by | Permalink | Comments (5) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (5)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • Harrie Baken says:

    Hi Col­in,

    Some sen­tences just can’t be trans­lat­ed well/perfectly.

    The Gestapo offi­cer asked: “Haben sie das gemacht?” (= ‘made’, ‘cre­at­ed’, ‘paint­ed’)
    Picas­so answered: “Nein, das haben Sie gemacht!” (= ‘done’)

    So, if they would heven spo­ken Eng­lish, this anec­dote could­n’t even exist.“haben+sie+das+gemacht”


  • Tom says:

    There was also a great episode of the BBC In Our Time pod­cast on Guer­ni­ca recent­ly. It’s real­ly good on the bomb­ing itself, the stel­lar cov­er­age of it by the jour­nal­ist George Steer and the sub­se­quent cov­er-up by the fas­cists (the Repub­li­can Basques bombed them­selves appar­ent­ly). It’s also full of great detail about how the pic­ture was cre­at­ed.

  • Jerry Hesketh says:

    The Gestapo Points to Guer­ni­ca and Asks Picas­so, “Did You Do This?;” Picas­so Replies “No, You Did!”

    This quote was high­light­ed in a project I worked on with a few friends long time ago.‑M?t=23m52s

  • mike sanders says:

    The exchange is per­fect­ly cor­rect both gram­mat­i­cal­ly and con­ver­sa­tion­al­ly, the Ger­man said “Haben she das gemacht he could also have been using the “do/done case of machen (the infini­tive to the verb to do or to make)
    This makes the ques­tion and the reply per­fect­ly cor­rect in Eng­lish or in Ger­man.

  • Miklos Legrady says:

    Had that con­ver­sa­tion real­ly hap­pened, the Gestapo would have shot him on the spot as was their habit, or else have sent Picas­so to a con­cen­tra­tion camp. So sick­ly-sweet as that fable is, it’s a lie.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.