Fiction: Guernica

João Cerqueira

The characters look or move towards the bull as if they were subject to a gravitational force. While the latter remains serene and balanced, the remaining figures perform disconnected movements and demonstrate panic and suffering. The horse tries to reverse this trend, but its neck undergoes a violent twist that forces it to follow the march of the other characters. This march, from right to left, creates a collision with the spectator’s mental reading patterns.

The theatrical poses of the female characters emphasize their suffering: the psychological torment of the mother with the dead child in her arms, the physical pain of the burnt woman, the horror and amazement of the woman who drags her leg.

The male characters are placed on the right side and represent opposites: the solidity of the bull and the fragility of the warrior. He opens his arms as if he were crucified, but he also resembles a bullfighter. His sword is a symbol of the disproportion of forces between civilians and the army.


As she listens to the analysis of Picasso’s Guernica on the podcast, Maria Petrova’s interest increases. She had never thought that a painting, especially that painting so weird and complicated, could transmit so much information. Furthermore, she had never thought it possible that a painting could carry her into the canvas. And this is what is happening right now: Maria imagines herself running desperately through streets that are being bombed; hears the screams of the victims and smells the smoke from the fires; she feels the pain of the burned woman, the stupor of the woman who drags her leg and the despair of the mother who lost her child.

Guernica makes her suffer.

Maria swallows and a tear runs down her eye.

Beside her, sitting on the floor, a group of students from an elementary school try to draw the figures in the painting with colored pencils: bull and horse are preferred. Neither man nor women are drawn, as if, instinctively, they wanted to distance themselves from human suffering. And the animals recreated by these boys and girls, in addition to acquiring bright colors, even have mouths that seem to smile; one of the children adds a kind of wolf, black and yellow. For them, Guernica is little more than a cartoon fight. The teacher shields the kids from the horror by telling them that Guernica‘s characters look like ghosts; but soon after, she ends up resembling them to undead creatures. And when she says this, she looks at the painting herself, disturbed, as if she has only just now understood its message.


In 1936 a faction of the Spanish army tries to overthrow the government of the Popular Front led by Manuel Azaña. The coup fails and turns into an unexpected civil war opposing Republicans – supporters of the legitimate government – and Nationalists – the rebels. Hitler and Stalin are involved in the war: the first sends his air force to support the Nationalists and the second sends military advisers to support the Republicans. In 1937 the Legion Condor bomb the Basque village of Guernica. Without military defenses, civilians in Guernica are massacred under the exploding bombs and machine-gun fire. At the end of the attack there are about 1000 dead and thousands injured.


Being the only figure immune to the destruction, some authors claim that the bull represents fascism, while others, on the contrary, consider it to be the opposition to Franco. As Picasso liked bullfighting and identified himself with the bestiality of this animal, the bull is more likely to symbolize Spain’s strength and endurance. The bull…


Exiled in Paris, Picasso learns of the attack via radio and newspapers. In the atelier of rue des Grands-Augustins nº 7, he begins work on Guernica for exhibition in the pavilion of the Spanish Republic at the Paris International Exposition 1937 .


Maria is a Ukrainian student who, through the Erasmus Program, has been in Madrid for a week to study Spanish. Away from family and friends, she feels lost. To escape her sense of loneliness, she has decided that day to visit the Reina Sofia Museum.

Her discovery of Guernica is, at once, a fascinating, painful and confusing experience for her. She realizes now that the function of art is not only to reveal beauty, but also to denounce the tragedies afflicting mankind. Goya’s The Third of May 1808, Delacroix’s Liberty leading the people, Picasso’s Guernica. The artist has filled his canvas with the horror, so that it should not be forgotten; he is paying homage to the victims and exposing their murderers. So then, she wonders, why has no one ever painted the suffering of her people and denounced their murderer?


Between 1932 and 1933, Stalin confiscated agricultural production from Ukraine and prevented its inhabitants from fleeing the country, resulting in the deaths of more than two million people. For many cannibalism became the only way to survive. Between 1934 and 1937 Stalin launched the «Great Terror» in which he killed more than half a million people. Between 1930 and 1950 Stalin deported more than six million people to forced labor zones. During that period eighteen million people were imprisoned in the Gulags. Half of these prisoners died of either hunger or disease or were shot. Neither Picasso nor any other European artist denounced such crimes in their works.


On the horizon a battle is in progress between blue and orange. Attacked from behind, the first succumbs to the second; in a few minutes, the orange light devours the blue, then turns to red. The Petrov’s family farm receives the first rays of the September sun. The land had been purchased by Olek Petrov in the 19th century and his descendants had been working it for more than a century. The soil’s fertility and hard work had allowed a poor family to thrive. Agricultural production increased with each new generation and so did their children’s quality of life. The farm now belonged to Micha Petrov, Olek’s great-grandson, and his wife Nadia. That year’s corn and wheat crop had been abundant.

Nadia Petrova is preparing breakfast for her husband and three children, Luda, Magda and Adam, the baby. The kitchen smells of garlic bread, cheese and fried eggs. Suddenly, the birds fall silent and Vlad, the German shepherd, starts barking. At that hour it was usual for the animal to bark, but this time there is something strange in his barking. Vlad is not responding to other dogs or warning another animal. Vlad is frightened. And the birds are no longer converting the light into song, but are flying away in disorder. The dawn messengers seem to be wishing away the daybreak.

Micha gets up from the table and goes to see what’s going on.

At first he sees nothing, but he listens. Far away, he hears a mechanical noise. Like animals roaring in the distance, the trucks announce their arrival. When the first flash of light forces him to close his blue eyes, the column of six trucks appears at the bottom of the dirt road. Micha can only see them when they are already lining up in front of their farm. Suddenly, the engines shut down and all that can be heard is Vlad growling. Forty Red Army soldiers jump from the trucks and point their weapons at him. Out of their midst, a Soviet officer appears. He is a middle-aged man with a grayish mustache in a gray uniform, with two medals on his chest.

Micha and Nadia had heard rumours that the Red Army was preparing to confiscate food from the Ukrainians, but like the other peasants, they had refused to believe it. Most of the peasants had been forced to join agricultural cooperatives, many had been deported, but – they thought – the repression would end there. Why would Stalin want to starve them? Even the tsars had not been guilty of such barbarity.

The officer calls Micha and shows him an official letter. Micha snatches it from him, rips it open and starts screaming. They had no right to steal their family’s livelihood. Thieves, thieves. A soldier pistol-whips him in the head and he falls unconscious to the ground. The officer gives an order and the soldiers advance through the farm. Nadia squeezes Adam to her breast and tells her daughters to hide under their beds.

 The sun shines on the horizon.

An hour later, the soldiers leave. They have taken the cereals and nuts, the ox and the cow, the three pigs and the ten chickens. They have taken everything. Before leaving, they beat up Nadia and her children and set the house on fire.


Maria remembers the story she heard from her grandmother Luda, told only once during a Christmas night, for the whole family. She was seven at the time, and, for a while, she wasn’t sure if that horrible story was really true or part of the legends that were told to the children. Only later, in high school, and then with the internet, did she realize the famines of Holodomor had really happened. Between two and ten million Ukrainians starved to death as a consequence of Stalin’s decision. She never knew that two weeks after the soldiers plundered the food from his farm, when his family members were already eating roots, insects and mice, when their bellies started to swell and their gums bleed, when a neighbor who had tried to steal the few grains that had escaped the loot had been killed with a pitchfork by great-grandfather Micha, he approached Vlad, who had become a wolf that disappeared for days to hunt animals in the forest, knelt down, hugged him as if saying goodbye to a son, and then put a rope around his neck and took him behind the barn.

She never knew, but she imagined similar horrors.


In 1958, Picasso created a charcoal drawing of Stalin for the magazine Les Lettres Françaises, at the invitation of Louis Aragon. Picasso was criticized, not for portraying the instigator of a genocide, but for not representing the Father of the Nations, Stalin, with proper dignity. The French Communist Party and several European intellectuals consider the drawing to be insulting and Aragon was forced to apologize. In 1962 the offense must have been forgotten, as Picasso received the Lenin Peace Prize. Only after 1989 did a new generation of Ukrainian artists overcome the fear of their predecessors in recreating the famines of Holodomor.

Vladimir Putin’s Russia continues to deny that Holodomor had been a genocide.

In 2019, the European Parliament adopted a motion equating crimes against humanity committed by both Nazism and Communism.


Maria Petrova walks adrift through the streets of Madrid without knowing where she is going. The air is cold, but she is perspiring. People’s clothes seem too colorful, women’s faces too painted, the cars are driving too fast. Suddenly, she hears a dog barking and shudders. She looks and sees a German shepherd, black and yellow, moving towards her. It is Vlad, the animal devoured by her family who has returned to take revenge. Scared, she crosses the street without looking at the cars. She enters the Garden of the Prado and sits on a bench. Maria takes a deep breath. She tries to laugh at her foolishness, but she cannot. She is even on the point of tears. A moment before she had heard the warning sirens, now the real bombing starts. The horror explodes inside her head. Her ancestors roam the farm like ghosts: great-grandmother Nadia with Adam’s body in her arms, great-grandfather Micha fallen to the ground, his arms splayed, Grandmother Luda dragging a broken leg and Aunt Magda trying to escape through a window in flames. Then, like the zombies in The Walking Dead, a group of starving peasants invade the farm to devour them. Everything blends into a chaotic projection of violence, suffering and degradation.

Madrid’s sky is orange. The birdsong announces twilight. A fresh odor is released from the trees. The students who were in the museum run like a herd of wild horses through the garden. Beside Maria, a street painter gives the final touches to a copy of the Guernica bull.


My degree thesis in History of Art, at the Faculty of Arts, University of Oporto, was about the Spanish Civil War. At that time, in 1996, I went to the Basque village of Guernica where I interviewed three survivors of the air raid that took place on April 26, 1937. The testimony of these men – aged between seventy and eighty and who at the time were children or teenagers – it was one of the most intense experiences I had in my life. They told me how they had escaped the explosions and flames running through the debris of buildings and, sometimes, jumping over corpses and parts torn from the human body. One of them, said at the end of his survival report: “por que el hombre es de hierro!”

The Nazi air force – the Condor Legion – with the support of Italian squadrons – the Aviazione Legionaria – bombs Guernica. Guernica’s civilians are slaughtered for hours, under the explosions of incendiary bombs dropped by Heinkel He 111 and Junkers Ju 52 planes. The men I interviewed survived, but hundreds of people died or were seriously injured.

The European and American press report the attack on Guernica through the newspapers L’Aube, Ce Soir, Le Journal, Daily Express and The New York Times. However, the versions of what happened and the number of victims vary according to the ideological position of each newspaper. Some blame Franco and report thousands of deaths, others accuse the Republicans of having blown up Guernica.

It is in this atmosphere of psychological warfare, under the propaganda of newspapers and radio, that Picasso composes Guernica in Paris. During the work, Picasso is visited by Andre Malraux, Henry Moore, Salvador Dali and Roland Penrose, whose comments may have influenced him.

In addition to Picasso, other artists, writers and actors take a stand in favor of the Republicans and condemn the violence of the Nationalists. Among them, George Orwell, Ernest Hemingway, André Malraux, Julian Bell, Charles Donnelly, Paul Eluard, Louis Aragon, Albert Camus, André Gide, Stephen Spender, William. H. Auden, C. Day Lewis, Louis Mcneice, Langston Hughes, Bertold Brecht, Thomas Mann, Pablo Neruda, John dos Passos, Charlie Chaplin.

However, despite the fact that journalist Gareth Jones visited Ukraine in 1933 and denounced that millions of people had died of hunger because Stalin confiscated their agricultural production and prevented them from leaving the country, Picasso and most artists and Western intellectuals ignored the tragedy. For them, the Holodomor or the Great Famine, never happened.

We can also ask ourselves why – in addition to the censorship imposed by the regime – did Ukrainian artists only begin after the end of the Soviet Union to address the Holodomor tragedy? As with the Holocaust, whose number of works of art in the following years is not significant – that is, they are not found in most Art Histories of the XX century – we can consider that Holodomor caused in Ukrainian society a trauma so strong that the theme was not addressed by the artists. In this sense, the work of Marianne Hirsch – herself the daughter of Romanian survivors of World War II – on the “postmemory” is perhaps the best way to explain this passage of traumas through generations through stories, images and behaviors. These survivors’ experiences are transmitted so intensely to their descendants – children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren – that they, at a crucial stage of their identity building, assimilate it and start to consider it as their own. In that sense, Holodmor did not end in 1933, but it continues to have a traumatic effect on Ukrainian society.

Nadia Petrova is another of its victims.


A minha tese de licenciatura em História da Arte, na Faculdade de Letras da Universidade do Porto, foi sobre a Guerra Civil de Espanha. Nessa altura, em 1996, desloquei-me à vila basca de Guernica onde entrevistei três sobreviventes do ataque aéreo ocorrido a 26 de Abril de 1937. O testemunho destes homens – com idades entre os setenta e os oitenta anos e que na altura eram crianças ou adolescentes- foi uma das experiência mais intensas que tive na minha vida. Contaram-me como tinham escapado às explosões e às chamas correndo por entre os destroços dos edifícios e, por vezes, saltando por cima de cadáveres e partes arrancadas do corpo humano. Um deles, disse no fim do seu relato de sobrevivência: “porque el hombre es de hierro!”.

A força aérea nazi – a Legião Condor – com o apoio de esquadrilhas italianas – a Aviazione Legionaria – bombardeia Guernica. Sem defesas militares, os civis de Guernica são massacrados durante horas, sob as explosões das bombas incendiárias lançadas por aviões Heinkel He 111 e Junkers Ju 52 e as rajadas das metralhadoras de caças Henkel He 51 e Messerschmitt Bf 109 . No final do ataque, jazem no solo centenas mortos e milhares de feridos.

A imprensa europeia e americana noticiam o ataque a Guernica através dos jornais L’Aube, Ce Soir, Le Journal, Daily Express e The New York Times. Todavia, as versões sobre o sucedido e número de vítimas variam de acordo com a posição ideológica de cada jornal. Uns responsabilizam Franco e referem milhares de mortos, outros acusam os Republicanos de terem dinamitado Guernica.

É neste clima de guerra psicológica, sob o fogo dos jornais e da rádio, que Picasso compõe Guernica no atelier da rue des Grands-Augustins nº 7, em Paris. Durante os trabalhos, Picasso é visitado por Andre Malraux, Henry Moore, Salvador Dali e Roland Penrose, cujos comentários o poderão ter influenciado.

Além de Picasso, outros artistas, escritores e actores tomam posição a favor dos Republicanos e condenam a violência dos Nacionalistas. Entre eles, George Orwell, Ernest Hemingway, André Malraux, Julian Bell, Charles Donnelly, Paul Eluard, Louis Aragon, Albert Camus, André Gide, Stephen Spender, William. H. Auden, C. Day Lewis, Louis Mcneice, Langston Hughes, Bertold Brecht, Thomas Mann, Pablo Neruda, John dos Passos.

No entanto, apesar do jornalista Gareth Jones ter visitado a Ucrânia em 1933 e ter denunciado que milhões de pessoas tinham morrido de fome por causa de Estaline lhes ter confiscado a produção agrícola e os impedido de sair do país, Picasso e a maioria dos artistas e intelectuais ocidentais ignoraram a tragédia.

Podemos também questionar-nos por que motivos – além da censura imposta pelo regime – os artistas ucranianos só depois do fim da União Soviética começaram a abordar a tragédia de Holodomor? Tal como sucedeu com o Holocausto, cujo número de obras de arte nos anos seguintes não é significativo – ou seja, não se encontram na maioria das Histórias da Arte do séc. XX – podemos considerar que Holodomor provocou na sociedade ucraniana um trauma tão forte que, ainda que na clandestinidade, o tema não fosse abordado pelos artistas. Nesse sentido, o trabalho de Marianne Hirsch – ela própria filha de sobreviventes romenos da Segunda Guerra Mundia – sobre a “postmemory” talvez seja o mais indicado para explicar essa passagem de traumas através de gerações mediante histórias, imagens e comportamentos. Estas experiências dos sobreviventes são transmitidas de forma tão intensa aos seus descendentes – filhos, netos, bisnetos – que estes, numa fase crucial de construção da sua identidade, a assimilam e passam a considerá-las como suas. Nesse sentido, Holodmor não terminou em 1933, mas continua a exercer um efeito traumático na sociedade ucraniana.

Nadia Petrova é mais uma das suas vítimas.

João Cerqueira holds a PhD in Art History. He is the author of eight books and is published in Portugal, Spain, France, Italy, England, United States, Argentina and Brazil. His novel The Tragedy of Fidel Castro won the USA Book Awards, his novel Jesus and Magdalene won the Indie Reader Book Awards.

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