Bilbao and the Basque Country Feature

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Embattled Gernika

On Monday, April 26, 1937—market day—the town of Gernika, 33 km (20 miles) east of Bilbao, suffered history's second terror bombing against a civilian population. (The first, much less famous, was against neighboring Durango, about a month earlier.) Gernika, a rural market town, had been one of the symbols of Basque identity since the 14th century: Since the Middle Ages, Spanish sovereigns had sworn under the ancient oak tree of Gernika to respect Basque fueros (special local rights—the kind of local autonomy that was anathema to the generalísimo's Madrid-centered "National Movement," which promoted Spanish unity over local identity). The planes of the Nazi Luftwaffe were sent with the blessings of General Francisco Franco to experiment with saturation bombing of civilian targets and to decimate the traditional seat of Basque autonomy.

When the raid ended, more than 250 civilians lay dead or dying in the ruins, and today Gernika remains a symbol of independence in the heart of every Basque, known to the world through Picasso's famous canvas Guernica. The city was destroyed—although the oak tree miraculously emerged unscathed—and has been rebuilt as a modern, architecturally uninteresting town. Not until the 60th anniversary of the event did Germany officially apologize for the bombing.

When Spain's Second Republic commissioned Picasso to create a work for the Paris 1937 International Exposition, little did he imagine that his grim canvas protesting the bombing of a Basque village would become one of the most famous paintings in history.

Picasso's painting had its own struggle. The Spanish Pavilion in the 1937 International Exposition in Paris nearly substituted a more upbeat work, using Guernica as a backdrop. In 1939, Picasso ceded Guernica to New York's Museum of Modern Art on behalf of the democratically elected government of Spain—stipulating that the painting should return only to a democratic Spain. Over the next 30 years, as Picasso's fame grew, so did Guernica's—as a work of art and symbol of Spain's captivity.

When Franco died in 1975, two years after Picasso, negotiations with Picasso's heirs for the painting's return to Spain were already under way. Now on display at Madrid's Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Guernica is home for good.

Updated: 09-2013

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