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Picasso's 'Guernica' tapestry riots amid works of political conscience

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R. and J. de la Baume Durrbach, Guernica tapestry, after Pablo Picasso, commissioned 1955 wool, 11x 25 feet, San Antonio Museum of Art, on loan from Mrs. Nelson A Rockefeller, L.2011.18, Photography by Peggy Tenison, © 2012 Estate of Pablo Picasso / ArtistsRights Society (ARS), New York

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José Clemente Orozco, Mexican, 1883 - 1949, The Martyrdom of Saint Stephen I, 1943, oil on canvas, 37 1/2 x 52 in., San Antonio Museum of Art, purchased with funds provided by the Mary K. Lynch Kurtz Fund for the Acquisition of Modern Latin American Art, 2003.19, Photography by Peggy Tenison

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David Alfaro Siqueiros, Mexican, 1896-1974, El Grito, 1931, encaustic on burlap, 34 1/4 x 25 3/8 in. San Antonio Museum of Art, Purchased with funds provided by the Robert J. and Helen C. Kleberg Foundation, 96.51, Photography by Peggy Tenison

As tourists walked by oblivious to the 25-foot-long woven mural on the wall, I could hardly believe my eyes. Hanging in the San Antonio Museum of Art's Robert and Helen Kleberg Gallery next to a painting of the stoning of Saint Stephen by José Orozco is the 1955 tapestry version of Pablo Picasso's Guernica, the very same mural which has hung at the United Nations headquarters in New York City for many years. On loan to SAMA from Mrs. Nelson A. Rockefeller, it was quietly installed several weeks ago in the modern and contemporary section of SAMA's Latin American Collection. An unparalleled anti-war icon, it amplifies the messages of the often politically infused paintings nearby.

The tapestry shares with the original 1937 painting it was modeled on an image that is one of the most recognizable of the twentieth century. Painted as a response to the aerial bombing of the Basque town of Guernica by the German allies of the fascist rebel General Franco during the Spanish Civil War, Guernica masterfully depicts the horrors of war, especially the suffering of civilians.

The message is universal, but the painting contains emblems of Spain: a horse writhes in the center; on the left, a bull stands over a grieving mother. Broken bodies and hands extended in lamentation are seen with two light sources. A seeking figure advances holding aloft a flame, but dominating the top of the composition is the bare electric bulb of the inquisitor. The Spanish Civil War, with contending forces from many countries, was a practice run for world war. The painting was first shown at the Spanish Pavilion at the Paris World Exposition of 1937, after traveling to other cities to rally support for the Republican cause it was entrusted by Picasso to the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. During 1945 Picasso lived in Nazi-occupied Paris. An apocryphal story relates that during a threatening visit an SS officer noticed a photograph of the famous painting. Asked, "Did you do this?" Picasso replied, "No, you did." Picasso, who died in 1973, refused to let Guernica enter Spain until the country returned to a republic. The Fascist regime ended with Franco's death two years later, and Guernica was sent to Spain's Prado Museum in 1981. It now hangs permanently at the Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid.

No, this is not the original artwork we have with us, but the tapestry on view at SAMA is no casual knock-off. Picasso met master weavers René and Jacqueline de la Baume Dürrbach in 1951 at their south France atelier. Impressed by their tapestries made after works by the Cubist painters Fernand Léger and Jacques Villon and other modernists, Picasso commissioned the first textile versions of his own works in 1954. The Aubusson-trained weavers completed the first of three tapestries after Guernica in 1955. The painting is done in white, gray, and black, but for the tapestry Picasso chose warm browns and yellows to complement the soft, undulating fabric.

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