Atrox facinus: Picasso, the Tragedy of Spain, and the Genealogy of Guernica


Wednesday, May 3, 2017, 5:00pm to 6:00pm


RCC Conference Room, 26 Trowbridge St., Cambridge MA

Commemoration of the 80th Anniversary of Picasso’s Guernica

On May 1st, 1937, with the ruins of the city of Guernica still smoldering after being bombed by German and Italian planes aiding the Francoist insurgency, Picasso begun the sketches for what it would become the most iconic painting of the twentieth century. First exhibited in the pavilion of the Spanish Republic at the Paris World Fair just two months later, the painting eventually joined the fate of many Spaniards after the fall of the Republic, initiating a pilgrimage in exile across the ocean that brought it to Harvard in 1941. The RCC is proud to join the commemorations of the 80th anniversary of Picasso’s Guernica, with this especial lecture by Francisco Prado-Vilar presenting new research on its genesis and its meaning.

Speaker: Francisco Prado-Vilar

Atrox facinus: Picasso, the Tragedy of Spain, and the Genealogy of Guernica

fprado guernica

During the spring of 1937, as Picasso worked tirelessly on Guernica at his Parisian studio, conjuring up images of despair, destruction and fratricidal violence to capture the tragedy of the Spanish Civil War, the basement of the National Archaeological Museum in Madrid had become a bunker where many of the artworks he had long admired were being stored away to keep them safe from the bombings.Among them was a Roman sarcophagus decorated with a Greek family tragedy, which unfolds on an elongated frieze in a sudden explosion of violence rippling out in chiastic movements. In the center is Orestes who, having just slayed his mother Clitemnestra and her lover to avenge the assassination of his father Agamennon, begins to ponder the consequences of his atrocious crime. As witnesses recoil in horror, the Furies, awaken by the blood spilled in matricide, initiate their relentless pursuit of the killer. Before being moved to the Madrid museum in the nineteenth century, this sarcophagus had captivated visitors to the medieval Castilian church where it had been reused in a Christian burial for over eight hundred years, giving way to one of the most complex and fascinating cases of Nachleben der Antike in the history of art as its imagery became the source of inspiration for artists confronted with the task of staging scenes of family crime and ritual murder, such as the sacrifice of Isaac or the killing of Abel. Writers, diplomats, and artists in the early modern period, including the Renaissance sculptor Alonso de Berruguete, attest to the continuing sway of its imagery and the capacity of its Pathosformeln to morph and multiply in unpredictable ramifications, transforming this sarcophagus into a veritable lieu de mémoire where part of the essence of the tragic beauty of Spanish history “crystallizes and secretes itself.” In this paper, core of a forthcoming publication, I expand the constellation of images forming the Mnemosyne panel of the Orestes sarcophagus as I explore its active presence in the context of the Spanish Civil War, and in the lives of those involved in the making of Guernica. The arc of this talk follows a trail of photographs and letters leading from the basement of the National Archaeological Museum in Madrid to the Warburg Hall of the Fogg Museum at Harvard where, in 1941, Guernica made a stop in its pilgrimage in exile. There, Picasso’s canvas was unrolled, mounted on Romanesque capitals, and exhibited in the company of other Spanish “exiles” in an installation that poignantly captured its tragic genealogy and activated its power as a witness to history, and as a nexus linking history (and the present) to the time of myth.

Sponsor: RCC