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Pablo Picasso – The Great Depression to MoMA exhibition: 1930–1939

Guernica, Pablo Picasso, 1937
Guernica, Pablo Picasso, 1937

During the 1930s, the minotaur replaced the harlequin as a common motif in his work. His use of the minotaur came partly from his contact with the surrealists, who often used it as their symbol, and it appears in Pablo Picasso’s Guernica. The minotaur and Picasso’s mistress Marie-Thérèse Walter are heavily featured in his celebrated Vollard Suite of etchings.

Arguably Picasso’s most famous work is his depiction of the German bombing of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War – Guernica. This large canvas embodies for many the inhumanity, brutality and hopelessness of war. Asked to explain its symbolism, Picasso said, “It isn’t up to the painter to define the symbols. Otherwise it would be better if he wrote them out in so many words!

The public who look at the picture must interpret the symbols as they understand them.” Guernica was exhibited in July 1937 at the Spanish Pavilion at the Paris International Exposition, and then became the centerpiece of an exhibition of 118 works by Picasso, Matisse, Braque and Henri Laurens that toured Scandinavia and England. After the victory of Francisco Franco in Spain, the painting was sent to the United States to raise funds and support for Spanish refugees. Until 1981 it was entrusted to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City, as it was Picasso’s expressed desire that the painting should not be delivered to Spain until liberty and democracy had been established in the country.

In 1939 and 1940, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, under its director Alfred Barr, a Picasso enthusiast, held a major retrospective of Picasso’s principal works until that time. This exhibition lionized Picasso, brought into full public view in America the scope of his artistry, and resulted in a reinterpretation of his work by contemporary art historians and scholars. According to Jonathan Weinberg, “Given the extraordinary quality of the show and Picasso’s enormous prestige, generally heightened by the political impact of Guernica … the critics were surprisingly ambivalent”. Picasso’s “multiplicity of styles” was disturbing to one journalist; another described him as “wayward and even malicious”; Alfred Frankenstein’s review in ARTnews concluded that Picasso was both charlatan and genius.

Picasso’s Artworks: The Great Depression to MoMA exhibition: 1930–1939

Guernica, Pablo Picasso, 1937

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