Picasso’s Guernica Revisited

2020A Powerful Depiction of the Inhumanity of War Captured on a Child’s Toy

I was born and raised in New York City. And although I’ve spent much of my life in Colorado, I have always kept the city I loved close to my heart.

On September 11, 2001, I felt my New York roots as never before. As a kid, I watched the World Trade Center being built, and I had been in those towers numerous times. Seeing them collapse devastated me. Like so many of us, I grappled with many intense emotions. And because I am a visual artist, I wanted to tangibly express these complex feelings.

I have loved Pablo Picasso’s Guernica since I first saw it in the Museum of Modern Art as an art student. In my view, no other painting has captured the utter terror humans can inflict on one another. No other imagery expresses the savagery and sheer panic of such a senseless attack. Guernica became a focal point for me as the tragic events of 9/11 unfolded. I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

The city of Guernica was the ancient capital of the Basques, which was bombed during the Spanish Civil War by Nazi warplanes (with the support of Franco) on April 26, 1937. It was a market day and the center of town was packed with people — mostly women and children, as the men were off fighting the war. At 4:30 p.m. the first bombs fell on the city’s main square. By the time the planes left, Guernica was in ruins. Over 1,600 people were killed and hundreds more wounded. It was “terror from the sky” and like nothing anyone had experienced before.

In Picasso’s Guernica, this sudden and senseless killing is presented in clearly outlined, agonizing shapes rendered in grey, black, and white. An overall sense of the brokenness of things permeates it. The shrieking head of the woman on the left, her dead baby in her arms, expresses unspeakable grief and helplessness. The figure on the right is engulfed by flames from above and below — eerily foreshadowing the fate of many in the World Trade Center towers. A wounded horse screams in agony as the central motif. Panic and fear are everywhere.

Guernica is a masterwork, and any attempt to recreate it as a painting would be pointless. But the idea of doing it on the Etch A Sketch tantalized me. One of the primary challenges of any artist is to help us see the world in a fresh and new way. Guernica is well known for being among Picasso’s greatest works — and recreating it in this unusual medium would present these images in an unexpected way and expose them to a new audience.

My previous work on the Etch A Sketch goes back to my college days at the School of Visual Arts in New York (I never had one as a kid). The Etch A Sketch is a quintessential American art form, in which the medium truly is the message. I have created works that you wouldn’t expect to see on it, like reproductions of Renaissance masterpieces. The result is a totally familiar subject, flavored by an element of disbelief. Presenting Guernica in this way lends itself to this concept — it is disconcerting to see an act of heinous inhumanity depicted on a child’s toy. I think Pablo would approve.

Creating Guernica on the Etch A Sketch was a serious challenge. (The only thing about the medium that lent itself to the original painting is that it’s in black and white.) The painting is 11 feet tall and over 25 feet wide; the Etch A Sketch is 8 inches tall and 10 inches wide. Over the course of nearly ten years, I experimented with different approaches and settled on a triptych. I didn’t want to break it apart with three separate Etch A Sketches, so I created a “smashed” three-panel single piece. This kept it more unified, but it was still necessary to rearrange the images slightly to fit them into three separate screens. I was conscious to maintain the balance and flow that Picasso had originally achieved. With the Etch A Sketch the line weight doesn’t change, so darker and lighter tones are achieved like the classic etchings of old — spacing the lines closer together or farther apart.

As a final point in the piece, I chose to add a single reference to the September 11th attacks. In the painting, a soldier lies on the ground with a broken sword, out of which a flower blooms. On the far right panel I added a broken axe head where the rest of the sword could have been. The sword is now a fire axe. This small addition is a tribute to the firefighters who lost their lives in the World Trade Center that day.