Could there be a Hollywood inspiration behind Picasso's 'Guernica'?

Research by cinematographer José Luis Alcaine points to Frank Borzage's film version of 'A Farewell to Arms' as the origin of the famous painting

Pablo Picasso was not at a high point in his life when he painted Guernica in May of 1937. The Civil War was devastating Spain and World War II was knocking at the doors of a ravaged Europe. Only the strong insistence of the government of Prime Minister Juan Negrín convinced him to accept the request for the Spanish Pavilion at the World Exposition in Paris. Negrín, the last president of the Republic, reportedly said: "If we have Picasso in heart and soul, the impact will be greater than a battle won against the fascists on the frontline." He wasn't wrong - the impact of the 349.3cm-by-776.6cm painting was enormous. Even today, as the 30th anniversary of its arrival in Spain on September 10, 1981 is celebrated, the work is embedded on the retina of our times.

"It is in the immobile figures where the coincidence can be seen. It is when the action stops that you can recognize the figures in the painting"

But Guernica and its symbolism, a subject on which the painter never wanted to elaborate, continue to arouse questions, reflection and research. The latter has been the work of Spanish photography director José Luis Alcaine, who will receive the Cinema Academy's Gold Medal on October 4 in the Reina Sofía museum, precisely where the painting has been on show since 1992.

Alcaine, a master of light who has worked on films such as Pedro Almodóvar's The Skin I Live In (2011) and Víctor Erice's The South (1982), believes Picasso's main inspiration was, in fact, the cinema, and in particular, a sequence of not more than five minutes from the film A Farewell to Arms by director Frank Borzage, an anti-war drama inspired by Ernest Hemingway's novel that premiered in Paris in 1933. Taken scene by scene, the movie has surprising similarities with the painting's main figures - and not Goya's The Shootings of May 3 nor Ruben's The Massacre of the Innocents , both formerly believed to have inspired the work. No, Alcaine has pinpointed a source of inspiration as colloquial as Hollywood itself, which, given the capacity of Guernica to exponentially expand all that surrounds it, is sure to cause a major debate in the art world.

In a lengthy article published in the industry magazine Cameraman , Alcaine reveals the details of his months-long study. The black-and-white sequence shows the nocturnal exodus of soldiers and civilians along a road that is being bombed by planes. He explains, "I had seen A Farewell to Arms at the end of the 1970s [on Spanish public television]. But it was years later, when I saw it again on video at home, that I actually jumped up during the road scene and shouted, 'It's Guernica !'" At first glance, there are three obvious images that connect the painting to the film: a dying person's white, thick-fingered hand, the runaway horses, and a woman with her arms raised heavenward, crying out against the skies.

"I started to think about it then in 2006. In 2007, I shot five movies and had to put the idea aside. I didn't have time for anything. But since then, I have only worked on Almodóvar's The Skin I Live In , so I found some time to examine the sequence still by still, and to study it," says Alcaine. Along with the white hand and the woman protesting to the skies, Alcaine added an empty doorframe, a baby carriage full of white geese, horses' hooves, a mother clutching her child like a Pietà, a man lying in the mud with an outstretched arm, and the flames, from the left corner of a still of hellish skies.

The influence of The Battleship Potemkin (1925) in Picasso's cubism has already been noted, but not until now has the influence of this movie, which was badly received in Europe because lead actor Gary Cooper deserts for love and not for honor, been mentioned. In the novel, Hemingway dedicates 80 pages to the escape of this central character along the road. His final desertion is not caused by his desire to flee into the arms of a woman but by the horrors of the war. The writer hated the movie. "The road sequence is strange: it is heavily influenced by Soviet cinema with disjointed frames everywhere. It's a Hollywood movie with one expressionist moment that has nothing to do with the rest of the film," Hemingway said.

This fragmented and violent image mirrors Guernica 's collage of figures - "A collage that has a lot of film editing in it, with different shots and close-ups," Alcaine adds.

In 1937, when Picasso painted the mural, A Farewell to Arms was still showing in the theaters. "The distribution system back then meant that movies were often shown for up to six years. Picasso would have surely seen it, not only because of his friendship with Hemingway (they were introduced by Gertrude Stein) but also because people went to the movies a lot back then; it was the main pastime and also a way of keeping up to date. Also, the movie was very controversial in its day because of its happy ending. It was not to be missed."

Alcaine emphasizes that the sequence takes place at night as in the painting, although the town of Gernika was actually bombed during the day. "But also, the painting has a clear right-to-left movement just like the people in the movie, which always revolves around a right-to-left axis." The infernal road that the movie recreates unleashes this hell and this movement. "But," he warns, "it is in the immobile figures where the coincidence can be seen. It is when the action stops that you can recognize the figures in the painting."

Another surprising detail is that the animals that appear in the road scenes are horses and geese. Both are present in the mural. The photography director has his own interpretation for the bull, however. "That figure made me jump out of bed one night and run to the computer, it was the last loose end in my theory. Who was the bull looking at? He is looking at us. It just came to me. I held it up next to Las Meninas and saw the same look from Velázquez. The bull could never be Franco, as some have suggested. The bull is a noble animal and Picasso had occasionally portrayed himself as this animal. He puts himself in the picture just as Velázquez does in Las Meninas , a painting that he was obsessed with, as are all of us who are obsessed with images."

Alcaine laughs to hear his own enthusiasm before summing up his discovery with an Italian saying: " Se non è vero, é ben trovato ." If it's not true, at least it's a good story.

Photography director José Luis Alcaine.
Photography director José Luis Alcaine.CLAUDIO ÁLVAREZ

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