How Picasso Found Inspiration in Palermo

May 5, 2023 2023-06-20 11:47

How Picasso Found Inspiration in Palermo

How Picasso Found Inspiration in Palermo

The Painting That Inspired ‘Guernica’

Pablo Picasso is known around the world. He may be the most famous artist ever; he is certainly up there. A household name, his art is instantly recognisable. What isn’t well known, though, is the story of how he may have found inspiration for his art here in Palermo.

The ‘Trionfo della morte’ fresco, which translates as triumph of death, is one of the most famous works of art in Palermo. The mysterious and unique fresco is housed in the Gallery of Palazzo Abatellis in Palermo. The fresco, whose painter is unknown, takes on a journey into a depiction of a past, one that is shocking, harrowing, depicting a disastrous power.

Trionfo della morte fresco, said to inspire Picasso to paint Guernica
Sicilia – Parziale visione d’insieme del Trionfo della Morte, affresco di Anonimo del sec. XV, Galleria Regionale della Sicilia, Palazzo Abatellis, Palermo – Ph. Public Domain

It isn’t then surprising that this work is said to have inspired Picasso to create his famous ‘Guernica’. Picasso’s work is one of the most famous paintings in the world. This isn’t just down to the fact that it was the wondrous Picasso who painted it, but also the themes that inspired it.

In fact, the work was conceived by the great Iberian painter as a true denunciation of the atrocities carried out by the Francoists, those who supported the insurgent troops against the republican government, to the detriment of the civilian population.

The Tragedy of Guernica

The biggest tragedy of the war happened on 26th April 1937, when the Basque town of Guernica was severely bombed and devastated, in a tragic demonstration of what would become commonplace during the Second World War. Symbolically, one of the only remains from the bombing was the Germikako Arbola, which is Basque for the Tree of Guernica.

Picasso learnt of the news while he was busy drawing a mural commissioned by the Spanish government. At 55, he was already one of the most famous painters in the word, as well as director in absentia of the Prado Museum in Madrid. He needed a work that was meant to represent the Spanish people for the 1937 Paris International Exposition. Unfortunately for him, Picasso had hit a real creative block which had brought all progress to a standstill. However, when he heard of what had happened to Guernica, his inspiration came back and his creative juices were in full flow. This then led to the creation of a masterpiece.

‘Guernica’ has been exhibited all over the world in some of the world’s greatest museums, and is now housed in the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid. Even today it amazes anyone who is lucky enough to see it.

Pain and despair unite the two works. The Spanish one is the tragedy of an unjust and incomprehensible death, while the protagonist in the Trionfo is she who proudly breaks the souls of the humans. Importantly though on the faces of the human souls, there is not only despair, but also serenity for a peace that has finally reached its goal. The horse, central to both works, is the bearer of a universal cry of pain that unites us all but, if you look closely at ‘Guernica’, a light bulb hangs above it as a sign of hope.

They both depict the most catastrophic and desperate situations, yet hope exists.

Picasso's painting Guernica
Pablo Picasso, Guernica, 1937, oil on canvas, 349 x 776 cm (Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía)

Who Knew That It Was the Inspiration?

There aren’t many people that know it was the ‘Trionfo della morte’ that inspired Picasso. In 1986, Renato Guttuso wrote an article titled ‘The Great Sicilian Equalizer’, in which he stated that, ‘One day, I spoke with Picasso: he knew the fresco, not directly, but from illustrations’.

Fabio Carapezza, Guttuso’s adopted son, also backs this up. He claims to have been made aware of the affair by his father in the presence of Cesare Brandi, the creator of restoration theory in Italy. Guttuso himself would try to compose a large drawing that he defines as a ‘sort of cross between the “Trionfo della morte” and “Guernica”’.

There is therefore an undeniable link between the two works, despite their differences in age and where they were painted. Death is an impartial executioner that indiscriminately strikes down all rich and poor, powerful and weak, the first and the last. It hurts and sometimes it is a relief, it both devastates and destroys, but as it passes silence falls and all that remains is to count the fallen.

by Raffaella Lo Iacono and Will Scott

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