Although since time immemorial Gernika has been and is a town which has a heavy charge of symbolism and is of great importance to all Basques, it was thanks to Picasso that the town of Gernika is now a worldwide symbol of terror bombing campaigns and, by extension, of the horrors of war.
To prevent any misunderstandings, we should point out that Picasso was born in the Spanish city of Málaga, and never visited Gernika. When the Spanish Civil War broke out, Picasso was living in Paris, and the Government of the 2nd Republic commissioned him to paint a mural for the Spanish pavilion at the Universal Exhibition to be held in the city in June. At first Picasso had no clear idea of a theme for the mural, until the town of Gernika was bombed on 26 April that year. Journalists in Bilbao covering developments in the Civil War, and particularly the British correspondent George Steer, brought news of the bombing to the entire world. Two days after the bombing, in fact, the event made the front pages of two of the largest newspapers in the democratic world (it was censored in countries under complicit dictatorships such as "nationalist" Spain, Portugal, Italy, Germany and Japan). Picasso learned of the bombing in the international press and from some friends, and decided to depict this terrible event in his work.
The “Guernica” canvas was inaugurated in the Spanish pavilion at the Paris Universal Exhibition on 12 July 1937 as a criticism of wars in general, and also the Fascist dictatorships emerging in Europe at that time (Hitler in Germany, Mussolini in Italy, and Franco in Spain). Paris, however, did not receive the “Guernica” with the astonishment and enthusiasm it would subsequently arouse. People were repulsed by a painting in which they could see only the terrible image of the war, no colours, and figures they could not understand. Nor did the critics understand or fully appreciate Picasso's painting. After the Universal Exhibition, the painting travelled around Europe and the United States.
Picasso intended to donate the painting to the people when the Spanish State had become a democratic republic once more, and so it remained in New York until 10 September 1981, when it was taken to Madrid. It was initially installed in the Casón del Buen Retiro (the building next to the Prado) amid tight security, protected by bullet-proof glass and a police escort etc. The painting has been on show for admirers since 1992 at its current location, the Reina Sofía Museum, after a tour of 30 European and American cities.
There has been a ceramic reproduction of the canvas in Gernika since 1977 with the Basque inscription “Guernica Gernikara” below [Guernica to Gernika], a call by the Basque people for the painting to be brought to Euskadi and displayed here.