Since Guernica came into being in 1937 it has been the subject of debates on not only its meaning, but also the place it should occupy and where it should be conserved. This matter transcends its material value, moving towards its moral and symbolic ownership, which, despite often crossing over, goes beyond financial constraints. The debates surrounding its legitimate ownership swelled after the death of Picasso, who declared in writing that it “belongs to the Spanish people”. However, this celebrated phrase is not free from ambiguity and remained problematic in the discussions over its legal ownership that took place during Spain’s transition to democracy.
In the almost forty years Guernica spent on loan at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York, during Pablo Picasso’s lifetime, it always belonged to the artist, regardless of Alfred H. Barr Jr.’s attempts to acquire it for the museum. Judging by the letters that remain, in May 1937 the government of the Republic, through the Spanish Embassy in France, paid Picasso a large sum for the material costs of producing the commission, with the gesture understood as the symbolic purchase of the painting. However, at the closure of the Spanish Pavilion at the Paris International Exhibition, documents testify that Picasso went to collect Guernica because it had not been claimed by anyone at the Embassy.
The implications of the painting’s ownership stretch out some distance beyond the financial ramifications. From an artistic point of view, the exhibition and ownership of Guernica granted immeasurable prestige — the distinction of taking custody of a work that had instantly become an integral part of the definition of the Western art cannon. Moreover, the acknowledgement of its symbolic value, from a political standpoint, also came with significant pressure. In 1966 in Spain, university students publicly demanded the transfer of the painting to Spain, and in 1968 it was solicited by the Franco regime within the context of the policies of apertura (the opening up of Spain internationally), an operation of ‘window dressing’ in the true significance of Guernica’s presence in Spain and what it would have meant for the image of the country worldwide.
Picasso always stood firm in declaring that the picture would never reach Spain while a dictatorship reigned, and he entrusted his lawyer Roland Dumas to fulfil his wishes on the matter when he died. The document Picasso signed, stating that the painting belonged to the Spanish people and expressing his wishes to have it transferred to Spain once democratic freedom had been reinstated, was ambiguous. Furthermore, another document specified that this statement referred to the return of the Republican government. In the series of negotiations after the death of Francisco Franco, both the Spanish government and MoMA reignited the debate surrounding the painting’s legitimacy, unfurling a discussion over its ownership and the grounding of democracy in Spain. The government maintained that if Picasso’s heirs had the moral rights, then the Spanish state was the owner as the architects of the commission. This was substantiated in the comprehensive research Javier Tusell conducted into official and administrative matters affecting Guernica.
What’s more, these were not the only claims to vindicate the legitimate place of the work. In 1972 from Mexico, the location of numerous Spanish exiles, and from the town of Gernika, in the Basque Country, in 1977 — coinciding with the 40th anniversary of the bombing — calls were made for the painting to honour the victims. Its transfer to the Museo Reina Sofía fuelled a new debate, led by politicians, art critics and the artist’s heirs, who asserted that the painting should be conserved in the Museo del Prado.