The name and work of Alfred H. Barr Jr. (Detroit, USA, 1902 – Connecticut, USA, 1981) are inextricably linked to New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). As the institution’s first director, from 1929 to 1943, he worked on an ambitious exhibition, study and dissemination programme with a historical and formal perspective on modern art, encompassing architecture, photography, film and design. With numerous years of work behind him, Barr unveiled the exhibition Picasso: Forty Years of his Art in 1939, seeking to accentuate the artist — who loaned more than a hundred of his works, including Guernica — as a key component of the artists and art movements he had brought together.
After completing his studies in Art History at Princeton University, Alfred H. Barr Jr. travelled to Europe for the first time in 1924. Upon his subsequent return to the USA, he began working as a university professor, first at Princeton and later at Wellesley College (Wellesley, Massachusetts), where he ran courses in modern art before organising an exhibition with the museum’s holdings. This experience saw him take the first step towards the formulation of his own criteria and method of analysis and study: evaluating the visual and formal similitudes of artworks and comparing their chronology and geographical proximity.
When, in 1929, the project got under way to create a modern art museum for the city of New York, Barr was invited to participate as director and to trace its working approach, giving shape to both its collection and exhibition programme. One of these lines of work entailed the design of modern-art genealogy, already present in his first show Cézanne, Gauguin, Seurat, and Van Gogh; another core aspect was the collection of emblematic works with which to build an account of art history and bring it to the public. Therefore, in its first decade the museum focused on European and American avant-garde movements, put forward African art as a key factor in shaping modern tastes and art, paid homage to Bauhaus and the International Style in architecture and, subsequently, held a centenary of photography in 1937. The year 1939 drew to a close with the exhibition Picasso: Forty Years of His Art, the first solo show on the artist held in the museum, a survey of his career which proceeded from the notions of context — a chronological/artistic reading — and genius, underscoring the exceptional nature of Picasso, exemplified in emblematic works such as The Young Ladies of Avignon — acquired by the museum that same year — and Guernica. With the war in Europe having already broken out and the Spanish Civil War now over, Guernica was interpreted from artistic and political angles.
Barr was dismissed as director of MoMA in 1943 but upheld his ties to the museum and was appointed director of Collections from 1947 to 1967, where he promoted a project on education and distribution in modern art — for instance he promoted touring exhibitions in the US for pedagogical purposes. Moreover, Barr continued to curate exhibitions, with the stress firmly placed on Picasso; a case in point was Picasso: 75th Anniversary Exhibition (1957). During this whole period, at MoMA Barr was the main representative in contact with the artist, illustrated by his broad correspondence with Picasso and Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, and his frequent visits. Keenly aware of the artistic, symbolic and political value of Guernica, he endeavoured to elucidate the meaning of each figure in the painting, interpreting them as signs and metaphors in the context of war. With this in mind, in 1947 he organised a symposium and invited Juan Larrea, Josep Lluís Sert, Jerome Seckler, Jacques Lipchitz and Stuart Davis to participate, all of whom were in some way connected to Picasso and the execution of the painting. Furthermore, he sent numerous letters to the artist expressing his wishes for the museum to acquire the painting, which had been on loan there since the 1939 exhibition and was part of its permanent collection.