The exhibition Guernica Remastered enlists the expertise of Toronto-based Picasso expert, Dr. Alma Mikulinsky, who worked with Remai Modern to curate an exhibition that highlights how Picasso’s iconic anti-war painting Guernica continues to resonate with fellow artists even today.
We recently spoke to Mikulinsky about her academic and curatorial focus on Picasso and why Guernica remains so influential and relevant with contemporary artists.
Dr. Alma Mikulinsky
Q: Tell us a bit about your background.
A: I’ve been working on Picasso for over 15 years. I did my graduate work on Picasso, so I have a PhD that focuses on his work. I did a bunch of post-doc and published a lot around his work, both in the museum and academic context. One of the things that I think is most exciting as a Picasso expert is actually to get outside of the full academic context and try to think about how we make this mammoth of a man more accessible to today’s reality. And this is not something without tensions, because we all know that we’re also in a moment of reckoning. He is a problematic figure and, at the same time, an incredible, incredible artist. So how can we negotiate his legacy in a way that would be appropriate to our priorities and values in the 21st century.
Q: Why did you choose to focus on Picasso?
A: I was young and stupid [laughs]. Let’s say ambition. I always had a general interest in Picasso but never committed to that as my focus. I always knew that 20th century is my world, avant garde specifically. And I was like ‘let’s just choose the biggest artist around.’ Today, in hindsight, maybe I would choose something less daunting. But really I lucked out as a graduate student and I found a hole in the massive Picasso scholarship that is out there.
Q: How did you connect with Sandra Fraser, Curator (Collections), and Remai Modern?
A: After I finished my PhD I left Canada and I lived all over the place. I spent a couple of years in Hong Kong doing a postdoc, and then I worked as a professor in the U.S. in Pittsburgh then we moved to Latin America for three years. And when I came back to Canada, I was looking to find really interesting opportunities. I heard about the collection when I think Remai Modern had just opened. I was really surprised and mind blown to find out that there’s this incredible collection of Picassos at this new museum in the middle of Canada. At that point it had yet to hit waves within the Picasso community, the scholarly and museum community that I’m a part of.
So I reached out to Sandra who was lovely from the get go. And we just started this conversation about the collection, how it arrived in Saskatchewan and the history behind it. I was just really, really curious first to see the collection with my own eyes. And to see if there was an opportunity to do something cool with it.
Q: What prompted your focus on creating an exhibition centred on the painting Guernica?
A: I think the fun part was that Sandra told me do whatever. So we decided to focus on Guernica and not this contemporary moment of Picasso the Man. Guernica really opened the floor to think about the politics of reproduction and the capacity of art for being a tool, a vehicle for political action. Things that I think some of the contemporary artists that we are showing that in the exhibition really take it to incredible places once you talk about what it means for an image to become an icon. What does it mean for an image to be more than the object that it is, and just to travel and change with every time that it’s being reproduced?
Q: How did Guernica become such an important work?
A: The first space in which it was exhibited was the international exhibition of 1937. So it was a huge international fair. So millions and millions of people would come at that time. It was Paris, but it could be in other spots and all over the world now that’s the international expos still exists as a concept. Millions of people would come to see basically what different countries have to offer. And each country would have a pavilion, I guess it’s like Venice of today, but it wasn’t just art specific. So Spain was at the time engaged in civil war. And Picasso was commissioned several months before to do the Spanish Pavilion. Honestly when he started the process he was like, “I have no idea what I’m going to do.”
He was thinking about an artist in the studio, a nude model and so forth. But it never came to be. And at the end, the bombing of the city Gernika took place. So the news traveled very quickly and appeared in all of the newspaper that he was reading in France. And that was the starting point for this painting. The painting, it’s huge, the original, and he did it in a really short period of time. I want to say 40 days or so. But in a way, the composition was done in day one. So you see a sketch and it was like, he already had the idea, it was just actually executing it on such a large scale.
There were other pieces in the Spanish pavilion, some of them by Picasso, some of them by other Spanish artists who were supporting, who were against the Fascists, against Franco and pro-Republicans, but the biggest attraction was Guernica. The international exhibition was already getting a lot of attention, both in art circles, there were special editions of journals and so forth that were devoted just to Guernica. But then Picasso had the idea that he wants to send the peace for an international travel. Multiple stops in Europe, multiple stops in the US, and basically using this as a fundraising tool to support their Republicans in their effort against the Fascists.
So it became a traveling icon. And with it different reaction came to be. Honestly it wasn’t a very successful fundraising effort. Some artists say that it barely covered its own traveling expenses. Can you imagine the huge crate it needed to be shipped in?
When it came to the US, it traveled all over the place. But when it got in New York to the museum of modern art, around the same time Picasso was also having a big retrospective at the moment. Then in Spain, the Fascists won. So Picasso was like, “Over my dead body, this piece is going to Spain while Franco is still in power.” So yeah, for many, many, many decades, until basically Franco died the piece stayed at the Museum of Modern Art. Now it lives in Reina Sophia in Madrid.
Q: How do the artists in the exhibition respond to Guernica?
A: They’re all doing something different even though they’re all referring though to the same piece. When we were debating or creating different lists for the show, we had many, many more pieces. It really is an often quoted work of art because it really is more than art. It’s an icon, it’s a symbol. It’s also a masterpiece, but I think it’s really for its political power. You could see it also really used as propaganda or posters, political posters and so forth. But we were trying to choose artists that each one relates or react to different facets of the show. Some of them are reacting cynically. Some of them more genuinely, some of them were using the work in order to comment on a political action. Others are using it to drill deeply into their own more emotional, personal reaction to the piece.
Q: One of the artists, Adad Hannah, created a new work on-site at the museum. Tell us a bit about it.
A: I told him about my concept [for the exhibition] and it was really like a meeting of minds. I told him and he was right from the get go, he was like “I’m absolutely in.” I think it was the first artist that said yes to participating in the show. Out of the blue, he was like, “Hey Alma, I have this idea. He happened to be working on another variation of Guernica for a private commission. And as he was working, he was literally toying with the idea. He was playing, creatively using materials that you had around in the studio to recreate Guernica. You had a ladder, you had a broom, you had a bucket. And he’s like, “Alma, you have to see this.” And it was just so cool. He created a small video that shows what’s going on in the studio at the moment. And he was like, “Do you think, can we approach Sandra and see if Remai Modern might be interested in it?”
The curatorial team did say yes to this work by Hannah, which was installed with the help of a group University of Saskatchewan art students. Guernica Remastered runs at Remai Modern until February 27, 2022.