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Picasso's Antiquity: Greek Tragedy and the Visual Archaeology of Guernica | Francisco Prado-Vilar
During the spring of 1937, as Picasso worked tirelessly on Guernica at his Parisian
studio, conjuring up images of despair, destruction and fratricidal violence to capture
the tragedy of the Spanish Civil War, the basement of the National Archaeological
Museum in Madrid had become a bunker where many of the artworks he had long admired
were being stored away to keep them safe from the bombings. Among them was a Roman
sarcophagus decorated with a Greek family tragedy, which unfolds on an elongated frieze
in a sudden explosion of violence rippling out in chiastic movements. In the center
is Orestes who, having just slayed his mother Clitemnestra and her lover to avenge
the assassination of his father Agamennon, begins to ponder the consequences of his
This lecture explores the active presence of the imagery of this sarcophagus in the context of the Spanish Civil War, and in the lives of those involved in the making of Guernica. It follows a trail of photographs and letters leading from the basement of the National Archaeological Museum in Madrid to the Warburg Hall of the Fogg Museum at Harvard where, in 1941, Guernica made a stop in its pilgrimage in exile. There, Picasso’s canvas was unrolled, mounted on Romanesque capitals, and exhibited in the company of other Spanish “exiles” in an installation that poignantly captured its tragic genealogy, and activated its power as a witness to history, and as a nexus linking history (and the present) to the time of myth.
Francisco Prado-Vilar is Scientific Director of the Andrew W. Mellon Program for the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, and Director of Art and Culture at Harvard’s Real Colegio Complutense (RCC). His research and publications focus on diverse aspects of the arts of medieval and early Modern Europe, covering topics of wide chronological, thematic, and methodological range, including the afterlife of Antiquity from the early Middle Ages to the Renaissance; Romanesque and Gothic monumental programs; intercultural relations among Christians, Muslims, and Jews in the Gothic period; the interface of private suffering, devotional painting, and national trauma in Hispano-Flemish painting; or the interconnections between medievalism and modernity. Among his most recent publications is the edited volume The Portal of Glory: Architecture, Matter, and Vision.
Francisco Prado-Vilar is the appointed 2018 Visiting Scholar, made possible by a generous grant from T. Robert Burke and Katherine Burke.
Images: Arthur Kingsley Porter photograph, courtesy of Special Collections, Fine Arts Library, Harvard. UniversityHarvard Art Museums Archives. Photo: Imaging Department © President and Fellows of Harvard College.
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