MADRID — Mercy and Terror. That is the title of an exhibition in Madrid's Reina Sofía museum exhibit that depicts Pablo Picasso's artistic progression toward Guernica, his pitiless portrayal of the cruelty of war.

In stylistic terms, it is a journey that may have begun in 1925, 11 years before the start of the Spanish Civil War, which led to the bombing of Guernica, in the Basque Country, by German forces aligned with army rebels against the Spanish Republic.

Picasso's monumental painting, perhaps his most famous work, reuses and magnifies the pained expressions of earlier figures, already distorted within a phantasmagoric pictorial discourse. It was also a premonition of the horrors soon to overwhelm the European continent under Hitler.

When the artist was invited to take part in the Spanish Pavilion in Paris in 1937, he had never before broached overtly political subjects. But his blue period, which conveyed peace and serenity, had long ended, and he was moving beyond his cubist breakthrough. His sketches, paintings and drawings were beginning to speak of tragedies, pain and tears. For Picasso, women had become "suffering machines" and happiness "had never existed."

In the Reina Sofia Museum, Madrid — Photo: Jimmy Villalta/VWPics/ZUMA

Picasso concentrated this pain into his merciless depiction of the bombing of a small town. He used shades of grey to depict human (and animal) slaughter, sobbing and the suffering of the innocent. This was the picture he displayed in Paris, perhaps without imagining it would later become a universal symbol of the cruel insanity of war.

Very little on this front has changed since Guernica's creation. The world is equally inhumane: missiles, hunger, terrorism. Blood and more blood. The nuclear threat that persists, child rape and human trafficking, closed borders and oceans turned into liquid graveyards. The shrieking that emanates from the master work still pierces our contemporary ears, in spite of our resolute deafness and indifference to "other people's" tragedies, and the overwhelming sway money, power and ambition hold over our lives.

Reading the news from anywhere now is a veritable trauma: a polluted planet, a heartless world, an insatiable and universal desire to destroy. An unfettered rage seems to have been let loose. It has unhinged the structure of our most elementary values and is leading people toward destruction. There are no winners in sight without a restoration of a sense of pity, forgiveness and love in ourselves.

The new show on display provides renewed impact. It not only reminds us of the past but also reflects our present. And unless we recover a measure of compassion, it may also presage an even more terrible future. Guernica is the inimitable representation of moral duty staring us in the face.


See more from Culture / Society here