Pablo Picasso’s 1937 masterpiece Guernica is enormous — 11 feet tall, 25.6 feet wide — and it has lived a peripatetic life since it was first displayed to enormous acclaim in the Spanish pavilion at the 1937 World’s Fair in Paris. It was on tour for 20 years straight, and every time it left for a new destination, it was taken down from its supports and rolled up for ease of transport. All that movement has left the mural-sized oil painting on canvas in a delicate condition, so delicate that curators at Madrid’s Reina Sofia museum, Guernica‘s permanent home, are reluctant to move it at all, not even to their own conservation lab.
Conservators and experts from the Spanish telecommunications company Telefonica worked together to create a technological solution to the problem. The result: a robot that moves along an enormous rig, taking infrared and ultraviolet photographs that will reveal condition details at the microscopic level. He has been affectionately dubbed “Pablito” in a nod to the painting’s creator and in an ironic reference to its hugeness, like when people call a 300-pound bodyguard/mob enforcer “Tiny.” When the museum closes at night and on Tuesdays, the staff drag out Pablito and position him a meter away from the painting.
Throughout the night the 9-meter (30-ft.) long, 5-meter (16-ft.) tall structure weighing 1.5 tons painstakingly scans the masterpiece, slowly compiling photographic DNA.
It can be programmed to take the camera lenses closer or farther away from the painting depending on the shot needed and has a precision of movement of 25 microns, or 25 thousandths of a millimeter, allowing analysts to see even air bubbles and scratches undetectable by the human eye.
“It will give us untold information about the painting,” said Humberto Durán, the restoration computer technician who presided over the project’s design. Durán said the process will give a complete view of the painting’s underlying preparatory drawings and all the later touchups it was subjected to.
So far it seems Guernica is stable and in no need of intervention. Pablito’s regular scans going forward will ensure that any deterioration or conservation problems that arise can be addressed when they are still small issues.
Commissioned by Spain’s Republican government to create a mural-sized painting for the Paris World Fair, Picasso discarded his original design after reading George Steer’s report in The Times about the brutal bombing raid by Nazi warplanes that destroyed the village of Guernica on April 26, 1937. Guernica was the cultural capital of the Basque region, an area considered a hotbed of Republicanism by Franco’s Nationalist forces, but the only legitimate military target was an ammunition factory outside town and it wasn’t bombed at all. The aim was political: demoralize the Republican forces by slaughtering civilians and flattening the village.
Appalled by the destruction and loss of life, Picasso made Guernica a statement on the agony of war. The black-and-white painting depicts animals, people and buildings torn apart and on fire.
Picasso told a great anecdote about Guernica after World War II. Odds are he made it up to make himself look like more of an anti-Nazi badass, but I hope it’s true because it’s so awesome. During WWII, Picasso lived in occupied Paris. He was regularly harassed by the Gestapo because they suspected he was involved in the resistance and just generally because he was a “degenerate artist” by Nazi standards and thus worthy of harassment. One time when they were searching his apartment one of the officers pointed to a sketch, a preparatory drawing Picasso had made for Guernica, and said “Did you do that?” Picasso replied “No, you did.” Bad. Ass.
For a fascinating exploration of the cubist depths of this great masterpiece, see this 3D rendering: