Controversial tapestry to star in Whitechapel reopening

Work deemed sensitive at the United Nations

LONDON. A tapestry of Picasso’s Guernica, which was at the centre of a row just before the invasion of Iraq, is to go on display at the Whitechapel Art Gallery on 5 April. It currently hangs at United Nations headquarters in New York, just outside the Security Council chamber.

On 5 February 2003, the day US Secretary of State Colin Powell addressed the council on Iraq, a blue curtain was temporarily draped in front of the tapestry. A UN spokesman explained that as press interviews were given there, the plain hanging provided “an appropriate background for the cameras”.

However, Mr Powell’s advisors apparently felt it would look wrong for him to speak of war in Iraq in front of the work. The tapestry is a full-scale replica of the original painting, done in 1937 after the bombing of the Basque town. Now at the Museo de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid, the painting has come to symbolise the destruction of war.

So why is the Picasso tapestry coming to the Whitechapel? In January 1939 Guernica was temporarily displayed at the gallery as an artistic protest against Republican atrocities during the Spanish Civil War. This has inspired Polish-born London artist Goshka Macuga to create an installation featuring the Picasso tapestry for the reopening of the Whitechapel, following a £13.5m expansion project. Her work will explore the links between art and propaganda. The one-year installation is sponsored by Bloomberg which is owned by Michael Bloomberg, founder of Bloomberg Company, mayor of New York and art lover. Whitechapel director Iwona Blazwick came up with the audacious idea of borrowing the tapestry. Commissioned by Nelson Rockefeller in 1955, it was placed on long-term loan at the UN in 1985 by his widow Margaretta. She has just agreed to the Whitechapel loan.

A major renovation of the UN building starts in November, which makes the loan easier, but the 6.7m-long tapestry will have to be taken down before then. It is unclear whether it will be returned to the UN after completion of work in late 2011.

Nelson Rockefeller had a strong attachment to Guernica, since he had been president of New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1939 when Picasso sent his masterpiece there (it remained until 1981, when it was transferred to Madrid). A former US Vice President, as well as art collector, Rockefeller died in 1979.

Rockefeller would presumably have opposed the covering up of his tapestry at the UN in 2003, although something similar had occurred in his family. In 1933 he and his father had tried to get Picasso to paint a mural for New York’s Rockefeller Centre, but the job ended up going to Diego Rivera. Among figures depicted in Rivera’s mural was one of Lenin. When the Rockefellers asked him to remove Lenin, Rivera refused. The Rockefellers initially had the mural covered with a drape and it was then destroyed. Art and propaganda do indeed have close links, providing a challenging subject for Macuga’s Whitechapel installation.

More from The Art Newspaper


20 Sep 09
14:14 CET


Mark Gregory is correct. To quote from 'The Spanish Civil War' by Hugh Thomas, Pelican,1968: In October 1937, a Nationalist staff officer told a Sunday Times correspondant: 'We bombed it, and bombed it and bombed it, and bueno why not? The German air ace, Adolf Gallard...admitted that the Germans were responsible...Goring himself admitted in 1946 that Germany had regarded Guernica as a testing ground...

20 Sep 09
14:14 CET


'Guernica' is an artistic protest against Nationalistic atrocities perpetuated by Franco, Nazi and Italian troops.

20 Sep 09
14:14 CET


I think you will find that the "Republican atrocities during the Spanish Civil War" you refer to in your article were in fact General Franco and Nazi atrocities and it was the Nazi bombing of the cilians of Guernica that moved Picasso (who was on the side of the elected Republican government) to create his powerful anti-war painting

Submit a comment

All comments are moderated. If you would like your comment to be approved, please use your real name, not a pseudonym. We ask for your email address in case we wish to contact you - it will not be made public and we do not use it for any other purpose.


Want to write a longer comment to this article? Email


Share this