The day Guernica appeared in a Manchester car showroom

Tim Dunbar introduces his new exhibition exploring the mystery surrounding an exhibition of Guernica in Manchester in 1939

October 25, 2015
4 min read

guernica-manchesterGuernica in Manchester Re-Representation is a drawing project that investigates the exhibition of Picasso’s Guernica reputed to have taken place in a Manchester car showroom in February 1939. The exhibition includes a quarter-scale ‘mapping’ study of Guernica and a number of text-based drawings based on accounts of encounters with the painting. The drawings have been informed by the ‘Manchester Foodships for Spain’ archive in the Working Class Movement Library, Salford, and eyewitness descriptions of the exhibition, including two previously unknown accounts from students at Manchester School of Art.

How Guernica came to appear in the showroom is unclear. In his 2001 book The Battle for Realism, James Hyman claims, ‘[The] heavy canvas was entrusted to some art students in Manchester, who set about finding a place in which to show it. This was no simple task as the size of the work ruled out many venues but eventually they decided on a car showroom, where they unrolled the canvas, banged some nails through it and attached it to the wall. The people of Manchester had their first sight of one of the icons of the 20th century – Picasso’s Guernica.’

In making this claim Hayman draws on the most significant piece of documentary evidence – a small flyer-poster announcement held in the Manchester Foodships archive. This is where the myth of ‘Guernica in a car showroom’ originated. This account seems to have been broadly accepted and the exhibition of Guernica in Manchester has been included in most surveys of the painting’s history, including an appearance in the timeline of Guernica in the Museo de la Paz, Gernika. It was also reported in the Manchester Evening News on 3 January 1939 and the Manchester Guardian on 2 February 1939.

Helen Little, who curated Picasso and Modern British Art at Tate Britain in 2012, describes a more sceptical position that has emerged in recent years: ‘Unlike Guernica’s outings in London’s New Burlington and Whitechapel galleries towards the end of 1938, the circumstances surrounding its brief appearance in a Manchester car showroom have puzzled historians, so much so that aside from one or two pieces of evidence, the story has remained shrouded in rumour and mystery.’

Roland Penrose, the friend of Picasso who was responsible for negotiating the loan of the painting to tour England as a means of highlighting the plight of the Spanish people, makes no reference to the Manchester show in either his biography of Picasso or his collected notebooks and diaries. And there is no known photographic documentation of the car showroom exhibition, unlike the photographic records of the two London exhibitions.

Guernica in Manchester Re-Representation unearths some new documentary evidence that might alleviate some of the scepticism. There is a 1981 letter from Paul Hogarth, the eminent illustrator, in the Manchester Metropolitan University library, addressing the issue. Hogarth clearly acknowledges his awareness of the exhibition and even suggests that he recalled having some role in the project itself. He goes on to reinforce Helen Little’s reference to the significant contribution made by anti-war movements active in Manchester in the 1930s. He also provides some sense of political context, making connections to activities associated with the Artist International Association and to the crucial value of Collet’s Bookshop in Shudehill, located near to the car showroom.

Golda Rose was a student at Manchester School of Art in 1939. She speaks very vividly of her encounter with Guernica, viewed through a large shop window near to the Corn Exchange and the Manchester Evening News building. This experience had a significant impact on her development as an artist. She was unable to enter the ‘gallery’ space, so cannot confirm the presence of the related drawings, but the vision of Guernica framed by the window close to her bus stop has remained a distinctive memory for her. She also describes how she was fully aware of the situation in Spain and the bombing of Gernika and indeed had friends who had fought there as members of the International Brigade.

So the evidence supporting the Manchester exhibition has been firmed up, but the absence of photographic evidence remains a problem. And yet during this investigation other rumours were unearthed: for example, could the Guernica in Manchester have been a copy? The mystery remains.

Guernica in Manchester Re-Representation appears in the Working Class Movement Library, Salford, until 13 November.