Responding to art in verse: Guernica Remakings at The National Poetry Library

Thursday, July 18, 2019 - 11:42

Painted in response to the Spanish Civil War bombing of the Basque town of the same name, Picasso’s Guernica is widely regarded as one of the most powerful and moving anti-war paintings ever produced.

This summer The National Poetry Library at Southbank Centre offers you the chance to see the 1937 masterpiece anew in a multimedia exhibition curated by Nicola Ashmore. Guernica Remakings features artwork from across the globe that either remakes, reimagines or creates resonance with the original work. This includes pieces such as Vasco Gargalo’s satirical illustration Aleppo Guernica (2016) and Saradha Soobrayen’s scratchboard Chagos(nica) (2017 – 2019).

As well as the artworks on display, Guernica Remakings has also seen Ashmore and The National Poetry Library come together to commission two contemporary poets to respond to the paintings in their own words.

Chris McCabe, National Poetry Librarian (pictured below), explains how this idea was approached, and how the two poets were selected.

“I was interested in commissioning poets who come at poetry form a distinct angle and whose work might suggest a continuation of the cubist approach to the artform. There's a long tradition of this approach going back to cubist poets such as Pierre Reverdy and Blaise Cendrars and it was actually Apollinaire who gave Picasso the idea of putting newsprint into his visual art. 

“We had commissioned Richard Price a few years back for an event we organised with the Arts Council Collection and I knew from this, and his experience of working with book artist Ron King, that he is a poet who is very skilled in responding to visual art. 

“So Mayer has worked with us many times, reading at the Future Exiles event and as part of Yoko Ono's Meltdown, and taking part in a podcast with me for the Poetry International in 2017. 

“These are both poets who are socially engaged and not afraid to challenge the world, as well as taking risks in their own poetic practice.”


Ahead of the opening of Guernica Remakings we grabbed five minutes with Richard Price to discuss his commission and the complexities of responding to one piece of art with another.

Southbank Centre: Can you remember when you first encountered Guernica?

Richard Price: I think it will have been in a general history of art or a study of Picasso. I did also see the painting itself when I happened to be in Madrid for work.

What was your response when asked to produce a poem for this exhibition in response to Picasso’s work?

I felt honoured and also daunted, that I was in a sense collaborating with the great artist and also that the theme was a military attack on civilians. This was not to be done lightly.

When tasked with creating art that responds to another piece of art, where do you begin?

There will be many approaches. Mine this time is to read up on the meanings of the painting, to view it as intensely as I can and then to begin a new line of expression, to feel rather than think what the questions are that the painting is still asking.


I think Richard Price is one of our most interesting lyric poets; his work brilliantly captures the Big Data era through collaging overheard conversations and buzz phrases, transforming them into the most arresting and memorable poetry. 
Chris McCabe, National Poetry Librarian


Is it hard to come at a painting such as this freshly and independently when so much has already been written about, or inspired by, it?

Yes. But paintings themselves cannot survive unless people are making something of them, from silent connection to art criticism to poetry.

Does Picasso’s style of painting at all dictate the form in which your poem takes?

He is in expressionist mode and so I was spiky too.

And lastly, it’s now over 80 years since Guernica’s unveiling, do you feel it is still possible to draw contemporary parallels to the message of Picasso’s work?

Certainly. Mass bombings of civilians are very much with us, egged on by the mass media, right wing politicians and other representatives of the military industrial complex. Meanwhile civilians are threatened internally by reckless construction and flouting of fire regulations and pollution of the air. The war in the air is with us in so many ways and we have to resist and peacefully fight back.



Richard Price's response to Guernica, can be viewed as part of Guernica Remakings, on display at The National Poetry Library from 26 July to 22 September. 

The exhibition is free, and The National Poetry Library is open daily from 11am to 8pm, except Mondays when it is closed.

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