Bearing a reproduction of Pablo Picasso’s masterwork Guernica on its cover, this novel weaves a tale of suspense around the temporary return of the painting to its longtime home in New York, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), for a fictitious Picasso retrospective in 2003. The story is divided into two narratives that unfold side-by-side but in different time frames, the first spanning from 1937 until the end of World War II, and the other set before and after the United States’ invasion of Iraq in 2003, following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that brought down the twin towers of New York’s World Trade Center. For the former (A), the point-of-view character is the real-life photographer Dora Maar, Picasso’s lover who documented the painting of Guernica; for the latter (B) it is Yōko Yagami, a fictitious curator and Picasso specialist working at MoMA. Although the story deals with historical characters, events, and works of art, the key figures of Pardo Ignacio in Spain and Ruth Rockefeller in New York are fictitious creations in narrative A, while all of the main characters in narrative B are fictitious.
In narrative A, Picasso is living in Paris when he learns from newspaper reports about the indiscriminate bombing on April 26, 1937 of civilians in Guernica, a Basque town in northern Spain, by German warplanes allied with General Francisco Franco’s rebel faction in the Spanish Civil War. Earlier that year, the Spanish Republican government had commissioned Picasso to create a large mural for the Spanish pavilion at the 1937 World’s Fair in Paris, scheduled to open on May 25. After some hesitation, Picasso decides to abandon his previous sketches for the painting and make the bombing of Guernica his subject. He does not finish in time for the fair’s opening day, but the mural does indeed go on display soon after. Although intended as a strong anti-fascist, anti-war statement, the work’s initial reviews are not what Picasso had hoped. The painting travels to other parts of Europe after the World’s Fair before crossing to the United States in May 1939, on the eve of World War II.
Picasso entrusts the work to MoMA for safekeeping, setting just one condition: the painting is not to be allowed on Spanish soil until democracy has been established in the country. Playing crucial roles in this “exile” of Guernica to the New World are Pardo, the young heir to the wealthy Ignacio family of Spain, known for their art collecting; and Alfred Barr, who had become head of MoMA with the backing of the Rockefellers. The young Ruth Rockefeller, who will become museum board chair in narrative B, is placed by her grandmother, a key figure in the establishment of MoMA, under the tutelage of Barr for her education in modern art. The scene in which the 20-year-old Pardo and the 11-year-old Ruth meet for the first time when the ship carrying the painting arrives in New York harbor in May 1939 resonates deeply as it links narrative A with the purely fictional drama unfolding in narrative B.
In 2003, Yōko is working as a curator in the Department of Painting and Sculpture at MoMA. Though born in Tokyo, she moved to the United States with her family while still a child. After earning a PhD in art from Columbia University, she interned at the Prado Museum in Spain, where she spent some of her time helping prepare for the move of Guernica to the new Queen Sofía Museum in 1992, and she is now one of the world’s leading authorities on Picasso. Her late husband Ethan, who was an art consultant serving clients worldwide, died in the 9/11 terrorist attacks two years earlier.
Alarmed by the drumbeats of war being sounded by American government officials, Yōko puts together plans for a special MoMA exhibition called Picasso and War to open in June 2003. The all-important question is: will she be able bring Guernica back to New York from Spain? Seeking Ruth’s help, she negotiates with Pardo, but he is not immediately willing to make a firm commitment. As negotiations continue, Yōko is abducted by the ETA, a Basque separatist organization that has long wanted to bring Guernica to the Basque region as a symbol of their independence movement: if the loan to MoMA is approved, the head of the ETA sees an opportunity to waylay the painting en route. Yōko is ultimately rescued by Spanish government troops, the Guernica loan is approved, and the Picasso and War exhibition at MoMA takes place as planned.
(The title refers to the covering up of a tapestry reproduction of Guernica, which hangs outside the United Nations Security Council chamber, when Colin Powell spoke there in support of going to war against Iraq on February 5, 2003.)