At almost the same time as Pablo Picasso was painting Guernica, in May and June of 1937, Sergei Eisenstein was starting work on Alexander Nevsky, in June and July 1937; and in September of that year, José Clemente Orozco began his mural La Conquista de México.footnote1 All three works were commissioned by the state. Orozco was responding to an invitation from the Governor of Jalisco state to produce murals for the university, the governor’s palace and the Hospicio Cabañas in Guadalajara. A patriotic theme had been suggested to Eisenstein by the State Institute for Cinematography in Moscow. Picasso received an invitation from the Spanish government to produce a special work for the country’s pavilion at the International Exposition in Paris.

There is no direct relation between these works, beyond the fact that they respond to the tension of that historical moment between the Spanish Civil War, which began in July 1936, and the Second World War, which would break out in September 1939. No direct relation; but perhaps they could be seen as forming the parts of a trilogy which begins with Orozco, with a Spanish horse taking part in the conquest of Mexico—its head made of iron, its body of gears, chains and guns—passing through Picasso, with the Spanish horse of Guernica—head thrust upwards, mouth agape, releasing a scream in the midst of the German bombardment—and ends with Eisenstein, with German horses in the Battle on the Ice and the armour of the Teutonic cavalry scattered on the snow.

In January 1937, Picasso began a series of engravings, Sueño y mentira de Franco (Dream and Lie of Franco). Eighteen prints in all, arranged on a three-by-three grid like the frames of a cartoon strip, on two sheets measuring 30 cm by 40 cm. The first sheet contains nine scenes and bears a single date: 8 January. The second bears three: 8 January, 9 January, 7 June. The last four engravings in the series, executed in a different style from the previous ones, were made after Guernica, which Picasso finished on 4 June. In a sense, they are an extension of the painting. They show the face of a woman crying, two women each cradling a dead child, and a third woman with two children and a dead man before her. The poem written by Picasso to accompany the engravings could be a description of Guernica: ‘Screams of children, screams of women, screams of birds, screams of flowers, screams of wood and stone, screams of bricks, screams of furniture, of beds, of chairs, of curtains, of pots, of cats and papers, screams of smells.’ Guernica’s origins might, however, be traced to before the Dream and Lie engravings—to the bullfighting scenes from the mid-1930s, in which a wounded horse opens its mouth to scream; or to the Minotauromaquia series of 1935, which already contain the bull, the wounded horse, the woman in the window, and the woman with her hand stretched out holding a lit candle. Guernica begins here and continues up to the faces of women crying that Picasso painted until December 1937.

In February 1937, Orozco completed the first of the three murals he painted in Guadalajara—that in the university’s auditorium. On the walls around the stage, three panels: The People and the Leaders, Workers and Soldiers and Los miserables; in the cupola, a fourth panel—Man. In August, he finished the second mural, on the walls around the main staircase at the governor’s palace: Father Hidalgo, The Fratricidal Struggles, The Shadowy Forces, The Contemporary Circus and The Victims. In September, he began to paint the 54 panels and the central cupola, Man of Fire, which together recount the conquest of Mexico, at the Hospicio Cabañas.

In March 1937, Eisenstein was prevented from finishing Bezhin lug (Bezhin Meadow). The prohibition came as soon as the editing had been done and the film shown to the authorities. Bezhin Meadow was inspired by a Turgenev short story from A Sportsman’s Notebook (1852) and the case of Pavlik Morozov, a thirteen-year-old boy killed by his parents in 1932 after he had denounced them as enemies of socialism. Shooting had begun in May 1935, but a first interdiction interrupted work in April 1936; filming resumed in August of that year, with the initial screenplay by Aleksandr Rzheshevskii replaced by one written by Eisenstein and Isaak Babel. On 17 March 1937, after the film had been harshly criticized by the state cinema authorities, all materials were confiscated. On the 19th, the official sanction was announced in Pravda, with a recommendation that the director not be authorized to make films again. The materials for Bezhin Meadow were stored in the state cinema archives and, according to the official version, destroyed during the Second World War. ‘Two catastrophes’, Eisenstein would note years later in his memoirs: ‘the ruin of ¡Que viva México! and the tragedy of Bezhin Meadow.’footnote2

In the studies Orozco made for the murals at the Hospicio Cabañas, drawings in pencil and gouache on paper, the iron horse has a name: The Spain of Charles V. In the mural, this figure—a fighting machine, neither human nor animal, a horse and rider made of gears, chains and guns—occupies one of the six panels on the roof of the Hospicio, on the far left of the building. Beneath The Spain of Charles V, on the walls either side of the window, are portraits of Cervantes and El Greco. The first of the two panels that succeed Charles V depicts a battle scene, labelled Bellicosity in the studies, and the second is a portrait of Hernán Cortés, whose bearded face surmounts a metallic body much like that of the mechanical horse. At the opposite end of the building, to the right of the central cupola, the roof panels show a priest and a portrait of Philip II of Spain, either side of a panel which the studies call Horses in the Conquest: a swordsman in iron armour sits astride a horse with two heads.

Eisenstein could not have seen the murals in Guadalajara, since they did not yet exist when he was in Mexico, between December 1930 and February 1932. Nor did he manage to meet Orozco in person at this time. But he did see some of the painter’s work in the United States: the mural at the New School for Social Research in New York, and his Prometheus at Pomona College in California. The brief, poetic commentary Eisenstein makes in an essay titled ‘Prometheus’, which also makes reference to Rivera and Siqueiros, might be read as an expression of the sensation that grips the viewer before The Conquest of Mexico: ‘there is nothing more appealing than to watch Orozco’s perpetual headlong flight through the wall’; he ‘turns the universe upside-down, shakes its Olympian balance’ so that it ‘explodes into all-encompassing tongues of fire—as opposed to the sun, shining placidly on good and evil alike.’footnote3