Is Spain free enough for Pablo Picasso's "Guernica"?

The answer had been an emphatic no ever since the work was painted as an anti-Franco protect in 1937. But Picasso died in 1973 and Franco in 1975, and with Spain's first democratic elections two months ago, a race began among potential beneficiaries of the artist's verbal proviso that "Guernica" "should eventually be in free Spain."

Now the conflicting interests are building into an international tangle complicated by: Spanish politicians who want credit for getting "Guernica"; Spanish museums trying to upstage each other for it; a United States government that's trying to stay out of it; an undecided Picasso family, and a delicately positioned Museum of Modern Art, which has the painting and feels responsible for carrying out Picasso's vaguely expressed intent.

Picasso's most famous work, "Guernica" is a huge, enormously powerful canvas of grays and blacks depicting the horrors of a 1937 air raid on the Basque town of Guernica by Nazi planes fighting for Franco. The defeated Spanish Republicans commissioned the work from Picasso, a passionately anti-Franco exile, for display at that year's Paris World's Fair. Two years later the artist placed the work on indefinite loan to New York's Museum of Modern Art (MOMA).

And there it has hung in priceless splendor, its claim to be there uncontested for 38 years, until last June's elections.

The imbroglio isn't likely to lend itself to quick solution. Among the unresolved questions: Who owns the painting? Who decides if Spain is now "free"? How much time must pass before such a judgment can be made? And who has authority to negotiate for it? Picasso died without a will, thus leaving no guidance on any of these questions.

Sitting in the middle of this complicated prospect is the tight-lipped New York museum. Asserting no permanent claim to "Guernica," MOMA is faced with the difficult responsibility of protecting the painting from getting into the wrong hands, while eventually - at the right time and in the right place - relinquishing the picture.

The latest Spanish initiative came last week when Basque Sen. Justino Azcarate announced he would introduce a resolution to open formal negotiations with the United States government to obtain the painting. Culture Minister Pio Cabanillas replied that he had already discussed the matter with U.S. Ambassador Wells Stabler and that he was hopeful of the results. That led to a quick disclaimer by the embassy, asserting that it was a private affair, involving Spain, the Museum of Modern Art and Picasso's heirs.

At least three cities are competing for the painting. One is Guernica itself, just a small town during the Spanish Civil War, but now a bustling city. But Guernica, according to one source, lacks adequate facilities for the display and care of such a work.

Barcelona, with its Picasso Museum, is another contestant. A third is Madrid, with the Prado Museum where Picasso desired that "Guernica" take its place beside the works of his peers in the history of Spanish art - EI Greco, Velasquez and Goya. Technically, the Prado has a rule against contemporary works, but the feeling in the art world is that the Prado, like any other museum, would make an exception for "Guernica."

Given all this, the Museum of Modern Art is being understandably circumspect. Richard Koch, the museum's deputy director and general counsel, said yesterday that "nothing official has been heard from the government of Spain." Nor has there been word from the Picasso family about their preferences, he said. The museum's position, Koch said, is to carry out Picasso's wishes and to avoid "passing judgment on the state of civil rights in Spain."

Kock emphatically denied a report in the Spanish press quoting MOMA's director, Richard Oldenburg, to the effect that it would take 10 years to see whether democracy really has been established in Spain.

Then there is the additional issue of ownership. Apparently many persons involved are assuming family ownership, since it was Picasso who had possession of the painting and loaned it to the Museum of Modern Art. But one source suggested that the Spanish might contest this on grounds that the work was done on commission, though at this late date it might be difficult to track down some of the commissioners.

But apparently the Picassos, who gave the French government $38 million to $48 million as partial tax payment on the artist's billion-dollar estate, are assuming "Guernica" is theirs. A French lawyer representing them issued a statement this year that the family does not believe all the conditions have yet been met for turning "Guernica" over to Spain - implying that they do not intend to remain aloof from the fray.