Written by Meenakshi Nirmalan
85 years ago, Pablo Picasso painted Guernica, and it is now considered one of the most iconic anti-war paintings of all time. Picasso’s masterpiece is a response to the bombing of the Basque town of Guernica which occurred on 26 April 1937 by the German and Italian allies of Fransisco Franco during the Spanish Civil War, fought between the Republicans and the Nationalists from 1936-9. The Basque Government reported that just over 1650 people died and around 889 were wounded.
Picasso was living in Paris when he was commissioned by the Spanish Republicans to create a piece for the Spanish Pavilion in the Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Moderne. Initially, Picasso was working on a different piece for this exhibition. However, after reading a newspaper article and learning about the occurrences in Guernica, he decided to create a mural to depict the atrocities, which is particularly interesting considering that Picasso did not enjoy involving himself in political matters. After the exhibition, Guernica remained in the Museum of Modern Art in New York until after the end of Franco’s dictatorship and is currently displayed at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reino Sofía.
Guernica is visually striking for several reasons. It is a large mural, with dimensions of 3.49m by 7.77m. Picasso used a largely monochromatic palate for his oil painting, sticking to hues of whites, blacks, greys and blues. Although Picasso never provided an official explanation for the painting, much of the symbolism in Guernica is highly debated. Some believe that the absence of bright colour in Guernica reflects the monochromatic style of newspapers through which Picasso learned of the bombing. Moreover, the hues, combined with the vast size of the mural create an overwhelming, yet claustrophobic feeling. This immerses the viewer in the action, whilst simultaneously reflecting the suffering of the people in Guernica.
Picasso uses his signature Cubist style, which he pioneered, to depict the horrors, expressed through the angular, jagged and chaotic nature of the mural. The objects of the mural are flattened with distorted proportions, and this unsettling representation of space is disquieting for the viewer. There is not a singular clear focal point in this mural, accentuating the feeling of disorientation. The viewer does not know where to start unpacking the mural, as the entire canvas is filled with its own action, simultaneously disjointed but all interconnected. In a description that highlights the multifaceted and horrific effects of the bombing, author Margherita Cole wrote that:
“Guernica depicts the aftermath of the bombing within one contained space. From left to right: a distraught mother grieves over her dead child; a bull looms over her shoulder with a vacant or shocked expression; an injured horse cries out in pain while a dead soldier is trapped underneath his body; two women look over the scene in a stupor; and another woman is trapped in a fire and screaming.”Margherita Cole, “Picasso and ‘Guernica’: Exploring the Anti-War Symbolism of This Famous Painting,” My Modern Met, 31 December, 2021, https://mymodernmet.com/pablo-picasso-guernica/.
In addition, Picasso fuses elements of Surrealism into Guernica, which we can see through the dreamlike, yet apocalyptic visual complexities, that attack the senses of the viewer. At the top of the painting there is a lightbulb in the shape of an eye. It radiates jagged light at the bottom of it – an interesting image as, traditionally, light is supposed to symbolise hope. However, the ambiguity in this symbol is worth noting, as the jagged shapes could instead symbolise the blasting of a bomb. Moreover, the Spanish word for “lightbulb” is “bombilla“. This is etymologically similar to the word for “bomb” – “bomba“, perhaps making a comment on the conflated nature between hope and destruction during the height of the Spanish Civil War, in turn amplifying the feeling of confusion for the viewer. Interestingly, critics have noticed similar negative connotations of light in Spanish art: notably, The Third of May 1808 by Francisco Goya, depicting the events in the Peninsular War. In this painting, the victims of the firing squad are illuminated through the use of light. In Goya’s painting, the figure in white has his arms raised in a Christ-like fashion, which is similar to the stance of a figure on the right-hand side in Guernica.
Another key symbol in Guernica is the bull in the top left-hand corner. Making eye contact with its cold, hard stare, the bull is the only aspect of the painting that is facing the viewer. Its meaning is elusive; however, some interpret the bull as a symbol for the brutality of fascism or perhaps even Franco himself. Conversely, others view the bull in a different light. Because bulls have such a deep-rooted intertwinement with Spanish culture, some interpret the bull as a symbol for the people of Spain, and the disparate interpretations heighten the sense of chaos and confusion for the viewer.
A key area in Guernica is the depiction of women. As mentioned above, there is a woman with her arms raised above her head, in a martyr-like stance. Additionally, in the centre-right of the painting, there is a woman crawling towards the lightbulb (or the bomb); furthermore, Picasso depicts a different woman, weeping, with a child in her outstretched arms, of which many have noted the similarities to Michelangelo’s La Pietà.
The depiction of the suffering of women is fascinating as it foreshadows the reduction of liberties for women during Franco’s dictatorship in the years to follow. Furthermore, the women in Guernica have tear-shaped eyes, highlighting the devastation caused by the bombing of Guernica. It is clear that the piece has an overwhelming, nightmarish style, through which Picasso depicts the universal horrors of war and conflict.
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Goya, Francisco. The Third of May 1808. 1814. Oil on canvas. Museo del Prado, Madrid. https://www.museodelprado.es/coleccion/obra-de-arte/el-3-de-mayo-en-madrid-o-los-fusilamientos/5e177409-2993-4240-97fb-847a02c6496c.
Michelangelo. Pietà. 1498-9. Marble sculpture. St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City. Photograph by Stanislav Traykov via Wikimedia Commons. CC BY 2.5 License. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Michelangelo%27s_Pieta_5450_cut_out_black.jpg.
Picasso, Pablo. Guernica. 1937. Oil on canvas. Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid. https://www.museoreinasofia.es/en/collection/artwork/guernica.