Updated: Apr 22
Probably Picasso’s most famous work, Guernica is the most powerful political statement made as a reaction to the Nazi bombings on the Basque town of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War. This painting showcasing the tragedies and sufferings of innocent civilians. It gained monumental status as a perpetual reminder of the tragedies of war, an anti-war symbol as well as a symbol of peace. When this painting was completed and displayed, it brought attention to the Spanish Civil War.
An amalgamation of pastoral and epic style, the use of color on this painting intensifies the drama. Painted mainly in black, blue, and white, this painting can now be seen in Museo Reina Sofia, Madrid. The various animals depicted in the painting all symbolize something significant; the bull and the horse are very important characters in the Spanish culture and since Picasso, himself used these characters to play many roles, it comes to interpret what their actual interpretation is. The bull depicts fascism and according to Picasso, it meant brutality and darkness. He also stated that the people of Guernica were represented by the horse, which represented pain and death.
Below are 10 lesser-known facts about this powerful reaction to the Nazi bombings on Guernica:
1. Chronicles of Guernica:
While he was painting it, Picasso allowed a photographer to chronicle its progress. It is believed that Picasso read about the bombings while he was in France in newspapers and painted from them, hence his painting is black and white. This lack of color expressed the starkness of the aftermath of the bombings.
2. Signature Figures:
Two of Picasso’s signature figures; the Minotaur and the Harlequin are there in Guernica. The Minotaur symbolizes irrational power and dominates the left side of the painting, the Harlequin, which is a little off-centre to the left is partially hidden cries of a diamond-shaped tear. This symbolizes duality. It is a mystical symbol representing power over life and death. It is said that Picasso added the Harlequin to counterbalance the deaths depicted in this mural.
3. What is depicted?
This painting is not very easy to decipher, there is death depicted everywhere. Figures start to emerge as the viewers’ eyes adjust to the frantic action. There is a woman in the far left, who is screaming in pain with her head back while holding a lifeless baby in her hands making it one of the most unforgettable images in the painting. There is the head and partial body of a bull, right next to the woman, which is the only unharmed figure in the whole mural. There is also a horse in the left-centre, which is screaming in pain because it has been pierced by a spear. There are many more figures, all of which are depicting death and agony. The faces of all the characters are distorted in agony and their eyes dislocated with open mouths and tongues shaped like daggers.
There has been and still is an endless debate going on about what the painting actually depicts. Picasso said that it was about people being massacred but since it has so may character, it has been hard to interpret. Picasso said “It isn’t up to the painter to define the symbols. Otherwise, it would be better if he wrote them out in so many words. The public who look at the picture must interpret the symbols as they understand them”. Picasso didn’t approve of the painting has one single meaning. It could be the lack of historical specificity or the fact that brutal wars kept on happening that Guernica
remains timeless and as universally relatable as it today as it was in 1937.
5. Women are the main characters in Guernica:
If one looks closely at the picture, they will see that all the main characters are indeed women. A woman with a dead child in her arms being the most powerful one. Women represent life, as well as pain, and hence Picasso used women to convey the agony we see in Guernica.
6. The painting was criticized, but later used by Nazi Germany:
The antifascist message in the painting intrigued scholars and hence the message in the painting had been discussed across the world. For the same reason, it became the butt of criticism from apologizers of fascism. The German guidebook for Paris International Exposition advised people from visiting Picasso’s piece. They described the painting as “a hodgepodge of body parts that any four-year-old could have painted”. The irony is that, in the year 1990, the German military misunderstood the piece and used it in a recruitment ad with the slogan “Hostile images of the enemy are the fathers of war”.
7. The vandalism by anti-war activists:
Picasso prevented the painting from staying in Spain until liberty and democracy were brought to the country but he loaned the painting to the Museum of Modern Art due to the fear of Nazi-occupied France. Whilst there, an anti-war activist Tony Shafrazi (who went on to become one of the world’s renowned art dealers) spray-painted “KILL ALL LIES” in red all over the painting. He did this to make a statement against the Vietnam War. Fortunately, the paint was removed and the painting restored.
8. A reproduction of Guernica once covered up at the United Nations:
The entrance of the UN security council was adorned with a recreation of Picasso’s Guernica in the form of a tapestry. The then US secretary of state, Colin Powell testified in favor of the war on Iraq, the tapestry was covered with a blue curtain during the broadcast of this speech. Reports suggested that it was covered because it could have been unpleasant for viewers along with Bush’s government claiming it to be an inappropriate backdrop for declaration of war.
9. Guernica was originally a commissioned painting:
The Spanish government commissioned Picasso to create a huge mural for the Spanish pavilion. At that time, Picasso was originally working on something else but he dropped everything to work on this mural when he heard about the bombings on Guernica. This was not what he was actually supposed to give but he got so affected by this painting that he made on a mural on this itself. It was made to show the agony of mothers and children, unveiled at the Paris exhibition which made it very popular for the destruction of war on innocent people.
10. Picasso put together another critique of Franco side by side Guernica:
It is said that Picasso made Guernica in just a month, which in itself is impressive but that wasn’t Picasso’s sole motive. Picasso published a set of etching and aquatint prints in January 1937, titled ‘The Dream and Lie of Franco’ and delivered Guernica to the Spanish Pavilion on June 7 of the same year, and at the same time added a second batch of images to ‘The Dream and Lie of Franco’.
“Painted in the wake of a 1937 fascist bombing, ‘Guernica’ has grown to stand for war atrocities being experienced all over the world”.
Picasso had been looking for something to paint for 3 years and this commission to produce a mural by the Spanish Pavilion in 1937 gave him an opportunity to paint something that came to be known as one of the most historic paintings in the world. Guernica is now, one of the ‘greatest’ works of art and a strong statement against war.