Picasso's Guernica Painting

Guernica in Amsterdam, being hung in the Municipal Museum 12th July 1956. Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Pablo Picasso's painting, Guernica, has garnered global attention and acclaim ever since it was painted in 1937. What about Guernica has made it so famous? 

Brief History of the Origins of Guernica

In January 1937 the Spanish Republican government commissioned Pablo Picasso to create a mural on the theme of "technology" for the Spanish Pavilion at the 1937 World's Fair in Paris. Picasso was living in Paris at the time and hadn't been to Spain for three years.

He still had connections to Spain as Honorary Director-in-Exile of the Prado Museum in Madrid, however, and so agreed to the commission. He worked on the mural for several months, although uninspired. On the first of May Picasso read George Steer's moving eyewitness account of the bombing of Guernica on April 26 by German bombers and immediately changed course and started sketches for what would become the world-famous painting - and probably Picasso's most famous work - known as Guernica. Upon completion Guernica was displayed at the World's Fair in Paris, where it was initially negatively received.  After the World's Fair, Guernica was displayed on a tour that lasted 19 years throughout Europe and North America in order to raise consciousness about the threat of fascism and raise funds for Spanish refugees. The tour helped bring the Spanish Civil War to the world's attention, and made Guernica the world's most famous anti-war painting.

Subject of Guernica

Guernica is renown because of its powerful portrayal of the universal suffering, especially that of innocent victims, caused by war. It has become an iconic anti-war symbol and one of the most powerful anti-war paintings in history. It shows the results of the casual practice bombing by Hitler's German air force, acting in support of General Francisco Franco during the Spanish Civil War, of the little village of Guernica, Spain on April 26, 1937.

The bombing lasted for over three hours and decimated the village. As civilians tried to flee, more fighter planes appeared to strafe and kill them in their tracks. This aerial bombardment was the first-ever in history of a civilian population. Picasso's painting depicts the horror, misery, and devastation that resulted from this senseless aerial bombardment that destroyed seventy percent of the village and killed and wounded about 1600 people, roughly one third of the population of Guernica.

Description and Content of Guernica

The painting is an enormous mural-sized oil painting on canvas that is about eleven feet tall and twenty-five feet wide. Its size and scale contribute to its impact and power. The color palette Picasso chose is a somber monochrome palette of black, white, and gray, emphasizing the starkness of the scene as well as perhaps referring to the media representation of war. There is a textured part of the painting that resembles the lines of newsprint. 

The painting is done in the Cubist style Picasso is known for, and at first glance the painting seems to be a jumbled mass of body parts, but when looking more slowly the viewer notices specific figures - the woman screaming in pain while holding the body of her dead child, the horse with its mouth opened in terror and pain, figures with arms outstretched, suggestions of fire and spears, a scene of overall horror and frenzy organized compositionally into three discrete sections anchored in the middle by a triangular shape and a shaft of light.

"From the beginning, Picasso chooses not to represent the horror of Guernica in realist or romantic terms. Key figures - a woman with outstretched arms, a bull, an agonized horse - are refined in sketch after sketch, then transferred to the capacious canvas, which he also reworks several times. 'A painting is not thought out and and settled in advance,' said Picasso. 'While it is being done, it changes as one's thoughts change. And when it's finished, it goes on changing, according to the state of mind of whoever is looking at it." (1)

It is hard to know the exact meaning of the tortured figures and images in the painting since it is "a hallmark of  Picasso's work that a symbol can hold many, often contradictory meanings.....When asked to explain his symbolism, Picasso remarked, '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.'" (2) What the painting does do, though, regardless of how the symbols are interpreted, is to debunk the idea of warfare as heroic, showing the viewer, instead, its atrocities. By its use of imagery and symbolism it conveys the horrors of war in a way that strikes at the hearts of viewers without creating revulsion. It is a painting that is hard to look at, but also hard to turn away from.

Where is the Painting Now?

In 1981, after being kept for safekeeping at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, the painting was returned to Spain in 1981. Picasso had stipulated that the painting could not return to Spain until the country became democratic. It is currently at the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid, Spain.

Further Reading

Veterans Day Through the Lens of Art

Artist Spotlight: Pablo Picasso Quotes

Promoting Peace Through Art

​Painting and Grief

Why Art Matters

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REFERENCES

1. Guernica:Testimony of War,  http://www.pbs.org/treasuresoftheworld/a_nav/guernica_nav/main_guerfrm.html

2. Guernica:Testimony of War,  http://www.pbs.org/treasuresoftheworld/a_nav/guernica_nav/main_guerfrm.html

RESOURCES

Khan Academy, text by Lynn Robinson, Picasso, Guernica. https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/art-1010/early-abstraction/cubism/a/picasso-guernica