Exactly eighty years ago, Pablo Picasso took on a commission that would forever change both his career and the entire outlook of modern art. The famous Guernica painting was painted by the Cubist painter in the June of 1937. Its title refers to the city of the same name that was bombed by Nazi planes during the Spanish Civil War, an event that destroyed three-quarters of the ancient town, killing and wounding hundreds of civilians in the process.
Uncompromisingly honest in its brutality and underlined by the artist's signature visual style, Picasso’s Guernica portrayed the horrors of war at their fullest and, as a result, has come to be a universal anti-war symbol.
Guernica is a mural-sized oil painting many art critics consider to be one of the most moving and powerful anti-war paintings in history. Standing at 3.49 meters (11 ft 5 in) tall and 7.76 meters (25 ft 6 in) wide, the painting shows the suffering of people wrenched by violence and chaos. While numerous works by Picasso have been crowned as masterpieces, like Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) which effectively set Western abstract art in motion, Guernica stands alone in the artist’s prolific oeuvre.
In the mid-1920s, around the time Pablo Picasso became actively involved with Surrealism, he was mainly painting interiors with still lifes, featuring objects like musical instruments and fruits. He used these traditional themes to experiment with his ideas of breaking the form and presenting the composition from multiple perspectives - aspects that soon became fundamental to Cubism.
However, as Pablo viewed painting as a personal experience that needed to correlate with the state of his inner life, the interior space of his works soon became claustrophobic. This shift occurred during World War I, a period Picasso and the Surrealists spent examining the dark corners of the human psyche. The Three Dancers (1925) is a prime example of Picasso’s work of this era.
Another theme seemed to be quite vital to Pablo's body of work back then - women. Notorious for his turbulent and numerous relationships, Picasso may have portrayed his lovers with affection in private works, but his public pieces often took a much grimmer perspective.
In the years leading up to the creation of Guernica painting, other artworks and sketches reveal the artist’s ruminations on the symbolism conveyed through manipulation of the female body — these experimentations, along with the aforementioned unique treatment of pictorial space, found their natural resolutions in Guernica.
The reason we insisted on quickly analyzing the painter's previous artistic stages is that, despite the fact Picasso's Guernica was indeed painted impressively quickly, it didn't come out of nowhere. This painting is a result of years of artistic production and visual experimentation, as well as the artist’s personal investment in the fraught politics of Spain.
Guernica was a culmination of Pablo Picasso's artistic endeavors and inner life, a piece that can not be examined without taking a look at the bigger picture. In many ways, it can be observed as Pablo's crown piece - all of the visual features he became renowned for were placed inside Guernica's composition and no other painting of modern art reached the kind of cult status this artwork possesses.
The Spanish Republic, then in the midst of the Spanish Civil War, had asked Pablo Picasso to create a painting for its pavilion at the Paris International Exposition of 1937. While the German and Soviet pavilions at the same event were gigantic architectural displays of authority and power, the Spanish Republic, desperately in need of financial support, opted for a modest structure filled with world-class modern art.
The Republic called upon authors at the forefront of the 1930s avant-garde, hiring artists like Joan Miró and Alexander Calder. Pablo Picasso accepted the commission without much thought in January 1937, agreeing to do a mural-sized painting for his beloved Spanish Republic.
Interestingly, Picasso’s original plan for his work was decidedly apolitical despite the fact the Spanish Republic insisted that the piece must carry a strong political message. Not sure what he should paint at first, the artist initially prepared to create a composition depicting a painter in his studio, facing a nude model who lies on a sofa.
However, it was a tragic event that changed Pablo's mind, making him change the course of his design entirely.
On the 26th of April in 1937, Francisco Franco ordered the hired Nazi Condor Legion to drop bombs over the small town of Guernica. The bombing was to take place during a market day, which meant that civilians, predominantly women and children as men were off fighting the war, would be outdoors in public squares. As the first place where democracy was established in Spain’s Basque region, the town of Guernica was a symbolic target.
The brutal bombing that took place on that day killed hundreds of people and was the first instance in the Spanish Civil War in which a defenseless city was attacked. Like countless others, Picasso opened his morning newspaper on April 27th to find images of the destruction of Guernica. Pictures and stories covering the event devastated the artist who was at that time already well-accustomed to living in Paris, the City of Light.
Since Picasso was a dedicated leftist and the idea of war lingered in his mind ever since he was criticized for not fighting in World War I, the bombing of Guernica struck him with a particular force. After a few days of processing his emotions, he took to his studio on Rue des Grands Augustins and began new sketches for the Republic's commission.
In just a month and a half, the immense mural was completed - the Surrealist artist Dora Maar captured the various stages of the composition of Picasso's Guernica in a series of photographs, some of which we displayed in this article. In July, Picasso delivered the finished work to the Republican pavilion where it quickly became the centerpiece of the show, flanked by Calder’s Mercury Fountain (1937) and Miro’s The Reaper (1937), both of which can be interpreted as pivotal pieces of the artists' careers.
Guernica is painted in oil and in monochrome colors of black, grey and white, a feature that further emphasizes the weight of the depicted event. The picture is full of symbols and its overall theme is one of suffering. The piece portrays a frenzied tangle of six human figures (four women, a man and a child), a horse and a bull.
Everything transpires within a claustrophobic low-ceiling space found below an overhead lamp that appears to burst with brightness - this light bulb is believed to be a metaphor for the bombing as Spanish words for bombs and light bulbs sound fairly similar.
Interestingly, hints of Picasso’s original composition remained in the completed painting as Pablo opted to keep the initial traces of interior that was supposed to represent an artist’s studio.
While Picasso never made explicit to the public the symbolism behind each of Guernica’s figures and objects, much of it can be taken at face value despite the fact art historians love to split hairs over the intentions behind nearly every brushstroke. Most direct figures are the contorted expressions of the women suffering physical agony and anguish. Their desperation is presented through sharp, pointed tongues and their sorrow through tear-shaped eyes.
On the far left of the Guernica painting, one woman wails towards the sky while cradling a lifeless child in her arms; another roars, her arms shooting upward as she’s consumed in flames; another emerges from an open window, wielding a torch and breathing hope into the piece as if she's telling that all is not lost.
On the floor, a figure who has been identified as a soldier, lies in pieces, probably a personification of the fledgling Republic. He holds a flower in his hand.
While the figures of women and the soldier are conceptually quite straightforward, the bull and horse have drawn varying interpretations over the years. Most art historians like to trace the animals’ roles back to the traditional Spanish bullfights where horses can become collateral damage at times and the bull is stabbed repeatably until death.
However, some speculations have theorized that the bull, which lacks the emotional expression of the rest of the figures, is an emblem of Franco or fascism. These theories indicate that it is precisely the bull that is tearing the town apart, which would explain its emotionless eyes.
There are also theories that claim Pablo was inspired by the Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur.
Following the closing of the Paris Expo, Guernica went on a tour in Europe. After the civil war ended and Franco took power as the Republic folded their arms, the painting continued to travel with aims of helping raise funds for Spanish Republican refugees who had fled the country in time. It was featured in the 1939 Picasso survey exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, after which Picasso would insist that MoMA act as Guernica’s guardian from that point on.
Between 1939 and 1952, Picasso’s Guernica traveled to art institutions across the United States, in Brazil and all over western Europe. In 1958, the piece was returned to MoMA and deemed no longer fit to travel - decades of transport took its toll and left the painting in a precarious physical state. It remained in New York until 1981 when it was brought back to Spain, to Museo Reina Sofia, as per Pablo's wishes who insisted that the piece must not be returned to the Spanish soil until Franco was dead.
Although this was a fairly personal reasoning, it also made a lot of sense for the safety of Guernica - the artwork would certainly be destroyed almost immediately if it came back during Franco's reign.
Interestingly enough, it was the time during which Guernica was stationary in New York City that marked the painting's international rise in popularity, allowing it to take a life beyond the canvas. The piece became synonymous with places where defenseless civilians came under attack. And by doing so, it began to take on particular resonance for anti-war protestors who began treating the piece as a source of motivation and the tragedy of the Spanish town as a reference.
The way Guernica shows the tragedies of war and the suffering it inflicts upon individuals became iconic and the mural became much more than even Pablo could predict - the painting gained a monumental status, becoming an embodiment of peace.
Picasso’s Guernica is now a marker of humanity, a timeless piece whose frighting message is still understood by people all over the world regardless of national, geographical or religious factors.
Editor's Tip: Picasso 1926-1939: From Minotaur to Guernica
Picasso 1926-1939: From Minotaur to Guernica focuses on a key phase of transition in Picasso's art, from his numerous depictions of the Minotaur myth in the late 1920s and early 1930s to his majestic and tragic 1937 masterpiece, Guernica. The Minotaur, contained in a labyrinth where it was fed Athenian youths, serves in part as a metaphor for destructive bestial drives under containment, but in Picasso's works on the theme, the Minotaur is set free into the world, where it frequently finds itself stumbling and dumbstruck. This expression of destructive drives finally culminates in the terrible aerial bombing recorded in Guernica. From Minotaur to Guernica is authored by Catalan poet Josep Palau i Fabre (1917-2008), one of the artist's earliest admirers and experts, who has made several close analyses of other phases in Picasso's prolific career.
Featured image: Pablo Picasso - Guernica, 1937, image via Wikimedia Commons. All images used for illustrative purposes only.