ⓘ Guernica (Picasso)

Guernica (Picasso)

ⓘ Guernica (Picasso)

Guernica is a large 1937 oil painting on canvas by Spanish artist Pablo Picasso. One of Picassos best known works, Guernica is regarded by many art critics as one of the most moving and powerful anti-war paintings in history, It is exhibited in the Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid.

The gray, black, and white painting, which is 3.49 meters 11 ft 5 in tall and 7.76 meters 25 ft 6 in across, portrays the suffering of people and animals wrenched by violence and chaos. Prominent in the composition are a gored horse, a bull, screaming women, dismemberment, and flames.

Picasso painted Guernica at his home in Paris in response to the bombing of Guernica, a Basque Country town in northern Spain, by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy at the request of the Spanish Nationalists. Upon completion, Guernica was exhibited at the Spanish display at the 1937 Paris International Exposition, and then at other venues around the world. The touring exhibition was used to raise funds for Spanish war relief. The painting soon became famous and widely acclaimed, and it helped bring worldwide attention to the Spanish Civil War.


1. Commission

In January 1937, while Pablo Picasso was living in Paris on Rue des Grands Augustins, he was commissioned by the Spanish Republican government to create a large mural for the Spanish pavilion at the 1937 Paris Worlds Fair. Picasso, who had last visited Spain in 1934 and would never return, was the Honorary Director-in-Exile of the Prado Museum.

Picasso worked somewhat dispassionately from January until late April on the projects initial sketches, which depicted his perennial theme of an artists studio. Then, immediately upon hearing reports of the 26 April bombing of Guernica, poet Juan Larrea visited Picassos home to urge him to make the bombing his subject. Days later, on 1 May, Picasso read George Steers eyewitness account of the attack, which originally had been published in both The Times and The New York Times on 28 April, and abandoned his initial idea. Acting on Larreas suggestion, Picasso began sketching a series of preliminary drawings for Guernica.


2.1. Historical context Bombing of 26 April 1937

During the Spanish Civil War, the Republican forces were made up of assorted factions such as communists, socialists, anarchists, and others with differing goals. Yet they were united in their opposition to the Nationalists, led by General Francisco Franco, who sought a return to pre-Republican Spain based on law, order, and traditional Catholic values.

Guernica, a town in the province of Biscay in Basque Country, was seen as the northern bastion of the Republican resistance movement and the center of Basque culture. This added to its significance as a target. Around 4:30 p.m. on Monday, 26 April 1937, warplanes of the Nazi Germany Condor Legion, commanded by Colonel Wolfram von Richthofen, bombed Guernica for about two hours. In his journal for 30 April 1937, von Richthofen wrote:

When the first Junkers squadron arrived, there was smoke already everywhere (from the VB was targeted at Guernica in order to halt and disrupt the Red withdrawal which has to pass through here." Under the German concept of tactical bombing, areas that were routes of transportation and troop movement were considered legitimate military targets. The following day, Richthofen wrote in his war diary, "Guernica burning."

The nearest military target of any consequence was a war product factory on Guernicas outskirts, but it went through the attack unscathed. Thus, the attack was widely condemned as a terror bombing.


2.2. Historical context Guernicas aftermath

Because a majority of Guernicas men were away, fighting on behalf of the Republicans, at the time of the bombing the town was populated mostly by women and children. These demographics are reflected in Guernica. As Rudolf Arnheim writes, for Picasso: "The women and children make Guernica the image of innocent, defenseless humanity victimized. Also, women and children have often been presented by Picasso as the very perfection of mankind. An assault on women and children is, in Picassos view, directed at the core of mankind."

The Times journalist George Steer, a Basque and Republican sympathizer, propelled this event onto the international scene and brought it to Pablo Picassos attention. Steers eyewitness account was published on 28 April in both The Times and The New York Times, and on the 29th it appeared in LHumanite, a French Communist daily. Steer wrote:

Guernica, the most ancient town of the Basques and the centre of their cultural tradition, was completely destroyed yesterday afternoon by insurgent air raiders. The bombardment of this open town far behind the lines occupied precisely three hours and a quarter, during which a powerful fleet of aeroplanes consisting of three types of German types, Junkers and Heinkel bombers, did not cease unloading on the town bombs weighing from 1.000 lbs. downwards and, it is calculated, more than 3.000 two-pounder aluminium incendiary projectiles. The fighters, meanwhile, plunged low from above the centre of the town to machinegun those of the civilian population who had taken refuge in the fields."

Picasso lived in Paris during the German occupation during World War II. A German officer allegedly asked him, upon seeing a photo of Guernica in Picassos apartment, "Did you do that?" Picasso responded, "No, you did."


3. Creation

Guernica was painted using a matte house paint specially formulated at Picassos request to have the least possible gloss. American artist John Ferren assisted him in stretching the monumental canvas, and photographer Dora Maar, who had been working with Picasso since mid-1936 photographing his studio and teaching him the technique of cameraless photography, documented its creation. Apart from their documentary and publicity value, Maars photographs "helped Picasso to eschew color and give the work the black-and-white immediacy of a photograph", according to art historian John Richardson.

Picasso, who rarely allowed strangers into his studio to watch him work, admitted influential visitors to observe his progress on Guernica, believing that the publicity would help the antifascist cause. As his work on the mural progressed, Picasso explained: "The Spanish struggle is the fight of reaction against the people, against freedom. My whole life as an artist has been nothing more than a continuous struggle against reaction and the death of art. How could anybody think for a moment that I could be in agreement with reaction and death?. In the panel on which I am working, which I shall call Guernica, and in all my recent works of art, I clearly express my abhorrence of the military caste which has sunk Spain in an ocean of pain and death."

Picasso worked on the painting for 35 days, and finished it on 4 June 1937.


4. Composition

The scene occurs within a room where, on the left, a wide-eyed bull stands over a grieving woman holding a dead child in her arms. In the center of the room a horse falls in agony with a large gaping hole in its side, as if it had just been run through by a spear or javelin. The horse appears to be wearing chain mail armor, decorated with vertical tally marks arranged in rows.

A dead and dismembered soldier lies under the horse. The hand of his severed right arm grasps a shattered sword, from which a flower grows. The open palm of the soldiers left hand contains a stigma, a symbol of martyrdom derived from the stigmata of Christ. A bare light bulb in the shape of an eye blazes over the suffering horses head.

To the horses upper right a frightened female figure appears to have floated into the room through a window, and witnesses the scene. She carries a flame-lit lamp, and holds it near the bare bulb. From the right, below the floating figure, an awe-struck woman staggers towards the center, looking into the blazing light bulb with a blank stare.

Daggers that suggest screaming have replaced the tongues of the horse, the bull, and the grieving woman. A dove is scribed on the wall behind the bull, part of its body comprising a crack in the wall through which bright light shines.

On the far right another woman, her arms raised in terror, is entrapped by fire from above and below. Her right hand suggests the shape of an airplane. A dark wall with an open door defines the right side of the room.

Two "hidden" images formed by the horse appear in Guernica:

  • A bull appears to gore the horse from underneath. The bulls head is formed mainly by the horses entire front leg which has the knee on the ground. The legs knee cap forms the heads nose. A horn appears within the horses breast. The bulls tail forms the image of a flame with smoke rising from it, seemingly appearing in a window created by the lighter shade of gray surrounding it.
  • A human skull overlays the horses body.

5. Symbolism and interpretations

Interpretations of Guernica vary widely and contradict one another. This extends, for example, to the murals two dominant elements: the bull and the horse. Art historian Patricia Failing said, "The bull and the horse are important characters in Spanish culture. Picasso himself certainly used these characters to play many different roles over time. This has made the task of interpreting the specific meaning of the bull and the horse very tough. Their relationship is a kind of ballet that was conceived in a variety of ways throughout Picassos career."

When pressed to explain the elements in Guernica, Picasso said,

.this bull is a bull and this horse is a horse. If you give a meaning to certain things in my paintings it may be very true, but it is not my idea to give this meaning. What ideas and conclusions you have got I obtained too, but instinctively, unconsciously. I make the painting for the painting. I paint the objects for what they are.

In The Dream and Lie of Franco, a series of narrative sketches Picasso also created for the Worlds Fair, Franco is depicted as a monster that first devours his own horse and later does battle with an angry bull. Work on these illustrations began before the bombing of Guernica, and four additional panels were added, three of which relate directly to the Guernica mural.

According to scholar Beverly Ray, the following list of interpretations reflects the general consensus of historians: "The shape and posture of the bodies express protest"; "Picasso uses black, white, and grey paint to set a somber mood and express pain and chaos"; "flaming buildings and crumbling walls not only express the destruction of Guernica, but reflect the destructive power of civil war"; "the newspaper print used in the painting reflects how Picasso learned of the massacre"; "The light bulb in the painting represents the sun"; and "The broken sword near the bottom of the painting symbolizes the defeat of the people at the hand of their tormentors".

Alejandro Escalona said, "The chaos unfolding seems to happen in closed quarters provoking an intense feeling of oppression. There is no way out of the nightmarish cityscape. The absence of color makes the violent scene developing right before your eyes even more horrifying. The blacks, whites, and grays startle you - especially because you are used to see war images broadcast live and in high-definition right to your living room."

In drawing attention to a number of preliminary studies, the so-called primary project, that show an atelier installation incorporating the central triangular shape which reappears in the final version of Guernica, Becht-Jordens and Wehmeier interpret the painting as a self-referential composition in the tradition of atelier paintings such Las Meninas by Diego Velazquez. In his chef doeuvre, Picasso seems to be trying to define his role and his power as an artist in the face of political power and violence. But far from being a mere political painting, Guernica should be seen as Picassos comment on what art can actually contribute towards the self-assertion that liberates every human being and protects the individual against overwhelming forces such as political crime, war, and death.


6.1. Exhibition 1937 Paris International Exhibition

Guernica was unveiled and initially exhibited in July 1937 at the Spanish Pavilion at the Paris International Exposition., where Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia had huge pavilions. The Pavilion, which was financed by the Spanish Republican government at the time of civil war, was built to exhibit the Spanish governments struggle for existence contrary to the Expositions technology theme. The Pavilions entrance presented an enormous photographic mural of Republican soldiers accompanied by the slogan:

We are fighting for the essential unity of Spain. We are fighting for the integrity of Spanish soil. We are fighting for the independence of our country and for the right of the Spanish people to determine their own destiny.

The display of Guernica was accompanied by a poem by Paul Eluard, and the pavilion displayed The Reaper by Joan Miro and Mercury Fountain by Alexander Calder, both of whom were sympathetic to the Republican cause.

At Guernica s Paris Exhibition unveiling it garnered little attention. The publics reaction to the painting was mixed. Max Aub, one of the officials in charge of the Spanish pavilion, was compelled to defend the work against a group of Spanish officials who objected to the murals modernist style and sought to replace it with a more traditional painting that was also commissioned for the exhibition, Madrid 1937 Black Aeroplanes by Horacio Ferrer de Morgado. Some Marxist groups criticized Picassos painting as lacking in political commitment, and faulted it for not offering a vision of a better future. In contrast, Morgados painting was a great success with Spanish Communists and with the public. The art critic Clement Greenberg was also critical of Guernica, and in a later essay he termed the painting "jerky" and "too compressed for its size", and compared it unfavorably to the "magnificently lyrical" The Charnel House 1944–1948, a later antiwar painting by Picasso.

Among the paintings admirers were art critic Jean Cassou and poet Jose Bergamin, both of whom praised the painting as quintessentially Spanish. Michel Leiris perceived in Guernica a foreshadowing: "On a black and white canvas that depicts ancient tragedy. Picasso also writes our letter of doom: all that we love is going to be lost."


6.2. Exhibition European tour

Guernica, for which Picasso was paid 200.000 francs for his costs by the Spanish Republican government, was one of the few major paintings that Picasso did not sell directly to his exclusive contracted art dealer and friend, Paul Rosenberg. However, after its exhibition Rosenberg organised a four-man extravaganza Scandinavian tour of 118 works by Picasso, Matisse, Braque, and Henri Laurens. The tours main attraction was Guernica.

From January to April 1938 the tour visited Oslo, Copenhagen, Stockholm, and Goteborg. Starting in late September Guernica was exhibited in Londons Whitechapel Art Gallery. This stop was organized by Sir Roland Penrose with Labour Party leader Clement Attlee, and the painting arrived in London on 30 September, the same day the Munich Agreement was signed by the leaders of the United Kingdom, France, Italy, and Germany. It then travelled to Leeds, Liverpool, and, in early 1939, Manchester. There, Manchester Foodship For Spain, a group of artists and activists engaged in sending aid to the people of Spain, exhibited the painting in the HE Nunn & Co Ford automobile showroom for two weeks. Guernica then returned briefly to France.


6.3. Exhibition American tour

After Francisco Francos victory in Spain, Guernica was sent to the United States to raise funds and support for Spanish refugees. The San Francisco Museum of Art later renamed the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art gave the work its first public appearance in the United States from 27 August to 19 September 1939. New Yorks Museum of Modern Art MoMA then mounted an exhibition from 15 November until 7 January 1940, entitled: Picasso: 40 Years of His Art. The exhibition, which was organized by MoMAs director Alfred H. Barr in collaboration with the Art Institute of Chicago, contained 344 works, including Guernica and its studies.

At Picassos request the safekeeping of Guernica was then entrusted to the Museum of Modern Art, and it was his expressed desire that the painting should not be delivered to Spain until liberty and democracy had been established in the country. Between 1939 and 1952, Guernica traveled extensively in the United States. Between 1953 and 1956 it was shown in Brazil, then at the first Picasso retrospective in Milan, Italy, and then in numerous other major European cities before returning to MoMA for a retrospective celebrating Picassos 75th birthday. It then went to Chicago and Philadelphia. By this time, concern for the state of the painting resulted in a decision to keep it in one place: a room on MoMAs third floor, where it was accompanied by several of Picassos preliminary studies and some of Dora Maars photographs of the work in progress. The studies and photos were often loaned for other exhibitions, but until 1981, Guernica itself remained at MoMA.

During the Vietnam War, the room containing the painting became the site of occasional anti-war vigils. These were usually peaceful and uneventful, but on 28 February 1974, Tony Shafrazi - ostensibly protesting Second Lieutenant William Calleys petition for habeas corpus following his indictment and sentencing for the murder of 109 Vietnamese civilians during the My Lai massacre - defaced the painting with red spray paint, painting the words "KILL LIES ALL". The paint was removed with relative ease from the varnished surface.


7. Establishment in Spain

As early as 1968, Franco had expressed an interest in having Guernica come to Spain. However, Picasso refused to allow this until the Spanish people again enjoyed a republic. He later added other conditions, such as the restoration of "public liberties and democratic institutions". Picasso died in 1973. Franco, ten years Picassos junior, died two years later, in 1975. After Francos death, Spain was transformed into a democratic constitutional monarchy, ratified by a new constitution in 1978. However, MoMA was reluctant to give up one of its greatest treasures and argued that a monarchy did not represent the republic that had been stipulated in Picassos will as a condition for the paintings delivery. Under great pressure from a number of observers, MoMA finally ceded the painting to Spain in 1981. The Spanish historian Javier Tusell was one of the negotiators.

Upon its arrival in Spain in September 1981, it was first displayed behind bomb-and bullet-proof glass screens at the Cason del Buen Retiro in Madrid in time to celebrate the centenary of Picassos birth, 25 October. The exhibition was visited by almost a million people in the first year. Since that time there has never been any attempted vandalism or other security threat to the painting.

In 1992, the painting was moved from the Museo del Prado to a purpose-built gallery at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, both in Madrid, along with about two dozen preparatory works. This action was controversial in Spain, since Picassos will stated that the painting should be displayed at the Prado. However, the move was part of a transfer of all of the Prados collections of art after the early 19th century to other nearby buildings in the city for reasons of space; the Reina Sofia, which houses the capitals national collection of 20th-century art, was the natural place to move it to. At the Reina Sofia, the painting has roughly the same protection as any other work.

Basque nationalists have advocated that the picture should be brought to the Basque country, especially after the building of the Guggenheim Bilbao Museum. Officials at the Reina Sofia claim that the canvas is now thought to be too fragile to move. Even the staff of the Guggenheim do not see a permanent transfer of the painting as possible, although the Basque government continues to support the possibility of a temporary exhibition in Bilbao.


8. Tapestry at the United Nations

A full-size tapestry copy of Picassos Guernica, by Jacqueline de la Baume Durrbach, is hung at the Headquarters of the United Nations in New York City at the entrance to the Security Council room. It was displayed first from 1985 to 2009, and returned in 2015. It was commissioned in 1955 by Nelson Rockefeller, since Picasso refused to sell him the original. The tapestry was placed on loan to the United Nations by the Rockefeller estate in 1985. The tapestry is less monochromatic than the original and uses several shades of brown.

On 5 February 2003 a large blue curtain was placed to cover this work at the UN, so that it would not be visible in the background when Colin Powell and John Negroponte gave press conferences at the United Nations. On the following day, it was claimed that the curtain was placed there at the request of television news crews, who had complained that the wild lines and screaming figures made for a bad backdrop, and that a horses hindquarters appeared just above the faces of any speakers. Some diplomats, however, in talks with journalists claimed that the Bush administration pressured UN officials to cover the tapestry, rather than have it in the background while Powell or other US diplomats argued for war on Iraq. In a critique of the covering, columnist Alejandro Escalona hypothesized that Guernica s "unappealing menage of mutilated bodies and distorted faces proved to be too strong for articulating to the world why the US was going to war in Iraq", while referring to the work as "an inconvenient masterpiece."

On 17 March 2009, Deputy Spokesperson for the Secretary-General Marie Okabe announced that the Guernica tapestry had been moved to a gallery in London in advance of extensive renovations at UN Headquarters. The Guernica tapestry was the showcase piece for the grand reopening of the Whitechapel Gallery. It was located in the Guernica room which was originally part of the old Whitechapel Library. In 2012 the tapestry was on temporary loan to the San Antonio Museum of Art in San Antonio, Texas from the Rockefeller family. It was returned to the UN by March 2015.


9. Significance and legacy

During the 1970s, Guernica was a symbol for Spaniards of both the end of the Franco regime following Francos death, and of Basque nationalism. The Basque left has repeatedly used imagery from the picture. An example is the organization Etxerat, which uses a reversed image of the lamp as its symbol.

Works inspired by Guernica include Goshka Macugas The Nature of the Beast 2009–10, which used the Whitechapel-hosted United Nations Guernica tapestry; The Keiskamma Guernicas 2010–2017; and Erica Luckerts theatrical production of Guernica 2011–12. Art and design historian Dr Nicola Ashmore curated an exhibition, Guernica Remakings, at the University of Brighton galleries from 29 July 2017 to 23 August 2017.

In 2016, the British art critic Jonathan Jones called the painting a "Cubist apocalypse" and stated that Picasso "was trying to show the truth so viscerally and permanently that it could outstare the daily lies of the age of dictators."

Guernica has become a universal and powerful symbol warning humanity against the suffering and devastation of war. Moreover, the fact that there are no obvious references to the specific attack has contributed to making its message universal and timeless.