Iconic Artwork: Guernica by Pablo Picasso

Guernica mural
Spread the love

Reproduction of Guernica. Image by Almudena Sanz from Pixabay

Listen to the audio version of this article.

Few artworks are able to make an impact that may last for centuries, immortalizing their creators in the process as well. In today’s article, we will take a look at one such artwork that captured the imagination of the world from the time it was created and continues to do so even today.

I am talking about Guernica, one of the most famous paintings in the world today. Of course, even though the painting in itself is great and captivating, it no doubt benefits from the fact that it was made by one of the greatest and most celebrated artists of all time, Pablo Picasso.

Now without further ado, let us discuss the iconic artwork with the most obvious question that may come to the mind of those unaware of it.

What is Guernica?

If you are not an art enthusiast or a Picasso fanatic, then there is a chance that you have probably never heard of a painting called Guernica. And that’s alright, for it is not yet a household name like Leonardo da Vinci‘s Mona Lisa.

Guernica is a large anti-war oil painting made by the great Spanish artist Picasso in the year 1937, in response to the aerial bombing of the Basque town of Guernica in northern Spain during the Spanish Civil War, on 26th April 1937.

The white, black, and gray painting is made on a canvas measuring 3.49 meters in height and 7.76 meters across and depicts the violence, chaos, and suffering unleashed by the aerial bombing of the town.

The painting includes vivid images of horror and suffering such as a dead baby, a screaming woman, a gored horse, a dismembered soldier, flames, etc.

Upon its completion, the painting was displayed at the 1937 Paris International Exposition and then taken on a touring exhibition around the world. The painting quickly garnered praise and acclaim around the world and became famous. It not only helped to raise funds for Spanish war relief but also attracted international attention to the ongoing Spanish Civil War.

What is the inspiration behind the painting?

As mentioned above, the inspiration behind the painting was the bombing of Guernica, a Basque town in northern Spain.

The bombing of Guernica was carried out at the request of Francisco Franco‘s rebel Nationalist faction, by its allies, Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany.

The main reason for the attack was that Guernica was being used as a communications center by the Republican forces just behind the front line. The aim of the bombing was to destroy the roads and bridges of the town.

The worst aspect of the bombing was that it involved the bombing of civilians by a military air force, something that is considered a war crime. Even though the bombing attracted global controversy and condemnation, many historians argue that it was a legitimate attack, for under international laws regarding aerial warfare at the time, Guernica could be considered a legitimate military target.

Over 1600 people were reported to be killed at the time, although the actual number of deaths is still disputed with various sources claiming various numbers of victims.

This attack on the civilian population inspired Picasso to create the artwork that would go on to become the most famous anti-war painting in the world.

Why did Picasso choose this particular subject for the painting?

In January 1937, when Picasso was living in Paris, he was commissioned by the Spanish Republican government to paint a large mural for the Spanish display at that year’s Paris International Exposition.

The government wanted him to create a mural that could help raise awareness of the Spanish Civil War as well as raise funds for Spanish War relief.

Initially, Picasso did not work on the commission very seriously even though he had accepted it. For the first three months after accepting the commission, that is, up until late April, he worked on the initial sketches of the piece without much interest.

However, his attitude and urgency to create the mural changed after the bombing of Guernica on 26th April, when Spanish essayist and poet Juan Larrea Celayeta visited him and convinced him to make the bombing the subject of his mural.

Picasso also read the account of the bombings written by journalist George Lowther Steer, which gave him an idea of what to depict in the painting. Picasso quickly abandoned his original idea and began making sketches for the new subject, which would go on to become Guernica.

How long did Picasso take to complete the painting?

It is said that Picasso worked on the painting for 35 days, finishing it on 4th June 1937.

Picasso prepared the large canvas with the help of his partner at the time, French photographer Dora Maar, and American artist John Ferren. Maar documented the creation of the painting with her photographs.

Picasso used a specially-formulated matte house paint to have the least gloss possible. He even allowed influential visitors to visit his studio and observe his progress on the painting, something he almost never did. This helped to create anticipation and publicity for the painting, which Picasso believed would help the fight against fascism.

Maar’s black and white photographs inspired Picasso to abandon colors and keep the painting black, white, and gray, in order to give it the immediacy of a photograph.

What does the painting depict?

I know it’s quite difficult, maybe even impossible, to describe a painting in words, much less one that is as iconic, famous, and vivid as Guernica.

Nevertheless, I will try to give you a sense of what the painting depicts, particularly its most vivid images.

To show the agony, terror, and chaos that resulted from the bombings, Picasso shows a scene within a room, wherein one can see a grieving woman holding a dead child in her arms, a wide-eyed bull with a tail suggesting rising flame and smoke as seen through a window, a horse fallen in agony and pain, with a large hole in its side as if a spear had run through it.

One can find a dead and dismembered soldier, with the open palm of his left hand revealing a stigma, said to be a symbol of martyrdom derived from the stigmata of Jesus Christ, while the hand of his severed right arm is holding a sword from which a flower grows.

It shows another woman screaming with her mouth wide open, her head thrown back, and her arms raised in terror. The screaming woman is trapped by fire from above and below.

The reason Picasso depicts women and children in the painting instead of men is that at the time of the bombing, the majority of Guernica’s men were away fighting on behalf of the Republicans, and the town was mostly populated by women and children.

Of course, what I have just described doesn’t do justice to the painting even in the slightest. The images described above are only the most vivid and horrifying ones. Needless to say, the complex painting contains several other hidden images and symbols that are not as easily distinguished as the images described here.

How did the painting become so popular across the world?

After it was created, Guernica was taken on an international tour which helped to raise awareness of the Spanish Civil War as well as raise funds for the Republican cause.

The painting first toured Europe. It was displayed in several Scandinavian cities such as Oslo, Copenhagen, Stockholm, and Gothenburg. After touring the Scandinavian cities, it made its way to cities in England such as London, Leeds, Liverpool, and Manchester, before being returned to France for a brief period.

After Franco’s Nationalist faction won the war and Franco became the dictator of Spain, Guernica was sent to America in order to raise awareness and funds as well as support for the Spanish refugees.

After being displayed in the Valentine Gallery in New York City and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Guernica found its way into the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where it was displayed in an exhibition dedicated to the works of Picasso, titled Picasso: 40 Years of His Art. The exhibition contained 344 works of Picasso.

Picasso insisted that Guernica be entrusted to the Museum of Modern Art for safety, and refused to give permission for it to be taken to Spain until democracy and liberty were restored in the country.

As the years rolled by, Guernica toured more extensively, first across the United States and then across several other major cities across the world.

This is how Guernica became an internationally well-known and acclaimed artwork and a powerful anti-war artistic statement.

What is the legacy of the painting today?

Today, Guernica is one of the most famous and influential artworks in the world, a symbol and statement warning us against the horror, devastation, and suffering caused by war.

As Picasso did not include any obvious or direct reference to the bombing of Guernica in the painting, Guernica now holds a universal and timeless message that is easily associated with all forms of inhumanity and injustice.

Picasso was also praised for pioneering a new language, one that combined cubist and expressionistic techniques to deliver a powerful message.

A full-size tapestry copy of Guernica, made by French textile artist Jacqueline de la Baume Dürrbach, used to hang at the United Nations headquarters in New York City until February 2021. Today it hangs on the wall outside the United Nations Security Council.

The painting has also inspired several other artists such as Faith Ringgold and Goshka Macuga, as well as a theatrical reproduction by Erica Luckert.

Widely regarded as the most powerful, poignant, and moving anti-war painting in history, Guernica now rests in the Museo Reina Sofía in Madrid.