Updated: May 14, 2020
Oil on canvas
349 cm × 776 cm
Museo Reina Sofia, Madrid
Tension, Fear and Frenetic Movement
The viewer is confronted by a world rendered entirely in black, white and shades of grey. Disjointed angular and flattened shapes stretch across the canvas to depict twisted human and animal forms. The subjects create a surface tension and all are given an equal prominence. Its composition defies convention, holding no central point of focus or spatial perspective.
Guernica is an enormous piece, over three metres tall and almost eight metres wide, but its power derives more from the clarity of human suffering achieved by Picasso's expressive style. The painting works even on a small scale. In one section, a mother holds an inert child, her head thrown back in an apparent scream. In another, a frightened horse twists its head away. To the right, a figure is trapped in a burning building. The painting conveys panic, fear and frenetic movement. its technique entirely at one with its subject. Yet with characteristic skill, Picasso achieves an overall aesthetic balance and harmony.
It is an image that must be deciphered by the viewer, but without assistance from the painter. When asked about its symbolism, Picasso replied:
“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.”
Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)
Picasso was a mature artist, aged 56 by the time he painted Guernica, and was already internationally renowned. This arguably assisted the painting’s immediate rise to prominence. But its conception was also aided by the fact that when the atrocity of Guernica occurred, Picasso already had a slot in the Parisian 1936 World Fair. The newly elected Spanish Republican government had commissioned Picasso to produce a commentary on the theme of modern technology, but reading of the brutality committed in the Spanish village of Guernica, he focussed instead on a stark and uncompromising portrayal of the horrors of war.
Picasso had always been an innovative painter. He had mastered a neo-classical style by his early teens and soon began to experiment with different techniques, including sculptures from found objects, and collage. The various painting styles subsequently developed include the solid forms of the Blue and Rose Periods, and the contrasting geometries of Cubism.
The inherently political nature of art was a concept that Picasso accepted with far less squeamishness than many artists. Towards the end of the second world war he asserted that a painter is:
“at the same time a political being constantly alert to the horrifying, passionate or pleasing events in the world, shaping himself completely in their image … painting is not made to decorate apartments. It's an offensive and defensive weapon against the enemy."
Picasso joined the French Communist Party five years after painting Guernica and never left.
Slaughter in Spain
The event that inspired Guernica took place in 1936 when the inhabitants of the northern Spanish village of Guernica became the victims of bombing by the German air force. The German military had rallied in support of a coup waged by General Francisco Franco against the elected Republican government. In just three hours, around 25 fighter pilots dropped 100,000 pounds of explosives on Guernica, whilst a second formation of fighters strafed those attempting to flee. For the Nazis, as well as a desire to support Franco’s empathetic ideology, it offered an early testing ground for the weaponry and tactics that they would use in World War II.
The Republican government (in fact the 'Second Republic' of Spain) had formed during the revolutionary period of 1931-37. Under pressure, King Alfonso XIII had authorised elections resulting in an overwhelmingly vote to abolish the monarchy. The Republic was initially dominated by middle-class liberals and moderate socialists. But their aims for a more egalitarian society were never realised. This was thanks largely to the failures of the Spanish progressive parties, which vacillated instead of capitalising on the strength of the working class, and never fully consolidated their initial victory.
As conflict grew between the Spanish republicans and Fascists, the Communist International launched the ‘International Brigades’ of foreign recruits to assist the Republican militarily, and their ranks included many British trade unionists. Nonetheless Franco’s relentless brutality enabled his rise to power in 1939, assisted by the increasingly belligerent German government.
Guernica was not a passive painting. Ever since its first exhibition it has played a role in commemorating the Spanish atrocity for which it is named, but more generally it epitomises the obscenity of all wars. The style is devoid of racial, or geographic specificity, and it exists in a timeless world.
After being exhibited in France, it was sent on an international tour lasting a staggering 19 years. In fact, Picasso is credited with having refused to allow it to return to Spain until the country emerged from the shadow of Franco’s dictatorship, which finally occurred in 1975.
The painting is now considered one of the most immediately recognisible and powerful political artworks, and Picasso's best known painting.
7 May 2020
(c) Suzanne Muna