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Guernica 1937 Painting by Pablo Picasso

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Guernica 1937 Oil Painting
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Pablo Picasso artwork

Guernica 1937 - Picasso Paintings for Sale

Artist Pablo Picasso
Year 1937
Medium Oil on canvas
Dimensions 349.3[1] cm × 776.6 cm (137.4 in × 305.5 in)
Location Museo Reina Sofia, Madrid, Spain
Observations: The government of the Spanish Republic acquired the mural "Guernica" from Picasso in 1937. When World War II broke out, the artist decided that the painting should remain in the custody of New York's Museum of Modern Art for safekeeping until the conflict ended. In 1958 Picasso extended the loan of the painting to MoMA for an indefinite period, until such time that democracy had been restored in Spain. The work finally returned to this country in 1981.

Guernica is a mural-sized oil painting on canvas by Spanish artist Pablo Picasso completed in June 1937,[2] at his home on Rue des Grands Augustins, in Paris. The painting, which uses a palette of gray, black, and white, is regarded by many art critics as one of the most moving and powerful anti-war paintings in history.[3] Standing at 3.49 meters (11 ft 5 in) tall and 7.76 meters (25 ft 6 in) wide, the large mural shows the suffering of people wrenched by violence and chaos. Prominent in the composition are a gored horse, a bull, and flames.

The painting was created in response to the bombing of Guernica, a Basque Country village in northern Spain, by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italian warplanes at the request of the Spanish Nationalists. Upon completion, Guernica was exhibited at the Spanish display at the Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Moderne (Paris International Exposition) in the 1937 World's Fair in Paris and then at other venues around the world. The touring exhibition was used to raise funds for Spanish war relief.[4] The painting became famous and widely acclaimed, and it helped bring worldwide attention to the Spanish Civil War.

In January 1937, the Spanish Republican government commissioned Picasso to create a large mural for the Spanish display at the Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Moderne at the 1937 World's Fair in Paris. At the time, Picasso was living in Paris, where he had been named Honorary Director-in-Exile of the Prado Museum. He had last visited Spain in 1934 and never returned.[5] His initial sketches for the project, on which he worked somewhat dispassionately from January until late April, depicted his perennial theme of the artist's studio.[2] Immediately upon hearing reports of the 26 April bombing of Guernica, the poet Juan Larrea visited Picasso and urged him to make the bombing his subject.[2] However, it was only on 1 May, having read George Steer's eyewitness account of the bombing (originally published in both The Times and The New York Times on 28 April), that he abandoned his initial project and started sketching a series of preliminary drawings for Guernica.

Bombing of 26 April 1937
Guernica is a town in the province of Biscay in Basque Country. During the Spanish Civil War, it was regarded as the northern bastion of the Republican resistance movement and the center of Basque culture, adding to its significance as a target.[7]

The Republican forces were made up of assorted factions (Communists, Socialists, Anarchists and others) with differing goals, but united in their opposition to the Nationalists. The Nationalists, led by General Francisco Franco, sought a return to pre-Republican Spain, based on law, order, and traditional Catholic values.[8]

At about 16:30 on Monday, 26 April 1937, warplanes of the German Condor Legion, commanded by Colonel Wolfram von Richthofen, bombed Guernica for about two hours. Germany, at this time led by Hitler, had lent material support to the Nationalists. Later, intense aerial bombardment became a crucial preliminary step in the Blitzkrieg tactic.[9][7]

In his journal for 30 April 1937, von Richthofen wrote:
When the first Junkers squadron arrived, there was smoke already everywhere (from the VB [VB/88] which had attacked with 3 aircraft); nobody would identify the targets of roads, bridge, and suburb, and so they just dropped everything right into the center. The 250s toppled a number of houses and destroyed the water mains. The incendiaries now could spread and become effective. The materials of the houses: tile roofs, wooden porches, and half-timbering resulted in complete annihilation. Most inhabitants were away because of a holiday; a majority of the rest left town immediately at the beginning [of the bombardment]. A small number perished in shelters that were hit."[10]

Other accounts state that the town's inhabitants were in fact congregated in the center of town, as it was market day, and when the bombardment commenced, were unable to escape because the roads were full of debris and the bridges leading out of town had been destroyed.

Guernica's location was at a major crossroads 10 kilometers from the front lines and between the front lines and Bilbao, the capital of Bizkaia (Biscay). Any Republican retreat towards Bilbao and any Nationalist advance towards Bilbao had to pass through Guernica. "During 25 April, many of the demoralized (Republican) troops from Marquina fell back on Guernica, which lay 10 kilometers behind the lines."[11] Wolfram von Richthofen's war diary entry for 26 April 1937 states, "K/88 [the Condor Legion bomber force] 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 to be legitimate military targets, and tactical aircraft tended to operate just outside the range of friendly artillery; in the German mindset, Guernica was thus a major target in support of the Republican offensive. The following day, Richthofen wrote in his war diary, "Guernica burning."[12] The Republican retreat towards Bilbao did pass through Guernica, before and after the bombing, and, as Beevor points out, "At Guernica the communist Rosa Luxemburg Battalion under Major Cristobal held back the nationalists for a time".[12]

Guernica was a quiet village. The nearest military target of any consequence was a factory on the outskirts of the town, which manufactured various war products. The factory went through the attack unscathed. Thus, the motivation of the bombing was one of intimidation.

Because a majority of the town's men were away, engaged in fighting on behalf of the Republicans, the town at the time of the bombing was populated mostly by women and children.[13] These demographics are reflected in the painting because, 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 Picasso's view, directed at the core of mankind." Clearly, the Nationalists sought to demoralize the Republicans and the civilian population as a whole by demonstrating their military might on a town that stood for traditional Basque culture and innocent civilians.[7]

After the bombing, the work of the Basque and Republican sympathizer and The Times journalist George Steer propelled this event onto the international scene and brought it to Pablo Picasso's attention. Steer's eyewitness account was published on 28 April in both The Times and The New York Times, and on the 29th appeared in L'Humanité, 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."[13]

While Picasso was living in Nazi-occupied Paris during World War II, one German officer allegedly asked him, upon seeing a photo of Guernica in his apartment, "Did you do that?" Picasso responded, "No, you did."[14]

The photographer Dora Maar—who had worked with Picasso since mid-1936, photographing his studio and teaching him the technique of cameraless photography—[15] documented the stages Guernica went through on its way to completion. Apart from their documentary and publicity value, Maar's photographs "helped Picasso to eschew color and give the work the black-and-white immediacy of a photograph", according to John Richardson.[2] The work was painted using a matte house paint specially formulated at Picasso's request to have the least possible gloss,[2] and the American artist John Ferren assisted him in stretching the monumental canvas.[16] Previously, Picasso had rarely allowed strangers into his studio to watch him work, but he admitted influential visitors to his studio to observe the progress of the painting, believing that the publicity to be gained would help the antifascist cause.[2]

As he worked on the mural, Picasso said: "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."[17]

After 35 days of work, he finished the painting on 4 June 1937.[2]


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The scene is within a room where, at an open end on the left, a wide-eyed bull stands over a woman grieving over a dead child in her arms. The center is occupied by a horse falling in agony as if it had just been run through by a spear or javelin. The large gaping wound in the horse's side is a major focus of the painting. Under the horse is a dead, apparently dismembered soldier; his hand on a severed arm still grasps a shattered sword from which a flower grows. On the open palm of the dead soldier is a stigma, a symbol of martyrdom derived from the stigmata of Christ. A light bulb blazes in the shape of an evil eye over the suffering horse's head (the bare bulb of the torturer's cell).

To the upper right of the horse, a frightened female figure, who seems to be witnessing the scenes before her, appears to have floated into the room through a window. Her arm, also floating in, carries a flame-lit lamp. The lamp is positioned very close to the bulb, and is a symbol of hope, clashing with the lightbulb. From the right, an awe-struck woman staggers towards the center below the floating female figure. She looks up blankly into the blazing light bulb. Daggers that suggest screaming replace the tongues of the bull, grieving woman, and horse. A dove is scribed on the wall behind the bull. Part of its body comprises a crack in the wall through which bright light (hope, or the outside world) can be seen. On the far right, a woman with 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 end of the mural.

Two "hidden" images formed by the horse appear in Guernica:
A human skull overlays the horse's body.
A bull appears to gore the horse from underneath. The bull's head is formed mainly by the horse's entire front leg which has the knee on the ground. The leg's knee cap forms the head's nose. A horn appears within the horse's breast.
The bull's 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.

Symbolism and interpretations
Interpretations of Guernica vary widely and contradict one another. This extends, for example, to the mural's 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 Picasso's 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.[18]

In The Dream and Lie of Franco, a series of narrative sketches Picasso also created for the World's 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".[9]

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."[19]

In drawing attention to a number of preliminary studies, the so-called primary project,[20] that show an atelier installation incorporating the central triangular shape which reappears in the final version of Guernica, Becht-Jördens and Wehmeier interpret the painting as a self-referential composition in the tradition of atelier paintings such as Las Meninas by Diego Velázquez. In his chef d'oeuvre, 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 Picasso’s 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.[21]

1937 Paris International Exhibition
Guernica was initially exhibited in July 1937 at the Spanish Pavilion at the Paris International Exposition.[22] The Pavilion, which was financed by the Spanish Republican government at the time of civil war, was built to exhibit the Spanish government's struggle for existence contrary to the Exposition's technology theme. The Pavilion's entrance presented an enormous photographic mural of Republican soldiers accompanied by the slogan:

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

At its unveiling at the Paris Exhibition it garnered little attention. The public's reaction to Guernica was mixed.[23] 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 mural's 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.[2] Some Marxist groups criticized Picasso's painting as lacking in political commitment and faulted it for not offering a vision of a better future.[24] In contrast, Morgado's painting was a great success with Spanish Communists and with the public.[2] The art critic Clement Greenberg was also critical of Guernica, but for different reasons.[25] In a later essay, Greenberg termed Guernica "jerky" and "too compressed for its size", and compared it unfavorably to the "magnificently lyrical" The Charnel House (1944–48), a later antiwar painting by Picasso.[26]

Among the painting's admirers were the art critic Jean Cassou and the poet José Bergamín, both of whom praised the painting as quintessentially Spanish.[27] Michel Leiris perceived in the painting 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..."[28]

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 were not sold directly from artist to his exclusive contracted art dealer and friend, Paul Rosenberg.[29]

However, after its exhibition Rosenberg organised a four-man extravaganza Scandinavian tour of 118 works by Picasso, Matisse, Braque and Henri Laurens. The main attraction was Guernica, and from January to April 1938 the tour visited Oslo, Copenhagen, Stockholm and Göteborg. In September 1938 the painting travelled to England, exhibited in London's Whitechapel Art Gallery organized by Roland Penrose with Clement Attlee, where it arrived on 30 September 1938, the same day the Munich Agreement was signed by the leaders of the United Kingdom, France, Italy, and Germany. It then travelled onwards 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.[30] It then returned briefly to France.

American tour
After the victory of Francisco Franco in Spain, the painting was sent to the United States to raise funds and support for Spanish refugees. The San Francisco Museum of Art (later SFMOMA) gave the work its first public, free appearance in the United States from 27 August to 19 September 1939. The Museum of Modern Art in New York City then mounted an important Picasso exhibition on 15 November 1939 that remained on view until 7 January 1940, entitled: Picasso: 40 Years of His Art, that was organized by Alfred H. Barr in collaboration with the Art Institute of Chicago. The exhibition contained 344 works, including Guernica and its studies.[31]

At Picasso's request the safekeeping of the piece was entrusted to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City, as it was Picasso's expressed desire that the painting should not be delivered to Spain until liberty and democracy had been established in the country.[5] Between 1939 and 1952, the painting traveled extensively in the United States; between 1953 and 1956 it was shown in Brazil, at the first-ever Picasso retrospective in Milan, Italy, and then in numerous other major European cities, before returning to MoMA for a retrospective celebrating Picasso's seventy-fifth birthday. It then went on 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 MoMA's third floor, where it was accompanied by several of Picasso's preliminary studies and some of Dora Maar's photographs of the work in progress. The studies and photos were often loaned for other exhibitions, but until 1981, Guernica itself remained at MoMA.[5]

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 Calley's 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.[32]

Establishment in Spain
As early as 1968, Franco had expressed an interest in having Guernica come to Spain.[5] 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 Picasso's junior, died two years later, in 1975. After Franco's 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 Picasso's will as a condition for the painting's 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,[33] it was first displayed behind bomb-and bullet-proof glass screens[34] at the Casón del Buen Retiro in Madrid in time to celebrate the centenary of Picasso's birth, 25 October.[33] The exhibition was visited by almost a million people in the first year.[35] 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 Sofía, both in Madrid, along with about two dozen preparatory works.[36] This action was controversial in Spain, since Picasso's will stated that the painting should be displayed at the Prado. However, the move was part of a transfer of all of the Prado's collections of art after the early 19th century to other nearby buildings in the city for reasons of space; the Reina Sofía, which houses the capital's national collection of 20th-century art, was the natural place to move it to. At the Reina Sofía, the painting has roughly the same protection as any other work.[37]

Basque nationalists have advocated that the picture should be brought to the Basque country,[38] especially after the building of the Guggenheim Bilbao Museum. Officials at the Reina Sofía claim[39] 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.[37]

Tapestry at the United Nations

The tapestry, at the Whitechapel Gallery in 2009
A full-size tapestry copy of Picasso's Guernica, by Jacqueline de la Baume Dürrbach (Wikidata),[40] 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.[41] The tapestry was placed on loan to the United Nations by the Rockefeller estate in 1985.[42] 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.[43] 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 horse's 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.[4] In a critique of the covering, columnist Alejandro Escalona hypothesized that Guernica's "unappealing ménage 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."[19]

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.[44] In 2012 the tapestry was on temporary loan to the San Antonio Museum of Art in San Antonio, Texas from the Rockefeller family.[45] It was returned to the UN by March 2015.[46]

Significance and legacy
Guernica is to painting what Beethoven's Ninth Symphony is to music: a cultural
icon that speaks to mankind not only against war but also of hope and peace.
It is a reference when speaking about genocide from El Salvador to Bosnia.
Alejandro Escalona, on the 75th anniversary of the painting's creation[19]
During the 1970s, it was a symbol for Spaniards of both the end of the Franco regime 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.[47]

Guernica has become a universal and powerful symbol warning humanity against the suffering and devastation of war.[19] Moreover, the fact that there are no obvious references to the specific attack has contributed to making its message universal and timeless.

In 1937 Pablo Picasso painted Guernica, a mural that was the centerpiece for the Spanish Pavilion of the World's Fair in Paris. The official theme of the Paris Exposition was the celebration of modern technology. The Aeronautics Pavilion, featuring the latest advances in aircraft design and engineering, was a centerpiece of the exposition. It is a bitter irony that Guernica, the most lasting monument of the exposition, is the Twentieth century's most enduring symbol of the horrors of war and the inhumane use of technology. It is a portent for the terrors of the next decade. The painting is based on the events of April 27, 1937, when the German airforce, in support of the Fascist forces led by Generalissimo Francisco Franco, carried out a bombing raid on the Basque village of Guernica in northern Spain. At that time such a massive bombing campaign was unprecedented. The hamlet was pounded with high-explosive and incendiary bombs for over three hours. The non-combattant townspeople including women and children were indiscriminately cut-down as they fled their crumbling buildings. The town of Guernica burned for three days leaving sixteen hundred civilians killed or wounded in its smoldering remains. The Fascist planners of the bombing campaign knew that Guernica had no strategic value as a military target, but it was a cultural and religious center for Basque identity. The devastation was intended to terrorize the population and break the spirit of the Basque resistance. In effect it was intended to "shock and awe" the Basques into submission. The bombing of Guernica was a sensation in the world press. The Times of London called it the arch-symbol of Fascist barbarity.

Picasso's painting is without question the most important anti-war work of art produced in the Twentieth Century. It is a testament to the horrors of Fascism. The authority of this image is reflected in the hanging of a tapestry reproduction of Picasso's painting outside the Security Council of the United Nations, an institution which emerged after the defeat of Fascism. It is poignant that this symbol served as the backdrop to many of the public statements by diplomats engaged in the Security Council debate during the winter of 2003 over the use of military force in Iraq. On January 27, a blue curtain was used to cover the tapestry, because someone (it is not clear whether it was a diplomat or member of the media) confidentially approached U.N. officials expressing concern that it would not be an appropriate background if the ambassador of the United States at the U.N. John Negroponte, or Secretary of State Colin Powell, talk about war surrounded with women, children and animals shouting with horror and showing the suffering of the bombings.

I think Guernica deserves our serious attention. It testifies to the power of representations of war, and should serve as a cautionary tale to us. Although "smart" bombs can be targeted with extreme accuracy, their impact on representations of war in international public opinion can not be controlled. While preparing this webpage on March 26, 2003, reports came in concerning a bombing of a market in downtown Baghad. Both Iraqi and "coalition" spokesmen deny responsibility for the bombing, and there is a major public relations campaign on both sides accusing the other side of responsibility.

PBS has produced a valuable website focusing on Guernica as part of a series entitled Treasures of the World. Review this site. Make sure to read the linked pages. At the end of this page I have included a couple of other links. Explore these. The webpage constructed by David Hart as part of his Responses to War includes excellent details isolated from the painting as a whole. Examine the implications of these details.

In considering the painting, I think it is important to understand it in relationship to the tradition of history painting that dominated European painting at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th centuries. The large size of the painting and its oblong format echoes these history paintings which represented the most privileged form of painting. Painters like Baron Gros in works like Murat at the Battle of Aboukir were important precedents for Picasso.

History painters like Gros produced grand public displays of the accomplishments of the French forces of Napoleon in his various campaigns. Gros' painting of Murat at the Battle of Aboukir illustrates the heroic calvary charge of the French General Joachim Murat to retake the fortress at Aboukir as part of the Egyptian campaign against the Turks. Paintings like this have an added power today considering our current campaign in Iraq. Again they raise the critical question of representation.

Eighty years ago, in April 1937, Nazi German and Italian bombers attacked the ancient Basque city of Gernika. They destroyed three-quarters of it, killing and wounding hundreds.

The raid was "unparalleled in military history" according to reports at the time - and it inspired one of the most famous anti-war paintings in history: Guernica by Pablo Picasso.

Created for the Spanish contribution to the International Exposition of 1937 in Paris, the work is a poignant memorial to the suffering of the Spanish people during the Spanish Civil War.

We ask expert Rosario Peiró from the Reina Sofia Museum to interpret the great work.

It is the horse that takes centre stage in this apocalyptic knacker's yard where nothing seems to make any sense. Are we in a bull ring, a village square or a plywood theatre set?

The horse's screaming dagger-shaped tongue and its death-head nostrils focus our attention directly on the terrible pain and suffering that pulls us repeatedly back to witness the horror. If this is a bullfight it has gone horribly wrong, defying all logic of the corrida.

No horse is ever run straight through with a spear in a plaza de toros, as the horse of Guernica has been. In an early version, hidden under layers of paint, Picasso had bent the horse's head down to the ground in submissive defeat.

Here, in the final version, even in its dying moments the horse remains defiant. It may be the last gasp but down to the right of its crooked knee a plant sprouts a few anaemic leaves as the only symbol of hope. Did the horse represent the Spanish people, Picasso was asked? He refused to answer.

Throughout the history of painting the horse has become the universal symbol of man's companion in war, understood by every culture. Guernica was a horrific example of saturation bombing - not the first, nor the last. From Coventry to Dresden, from Hiroshima to Baghdad, people have forged a powerful empathy with this fatally wounded horse.

An accurate depiction of a cruel, dramatic situation, Guernica was created to be part of the Spanish Pavilion at the International Exposition in Paris in 1937. Pablo Picasso’s motivation for painting the scene in this great work was the news of the German aerial bombing of the Basque town whose name the piece bears, which the artist had seen in the dramatic photographs published in various periodicals, including the French newspaper L'Humanité. Despite that, neither the studies nor the finished picture contain a single allusion to a specific event, constituting instead a generic plea against the barbarity and terror of war. The huge picture is conceived as a giant poster, testimony to the horror that the Spanish Civil War was causing and a forewarning of what was to come in the Second World War. The muted colours, the intensity of each and every one of the motifs and the way they are articulated are all essential to the extreme tragedy of the scene, which would become the emblem for all the devastating tragedies of modern society.
Guernica has attracted a number of controversial interpretations, doubtless due in part to the deliberate use in the painting of only greyish tones. Analysing the iconography in the painting, one Guernica scholar, Anthony Blunt, divides the protagonists of the pyramidal composition into two groups, the first of which is made up of three animals; the bull, the wounded horse and the winged bird that can just be made out in the background on the left. The second group is made up of the human beings, consisting of a dead soldier and a number of women: the one on the upper right, holding a lamp and leaning through a window, the mother on the left, wailing as she holds her dead child, the one rushing in from the right and finally the one who is crying out to the heavens, her arms raised as a house burns down behind her.
At this point it should be remembered that two years earlier, in 1935, Picasso had done the etching Minotauromaquia, a synthetic work condensing into a single image all the symbols of his cycle dedicated to the mythological creature, which stands as Guernica’s most direct relative.
Incidents in Picasso’s private life and the political events afflicting Europe between the wars fused together in the motifs the painter was using at the time, resulting both in Guernica itself and all the studies and ‘postscripts’, regarded as among the most representative works of art of the 20th century.

In 1936, a civil war began in Spain between the democratic Republican government and fascist forces, led by General Francisco Franco, attempting to overthrow them. Picasso’s painting is based on the events of April 27, 1937, when Hitler’s powerful German air force, acting in support of Franco, bombed the village of Guernica in northern Spain, a city of no strategic military value. It was history’s first aerial saturation bombing of a civilian population. It was a cold-blooded training mission designed to test a new bombing tactic to intimidate and terrorize the resistance. For over three hours, twenty five bombers dropped 100,000 pounds of explosive and incendiary bombs on the village, reducing it to rubble. Twenty more fighter planes strafed and killed defenseless civilians trying to flee. The devastation was appalling: fires burned for three days, and seventy percent of the city was destroyed. A third of the population, 1600 civilians, were wounded or killed.
Picasso hears the news
On May 1, 1937, news of the atrocity reached Paris. Eyewitness reports filled the front pages of local and international newspapers. Picasso, sympathetic to the Republican government of his homeland, was horrified by the reports of devastation and death. Guernica is his visual response, his memorial to the brutal massacre. After hundreds of sketches, the painting was done in less than a month and then delivered to the Fair’s Spanish Pavilion, where it became the central attraction. Accompanying it were documentary films, newsreels and graphic photographs of fascist brutalities in the civil war. Rather than the typical celebration of technology people expected to see at a world’s fair, the entire Spanish Pavilion shocked the world into confronting the suffering of the Spanish people.
Later, in the 1940s, when Paris was occupied by the Germans, a Nazi officer visited Picasso’s studio. “Did you do that?” he is said to have asked Picasso while standing in front of a photograph of the painting. “No,” Picasso replied, “you did.”
World traveler
When the fair ended, the Spanish Republican forces sent Guernica on an international tour to create awareness of the war and raise funds for Spanish refugees. It traveled the world for 19 years and then was loaned for safekeeping to The Museum of Modern Art in New York. Picasso refused to allow it to return to Spain until the country “enjoyed public liberties and democratic institutions,” which finally occurred in 1981. Today the painting permanently resides in the Reina Sofia, Spain’s national museum of modern art in Madrid.
What can we see?
This painting is not easy to decipher. Everywhere there seems to be death and dying. As our eyes adjust to the frenetic action, figures begin to emerge. On the far left is a woman, head back, screaming in pain and grief, holding the lifeless body of her dead child. This is one of the most devastating and unforgettable images in the painting. To her right is the head and partial body of a large white bull, the only unharmed and calm figure amidst the chaos. Beneath her, a dead or wounded man with a severed arm and mutilated hand clutches a broken sword. Only his head and arms are visible; the rest of his body is obscured by the overlapping and scattered parts of other figures. In the center stands a terrified horse, mouth open screaming in pain, its side pierced by a spear. On the right are three more women. One rushes in, looking up at the stark light bulb at the top of the scene. Another leans out of the window of a burning house, her long extended arm holding a lamp, while the third woman appears trapped in the burning building, screaming in fear and horror. All their faces are distorted in agony. Eyes are dislocated, mouths are open, tongues are shaped like daggers.

Picasso chose to paint Guernica in a stark monochromatic palette of gray, black and white. This may reflect his initial encounter with the original newspaper reports and photographs in black and white; or perhaps it suggested to Picasso the objective factuality of an eye witness report. A documentary quality is further emphasized by the textured pattern in the center of the painting that creates the illusion of newsprint. The sharp alternation of black and white contrasts across the painting surface also creates dramatic intensity, a visual kinetic energy of jagged movement.
Visual complexity
On first glance, Guernica’s composition appears confusing and chaotic; the viewer is thrown into the midst of intensely violent action. Everything seems to be in flux. The space is compressed and ambiguous with the shifting perspectives and multiple viewpoints characteristic of Picasso’s earlier Cubist style. Images overlap and intersect, obscuring forms and making it hard to distinguish their boundaries. Bodies are distorted and semi-abstracted, the forms discontinuous and fragmentary. Everything seems jumbled together, while sharp angular lines seem to pierce and splinter the dismembered bodies. However, there is in fact an overriding visual order. Picasso balances the composition by organizing the figures into three vertical groupings moving left to right, while the center figures are stabilized within a large triangle of light.
There has been almost endless debate about the meaning of the images in Guernica. Questioned about its possible symbolism, Picasso said it was simply an appeal to people about massacred people and animals. ”In the panel on which I am working, which I call Guernica, I clearly express my abhorrence of the military caste which has sunk Spain into an ocean of pain and death.” The horse and bull are images Picasso used his entire career, part of the life and death ritual of the Spanish bullfights he first saw as a child. Some scholars interpret the horse and bull as representing the deadly battle between the Republican fighters (horse) and Franco’s fascist army (bull). Picasso said only that the bull represented brutality and darkness, adding “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.”
In the end, the painting does not appear to have one exclusive meaning. Perhaps it is that very ambiguity, the lack of historical specificity, or the fact that brutal wars continue to be fought, that keeps Guernica as timeless and universally relatable today as it was in 1937.
Text by Lynn Robinson


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