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Guernica: Picasso's Most Famous Painting

Angela loves history and feels it is essential to our future to know the past—or else we're destined to repeat it.

Picasso, one of the world’s greatest artists of all time, has painted and sculpted many very moving paintings. Many of his works have anti-war themes. He had a strong love for Spain and a hatred for the Spanish Civil War. Although he moved to France and lived most of his adult life there, he felt a strong connection to the political downfall of Spain as a result of the dictatorship of Francisco Franco. In response to this, he did many anti-war paintings. His most famous painting was one of those named Guernica. Guernica is rich with history, artistry, and emotion; therefore, it will be a powerful anti-war statement for years to come.

Picasso, the Political Artist

Pablo Picasso did not plan to be a political artist. In 1937, the World’s Fair was going to take place in the Spanish Pavilion to showcase the significant advancements in technology that had taken place over the past decade. The government wanted people to feel optimistic about their futures. The Republican Government of Spain wanted the actual, current state of Europe to be told, to contradict the uplifting message of great technology. They hired Picasso to paint a mural for their building and present it at the 1937 World’s Fair. They hoped that it would become the centerpiece and cause people to realize that Spain was in desperate need of a revolution despite the significant advancements in technology.

When he was asked to paint for this event, he was hesitant because he hadn’t yet painted any political paintings. He worked on a project without passion for two months. On May 1, 1937, he found his inspiration after hearing the devastating news of what had happened to his home country just a few days earlier. He scrapped the old project and frantically began a new one: the Guernica.

Photo of Guernica after the Bombing

This is just a small depiction of the great devastation brought onto the city.

This is just a small depiction of the great devastation brought onto the city.

History of Guernica, a Basque Village in Northern Spain

On Monday, April 27, 1937, Guernica, a Basque village in northern Spain, was destroyed beyond recognition after Hitler sent men to test out a new Nazi military tactic known as blanket-bombing. Hitler wanted to completely demoralize the people, so he chose to bomb Guernica on a Monday. Not only is Guernica the cultural capital of the Basque people, but many of them also gather there each Monday for a festival. The German regime sent twenty-five of Germany’s best-equipped bombers, twenty Fiat Fighters, and they bombed the city for over three hours.

If the constant bombing was not enough, many of the planes flew low so that they could shoot people who were hiding in the open fields around the city with machine guns. The shooting went on for fifteen minutes after the bombs had already gone off. The damage continued to grow, as many of the buildings, farmhouses, and fields burned for days afterward. Not only were buildings and monuments completely decimated, but 1600 civilians were killed or wounded.

Although Hitler authorized the bombing, the German interest in the attack came from the support they wanted to show to Francisco Franco. Franco promised the people prosperity and stability, but his real desire was to overthrow the Basque and Spanish governments, which was a plan that Picasso heartily detested.

Woman Grieving over Dead Child

There were numerous depictions of people grieving, like with this woman who is screaming while holding her dead baby.

There were numerous depictions of people grieving, like with this woman who is screaming while holding her dead baby.

Picasso's Political Reaction

Picasso’s vehemence grew stronger towards Franco and the violence against his home country. He decided to use that hatred and transferred it onto canvas to capture the cruelty of humanity as a result of World War I and the Spanish Civil War. He desired that the painting would one day be presented in the newspaper so that his message would reach further than just the World’s Fair. It was important to him that others understood the atrocities Franco had caused due to his dictatorship.

Although his intent from the time he painted it was for the Spanish people to own it, he made it clear that it should never return to Spain until his home country could enjoy “public liberties and democratic institutions.” It found a temporary home at the Museum of Modern Art in New York for many years, often traveling to places such as Munich, Cologne, Stockholm, and even Sao Palo in Brazil. Picasso never got to see peace in his home country, and therefore, he never returned, nor did his painting return in Picasso’s lifetime. He eventually died in Paris in 1973, two years before Francisco Franco died.

Man Reaching to Heavens for Help

Many people were desperate, reaching out for help from the only sources they knew how to.

Many people were desperate, reaching out for help from the only sources they knew how to.

Protecting the Painting

Although the new leader, King Juan Carlos, immediately made Spain a democracy, many protected the painting from going back to Spain until they were sure there was peace there. Therefore, it did not return until 1981, eight years after Picasso’s death. They kept it secure and hidden until it was finally presented under high security on Picasso’s 100th birthday: 25 October 1981. It should never go on tour again in hopes of keeping it well-preserved and protected. Because while it was on tour during the years prior, many damages were made to the original. Picasso would be happy to know that the Guernica is currently in the Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid.

Despite having a clear purpose, he did not compromise his artistry to make his message. Few artists can bridge the gap between art and politics, yet Picasso does this beautifully. The piece is rich with history and political meaning, but it is also rich with technique and aesthetic appeal. Using a cubist style, he painted his work using blue, black, and white oil paints on a 3.5 meter tall by 7.8 meter wide canvases (11 feet by 25.6 feet), which is slightly higher than the rim height of a professional basketball hoop and half the width of an NBA basketball court. If the political statement doesn’t speak to you, the mere size will.

Facts about One of Pablo Picasso's Most Famous Paintings

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Symbolism in the Mural

Each image portrayed in the final product was a labor of love and painstakingly chosen. He drew many sketches that changed over a three-month-long period before transferring them onto the final canvas. Many of these early drafts have been preserved and are in circulation. The few artists' rough drafts have been so well-preserved.

He knew he did not want to paint it with realism but instead chose objects that would have meant something to the Spanish people. He also wanted the painting to be slightly disjointed, just as war disrupts the unity of the people it encounters. Yet, he paints it to link each object to one another, reflecting how each item affects the things around it. Although war is disruptive and disjointed, nothing in its path is left untouched.

There are many different interpretations of what each item means. The rampaging bull and the horse played a significant role in Picasso's painting because of their tie to the Spanish culture. Many believe that the bull represents the great destruction that war brings, while others believe it is to symbolize fascism. Then some have a completely different idea of the male cow, seeing it as representing the people's heritage. The horse is almost always interpreted to be a stark contrast to the bull.

Many believe the horse represents the innocence of the people, while others view it as the destruction of not only the people but also their heritage. Then some see the maniacal expression of the horse and believe it represents war Francisco Franco and even fascism. When Picasso initially presented the Guernica, he did not explain what the bull or the horse was to symbolize. He felt that each person should take their meaning to each item. Having the artist say what he thought they meant disallows the viewer to create their impression of the painting.

Along with the two animals, he painted many people in various stages of grief, pain, and suffering. A woman is crying, holding a dead infant, a man reaching up to the heavens for help, a soldier with a broken knife dead on the floor, and many ghostly images of faces. While viewing each figure, your eyes naturally scan the entire surface. Each image points to the next until you have come full circle on the painting, seeing each desperate image.

Man Stabbing Another

This depicts just a portion of the violence as a result of the devastation of this Basque capital.

This depicts just a portion of the violence as a result of the devastation of this Basque capital.

Emotion Behind the Painting

Many people often point out that the painting is not a comfortable image to view due to its sharp rigid geometric shapes and agonizing human figures. Picasso's intent was not to paint a picture of beauty and pleasure but to paint something that left the viewer with a strong emotional reaction. His most wanted to portray the tragedies of war, the confines of fascism, and the suffering inflicted on the people. He did not want it only to be viewed by those at the World's Fair, but he wanted the world to see and feel the emotion that engulfed him when he first heard the news of the bombing of Guernica.

He was pleased to have the painting tour all over Europe, spreading awareness. Unfortunately, as Hitler gained ground within Europe, Picasso decided to send it to the United States, where it could remain protected until Spain became a peaceful nation once again. Even today, the Guernica still spreads its message of peace by forcing viewers to see the emotional destruction that war causes: sadness, chaos, death, and evil. It challenges the notion that war is full of heroism and attempts to expose war as a brutal act of self-destruction. Even those who disagree with the painting's sentiments will be left with strong emotional reactions when viewing this magnificent painting.

The Guernica was and is a compelling painting that is well-known worldwide. Few paintings will ever compare. It appeals to the eye and expresses such a profound statement against the atrocities that war brings, especially when that war is causing brothers to fight against brothers. Fortunately, the painting remains well preserved in the Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid and hopefully will be there to share its story for generations to come.

© 2016 Angela Michelle Schultz


Anne Harrison from Australia on February 27, 2016:

Hi Angela,

As you say, Guernica is indeed a powerful and provocative painting. Although I am only now beginning to appreciate modern art, I am fascinated by the symbolism Picasso uses - the bull seems to be a recurring theme in his works. Thank you for sharing the story behind the paining.

Angela Michelle Schultz (author) from United States on February 26, 2016:

Haha, I am not sure. I enjoy all types of art, but prefer more realistic paintings myself. I do appreciate Picasso's art though.

ValKaras on February 26, 2016:

Hi, Angela, I have done quite a few oil paintings, and even though they are not ambitious to call themselves "art", I am not totally strange to this art. However, I must admit my brain is not wired for understanding, let alone admiring abstract forms of artistic expression.

I don't know if there is any truth in it, but I have read an anecdote about someone asking Picasso if he was not concerned that his many paintings in his basement could be stolen. The artist replied: "Not really, without my signature they are worthless." And then in another instance he allegedly confessed that he had created cubism to mock the Parisian snobbish society.

You obviously know so much more about the great artist than these anecdotes would pretend to reveal about him, so - is their any truth in them?

Heidi Thorne from Chicago Area on February 26, 2016:

Picasso is one of my very favorite artists! And this work is so incredibly powerful. You do need to know the history behind the work (as you've discussed here). Otherwise, it can be a confusing and disturbing piece. Sharing here on HP!

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