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Spotlight: The Legacy of Picasso's Guernica

Updated: Dec 11, 2020

Today, the infamous painting lives in Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid, Spain, where visitors from across the world travel to observe the legacy of one of Pablo Picasso’s most well-known paintings. Created in 1937 for the International Exposition in Paris, the oil painting is widely regarded as one of the most powerful anti-war paintings whose message is just as relevant today as it was a century ago.

In 1936, Picasso was asked by the newly elected Spanish government to create a piece of art to be displayed in the Spanish Pavilion at the Paris World’s Fair. While the official theme of the Exposition was modern technology, Picasso opted to create a political statement as a reflection of the violence he observed following World War I and the rise of fascism. Inspired by the devastating destruction of the village of Guernica, Spain by Hitler’s air force, Picasso memorialized his experiences of the Spanish Civil War in his painting, Guernica.

The Spanish Civil War began on July 17, 1936, and lasted until the spring of 1939 as the fascist party led by General Francisco Franco attempted to overthrow the democratic Republican government. The fascist party aligned itself with Hitler and the German military, who provided substantial air force assistance to Franco during the conflict. On April 27, 1937, Hitler commanded the German air force to bombard the village of Guernica in northern Spain. Guernica held no strategic military significance yet experienced the first aerial saturation bombing of a civilian population in global history. Interested in testing a new military tactic meant to terrorize and subdue resistance, Hitler ordered a siege on the village. Over three hours, twenty-five bomber planes dropped over 100,000 pounds of incendiary bombs onto Guernica as twenty fighter planes targeted fleeing civilians. The resulting destruction was devastating; 1600 civilians were wounded or killed, while seventy percent of the city was destroyed as fires continued to burn for three days.

By the beginning of May, news of Guernica's annihilation reached Picasso in Paris. Stunned by the senseless carnage, Picasso memorialized the brutal massacre in his oil painting of Guernica, which was delivered to the Spanish Pavilion for the Paris Exposition. Attendees of the event were shocked by the intense visualization of the suffering of the Spanish people, despite the fact that Picasso did not include any references to the aerial bombing of the village in the artwork. Rather, the painting conveyed the barbaric nature of warfare and the immense terror of its victims.

At eleven feet tall and twenty-five feet wide, the overwhelming size of the painting is conceived as a poster advocating against the trauma of war. The color scheme is composed of a monochromatic palette of grey, black and white (perhaps as a reference to the photos of Guernica displayed in newspapers). Further, the textured pattern at the center of the painting lends to the illusion of a newsprint. In coordination with Picasso’s abstract and cubist style, the painting is filled with kinetic energy and distorted images of body parts. On the left side of the painting is a woman screaming in pain while holding the lifeless body of an infant. To her right is a large white bull, seemingly calm in a sea of chaos and terror. Below her is the broken body of a man clutching a sword. In the center is a screaming horse pierced by a sword, while to its right are three more women rushing into the scene, staring at the light bulb. One woman leans out of the window of a burning building holding a lamp, while another woman screams in agony as the flames trap her. All of the humanoid figures are distorted, their eyes and mouths dislocated.

Interpretations of Guernica are diverse, with some scholars dividing the figures into animals and human beings, and others interpreting the bull and horse to symbolize the conflict between the Spanish Republican government and the fascist party. When questioned regarding the symbolism of the animals in Guernica, Picasso stated, “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.”

Following the Paris Exposition, Guernica traveled across Europe before being displayed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Picasso was adamant that Guernica remain at the Met until Spain re-established its democracy, which occurred in 1981 at which time the painting was moved back to Spain.

Today, a reproduction of Guernica hangs at the United Nations building in New York standing testament to the victims of warfare. The legacy of Guernica withstands time as an enduring warning against the devastation and terror of war.

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