Guernica is one of those rare things: a famous painting that I’ve actually seen, thanks to a visit to the Reina Sofia museum in Madrid while I was on my O.E. (‘Overseas Experience’) years ago. The overwhelming memory that I have of it is its size: Guernica is a mural, 3.49m by 7.76m, and the sheer size of it makes its subject matter intensely confrontational. As it should be, because Picasso intended his painting to depict war in all its horror, and in particular in the horror of its impact on non-combatants and innocents – women, children, and animals.
The painting takes its name from the bombing of Guernica, a village in the Basque region of northern Spain, carried out by German and Italian war planes at the request of the Spanish Nationalists (Fascists) on 26th April 1937, during the Spanish Civil War. But though the bull and the horse are important animals in Spanish culture the symbolism and closed setting of the painting itself makes it a universal commentary on war in general. Picasso was living in Paris in January 1937 when he was commissioned by the Spanish Republic to create a mural for the 1937 World’s Fair in Paris. Upon hearing, on May 1st, of the attack on Guernica, Picasso discarded his initial project and began work on Guernica, which was painted in oil on canvas and finished the following month.
The precise interpretation of the symbols contained in Guernica is contentious. Picasso himself was adamant that “…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.”
Nonetheless, there is a general consensus amongst art scholars on certain points:
- The dark colours are intended to set a sombre mood and express pain and chaos
- The flames and crumbling walls represent not only the destruction of Guernica but also the destructive power of war
- The physical attitudes of the people in the painting represent protest as well as pain
- The light-bulb represents either the sun or the bare bulb of the torturer’s chamber
- The lamp carried by the woman represents hope
- The broken sword represents defeat
- The skull superimposed on the horse represents death
Whether you agree with these interpretations or not, what is certain is that Guernica is a powerful work which demands far more than a casual glance.
What do you make of Picasso’s painting?