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Guernica - Picasso's most important painting

Updated on January 27, 2014
Guernica (1937) by Pablo Picasso
Guernica (1937) by Pablo Picasso | Source
Guernica, Spain.  The Oak Tree under which representative democracy began in the 1300's.
Guernica, Spain. The Oak Tree under which representative democracy began in the 1300's. | Source

Guernica and the Spanish Civil War

Pablo Picasso, a Spanish artist, was a brilliant genius who painted during the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century and is credited with creating and painting in the Cubism period of modern art.

But, the most important painting he ever painted was the one entitled, Guernica. Why was this painting so important? Because it became a strong statement against war - specifically the Spanish Civil War (1934-1939) and then, against war in general. When viewing this painting, Picasso is telling us the absurdity of war and the atrocities of war - the killiing of innocent victims during wartime. Have we learned the lesson yet? I think not.

Guernica is a Spanish town in northern Spain on the Atlantic Ocean coast located in the Basque region, founded in 1366. This is a region of fiercely independent Spainards, and during the Spanish Civil War it became the stronghold of the resistance of the Republican side of the war. (the monarchy).

The Nationalists (Franco and the Fascists) were the opposing side in the war. I am not trying to be simplistic, but the Spanish Civil War was a very complicated war. Basically, The Nationalists wanted to preserve the Golden Age of Spain based on law and order, the Catholic Church and traditional family values.

What is wrong with that, you say? Well, The Nationalists wanted a dictatorship to ensure that this happened. The Republicans were the monarchy (the status quo) and they also was quite fracturious - this side also included the Communists, Socialists and Anarchists. There were surprising allies in this war. This side represented a free Spain. I know, a monarchy is not freedom, but it represented more freedom than the Spaniards would have under a Franco dictatorship. Also, Hitler and the Germans were helping out Franco so they could experiment and test their bliztkrieg as Hitler was getting prepared for the take-over of Europe.

As the war progressed by 1937, Guernica had become the northern bastion of the Republicn resistance movement and epicenter of the Basque culture, which was very independent. Therefore, Guernica became a definite target to Franco and the Nationalists. Guernica's location was a major crossroads. It was 10 km from the front lines of battle. Any retreats by the Republicans or advances by the Nationalists had to go through Guernica.

Guernica was just a quiet northern village and the nearest military target was a factory on the outskirts of town that manufactured war products. The irony of the whole bombing of Guernica by the Nationalists was that the factory came through the bombing unscathed.

The real purpose of the bombing was one of intimidation and destruction. At the time of the bombing, most of the men were fighting in the Republican forces and were away from the villiage. So, it was mostly women and children that were killed when the bombs rained down on Guernica for four straight hours. It was the German Luftwaft, aiding the Nationalist forces, that bombed Guernica. The Nationlists wanted to demoralize the Republicans through bombing this town and which was also the center of Basque cultural traditions.

The same year, 1937, The World's Fair was being held in Paris, France. This is where Picasso was living at the time. The Paris International Exhibition Pavilion was being financed by the Spanish Republican government and they commissioned Picasso to paint a large mural for the Spanish display in the exhibition. Picasso chose to depict the bombing of Guernica for the exhibition. Spain was his homeland and he was very much against Franco and the Nationalists, so the painting was created as an answer or statement in response to the bombing.

The Painting

Guernica was painted in grey, white and black. It is approximately eleven feet tall and twenty-six feet wide. It was painted on a mural size canvas and painted in oil. After the exhibition, it went on a world tour and then to be hung in the Prado Museum in Madrid, Spain's national museum. In 1992, it was transferred to the Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid as they had a greater wall and place to exhibit the massive mural painting. It is impressive. The purpose of the painting was to bring the world's attention to the bombing of the town by Franco's forces.

The painting is painted in Picasso's Cubist style in sharp-shaped geometrical figures. In this style, Picasso would take apart his subjects and analyze and paint each part of the subjects. The painting depicts all who are affected and who suffer from war: people, animals, and buildings wrenched by violence and chaos. Everything in life is affected disasterously by war.

The two dominate elements in the painting are the bull and the horse. Both of these animals are important characters in Spanish culture and history. The bull, of course represents the bullfight and the majestic confict between man and bull. The horse, even at the time of the Civil War, was still the chief form of transportation for about ninty percent of the Spanish people. The bull and the horse are in terror and agony in this painting and killed right along with the people. The bombing not only was the death of innocent victims, but also the death of the Basque culture.

The use of only the colors, grey, black and white sets a somber mood and expresses pain and chaos. It is more effective than the red of blood. The shape and postures of the bodies, both human and animal express their terror and protest to this subjugation by Franco and the Nationalists. The burning and crumbling buildings and walls respresent the destruction of Guernica and the destructive power of civil war. The broken sword near the bottom of the painting represents the defeat of the people at the hands of Franco. The light bulb is painted to represent the sun. Everything in the painting is all twisted up, out of shape and form, and in chaos - just as war affects those it bombards.

Picasso always felt this painting was more than just a political statement. He felt and commented that art can contribute to and help to instill the self-assertion that liberates every human being. The artistic expression, no matter in what form, can protect the individual against overwhelming forces of political crime, war and death. Art can be a strong response to the political forces and authoritative governments that try to belittle and destroy the individual.

When I traveled in Spain with my Spanish students, of course, we never missed Guernica. My students had heard all about it in the classroom and had drawn their own conclusions about the work. When we walked into the room where it is exhibited all by itself, the experience is a stunning one. I have always felt it is the best expression of the anti-war sentiment in the world. The Viet Nam Memorial in Washington DC, is the second.

When visiting Spain, do not miss this important work of Picasso's. Today it It is hanging in the Museo Reina Sofia (Queen Sofia Museum) one of the newest art museums in Madrid. It is certainly worth the ticket and the wait.

Copyright 2012 Suzannah Wolf Walker all rights reserved


Submit a Comment
  • suzettenaples profile imageAUTHOR

    Suzette Walker 

    6 years ago from Taos, NM

    Millionaire: Thanks so much for reading this and for your comments. Most appreciated and I'm glad you enjoyed it!

  • Millionaire Tips profile image

    Shasta Matova 

    6 years ago from USA

    I really like knowing about the backstory of artwork to help me understand it better. I didn't know about this history, so you have enlightened me a great deal. Voted up.

  • suzettenaples profile imageAUTHOR

    Suzette Walker 

    6 years ago from Taos, NM

    Pavlo: Thank you for reading this and I'm glad you enjoyed this. I'm glad you find it worthy. I appreciate your comments and your input.

  • suzettenaples profile imageAUTHOR

    Suzette Walker 

    6 years ago from Taos, NM

    BlissfulWriter: Thanks so much for reading and commenting. Yes, this is his most important work for Spain. Glad you enjoyed this.

  • Pavlo Badovskyy profile image

    Pavlo Badovskyi 

    7 years ago from Kyiv, Ukraine

    Hi, I was never interested by history of this painting. But this hub was worth reading! Voted up!

  • BlissfulWriter profile image


    7 years ago

    I remember hearing about Guernica in high school. So it is quite famous.

  • suzettenaples profile imageAUTHOR

    Suzette Walker 

    7 years ago from Taos, NM

    Thanks so much for reading this, phdast7. It is an important work. Travel is the best. It really teaches us so much and so much about life in general. I have visited Greece. One of my favorite places - I was awed by the Parthenon and thought I had arrived when I saw that. LOL Greece to me is like the basis of western civilization - how cool to have lived there!

  • phdast7 profile image

    Theresa Ast 

    7 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

    Suzette - Of course I am familiar with Picasso and his many styles, and I had heard of Guernica, but I had no idea of the history and politics behind this amazing mural. Thank you for a wonderful art and history lesson. Very, very, interesting.

    Isn't travel wonderful? For me it was three years in Greece, and for you a number of great places, especially Spain and Germany. :) Sharing.

  • suzettenaples profile imageAUTHOR

    Suzette Walker 

    7 years ago from Taos, NM

    Hi BeyondMax: It's okay. This painting doesn't have to be your favorite by Picasso. I just love its statement against war, so I love it. But, thanks so much for visiting and commenting. Always appreciated. In fact, I have to visit you now; haven't been by for a while and I'm missing BMax hubs! LOL

  • BeyondMax profile image


    7 years ago from Sydney, Australia

    I admire Picasso's works, this is such an amazing dedication to his most important work! While this is not one of my best favorites (sorry!) I still appreciate his statement. Great informative hub, as always!

  • suzettenaples profile imageAUTHOR

    Suzette Walker 

    7 years ago from Taos, NM

    Thank you mckbirdbks. I appreciate your comments and I'm glad you enjoyed this.

  • suzettenaples profile imageAUTHOR

    Suzette Walker 

    7 years ago from Taos, NM

    Thanks Alastar! This has always been one of my favorites because it is so anti-war. When will humanity ever understand? I guess wherever there is conflict there will always be war. I'm glad you enjoyed this and thanks so much for the visit!

  • Alastar Packer profile image

    Alastar Packer 

    7 years ago from North Carolina

    Excello breakdown on Guernica suzette- much of the interpretation was unknown here. Its one of those masterpieces that always evokes strong feelings of confusion and terror no matter how many times one sees it..

  • mckbirdbks profile image


    7 years ago from Emerald Wells, Just off the crossroads,Texas

    That is a very well put together bit of history. We received both art history and world history. A thorough undertaking.

  • suzettenaples profile imageAUTHOR

    Suzette Walker 

    7 years ago from Taos, NM

    lord de cross: So glad you enjoyed this piece. I'm so glad you are familiar with Guernica. Yes, it pales in comparison to the many blitzkriegs used during WWII by Hitler. Thanks so much for reading and commenting! I believe Queen Isabela is the Spanish version for Queen Elizabeth. Queen Sofia is the present queen (figurehead) of Spain. Regardless, the painting is certainly worth seeing!

  • suzettenaples profile imageAUTHOR

    Suzette Walker 

    7 years ago from Taos, NM

    ThoughtSandwiches (Thomas): So glad you enjoyed this piece. Hitler was so devious by experimenting during the Spanish Civil War. Yes, Guernica was the first use of the blitzkrieg which he used so well during WWII. Thank you so much for reading and for commenting. I appreciate it.

  • Lord De Cross profile image

    Joseph De Cross 

    7 years ago from New York

    Agreeing with the rest! You are well educated in the arts. Queen Sofia is the Spanish version of Queen Elizabeth. I knew about Guernica When Franco was heading that revoution back in 36. Picasso was in Paris a the right time, 1937. What the world would start seeing after 1939, would make this painting represent jus a pale view of what Hitler did until 1945. We enjoyed the read thoroughly!

  • ThoughtSandwiches profile image


    7 years ago from Reno, Nevada


    Guernica has always been my favorite painting by Picasso and that comes from my knowledge and interest in the Spanish Civil War and its' role as a proving grounds for weaponry and tactics prior to the Second World War.

    Indeed, this certainly presaged the terror bombings of Rotterdam, London, Cologne, and Hamburg. Yours is a excellent look at this sad time!



  • suzettenaples profile imageAUTHOR

    Suzette Walker 

    7 years ago from Taos, NM

    That's because there is a frustrated painter inside trying to get out! lol.

    Thanks so much for stopping by to read, Hyphen and I appreciate your comments.

  • Hyphenbird profile image

    Brenda Barnes 

    7 years ago from America-Broken But Still Beautiful

    You are so educated in the arts. I love your details and obvious love of what you write about. Thank you for that.

  • suzettenaples profile imageAUTHOR

    Suzette Walker 

    7 years ago from Taos, NM

    Hi Epiman, thanks so much for stopping by to read this article. This is one of my favorites and I'm surprised it took me so long to get to this topic. Thanks also for the share and I'm glad you enjoyed this. Your comments are appreciated as always.

  • epigramman profile image


    7 years ago

    ...absolutely love this hub subject as it is one of my favorite paintings - such beautiful background information here which tells of the time period and the story surrounding this painting and its influence and meaning - will post this beauty to my fb group with a direct link back here (Let's just talk music or cinema) lake erie time 6:49pm canada and sending you warm wishes and good energy and if you're interested in the humorous side of art please check out my tributes to Mona Lisa and The Scream - from last week

  • suzettenaples profile imageAUTHOR

    Suzette Walker 

    7 years ago from Taos, NM

    Thank you so much for reading this. I'm so glad you enjoyed it and did find it educational. Most historians and art historians also feel this is Picasso''s most important work. It is not colorful, but heart-wrenching, authentic, and realistic. At the time, all of Spain was devastated by the bombing of this town and they have never forgotten it. It is like their 9/11 only done by their own countrymen. It is so sad. I love Spain and their culture and I have a reproduction of this hanging in my home office, along with some other reproductions of Picasso's works and Joan Miro's. It is my little Spanish room and world! lol I so appreciate you taking the time to comment. Thank you.

  • tillsontitan profile image

    Mary Craig 

    7 years ago from New York

    I love the education I get on Hub Pages. This hub was so educational for me. Of course I knew about Picasso but am embarrassed to say I had not heard of Guernica!

    Your descriptions here of the Civil War, the Spanish culture at the time and the background of this painting were so interesting and informative. This is truly a great hub!

    Voted up, useful, and interesting.


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