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Interpreting Pablo Picasso's Guernica

Updated on April 29, 2014
Bombing of Guernica, Spain - 1937
Bombing of Guernica, Spain - 1937 | Source

Background

In April of 1937, during the Spanish Civil War, German and Italian airplanes supporting the Spanish fascist leader bombed the town of Guernica, Spain, killing approximately 1,600 innocent people. This tragic act of war was the first international mass bombing of civilians; in response, the Spanish republican government commissioned famous artist Pablo Picasso to paint a mural depicting the event that would be displayed at the Paris International Exposition that year. The image powerfully demonstrates war’s harmful effect on people, especially the suffering of innocent civilians.

Pablo Picasso, "Guernica," 1937, Oil on canvas, 137.4 in × 305.5 in, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía.
Pablo Picasso, "Guernica," 1937, Oil on canvas, 137.4 in × 305.5 in, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía. | Source
"Guernica" detail: bull standing over women mourning infant's death.
"Guernica" detail: bull standing over women mourning infant's death. | Source

Depiction

Guernica is a busy and complex mural. At first glance, it shows the suffering of the abstracted forms of humans and animals after the bombing. On the left, a bull stands over a woman grieving the death of her child. Moving to the right, there is next a horse; his expression is that of pain and fear, appearing to have been speared. Beneath him lies a dismembered soldier, whose arm clutches a broken sword out of which a flower grows. Above the horse, a light bulb shines in the shape of an eye.

Next there are two women protruding from an open door, the topmost woman holding a lit candle near the top of the canvas. On the far right, a woman cries in agony as she in engulfed by fire. The facial expressions of the figures vary, but all express pain, agony, sadness, disbelief, or the like.

"Guernica" detail: concentration of overlapping lines creating shapes, defined by value.
"Guernica" detail: concentration of overlapping lines creating shapes, defined by value. | Source

Elements of Art

The muted color of the painting, done in black, white, and gray, echoes these emotions; Picasso also employed these colors to mimic the newspapers and black-and-white photographs through which the news of the attack was spread.

With a lack of emphasis on color, the main visual elements that Picasso utilizes in Guernica are line and shape. The center of the mural, specifically the horse and the light area between it and the two women, has a high concentration of lines compared to the rest of the image, forming overlapping shapes which are defined by different values. This continues outward toward the sides of the canvas, though the amount of overlapping gradually diminishes. The image is asymmetrical, weighted on the left side by the focal points of the horse and the bull. This draws the viewer’s eye initially to the left side of the mural and leads it across to the right, like reading a book.

"Guernica" detail: bull, representing fascist forces; horse, representing rebublican forces; woman, representing civilian population.
"Guernica" detail: bull, representing fascist forces; horse, representing rebublican forces; woman, representing civilian population. | Source

Symbols

Upon looking closer at the painting, there are a multitude of symbols present. The most dominant of these are the horse and the bull, both of which are prominent animals in Spanish culture. In the image, the horse likely represents the republican Spanish regime. Its expression is one of anguish, appearing to have been speared, which represents the bombing strike on Guernica. The bull, then, represents the fascist Spanish forces. Its expression is not one of anguish, and it towers over a grieving woman.

Both animals share a common trait with this woman: all three have sharp, pointed tongues protruding from their mouths. This could imply vocalization, like screaming or crying, but why then, does the woman being engulfed by fire not exhibit this as well? One possible explanation for this is that the sharp tongue is meant to demonstrate the specific and immediate connection between these three figures: the two parties battling for power and the direct impact on the civilians.

"Guernica" detail: woman engulfed in flames.
"Guernica" detail: woman engulfed in flames. | Source

Themes

It is appropriate that the theme of fire be present in the painting, as it portrays the literal result of bombing. The woman on the far left, a Spanish civilian, is being consumed by triangle-shaped flames from below and above. Her arms stretch upwards and her face is contorted in pain. The source of this fire is clearly the Spanish fascist bombs, which Picasso represents with the tail of the bull. Its wisps are reminiscent of smoke; the smoking gun, if you will.

Another depiction of the fascist forces’ power is the broken sword in the hand of the dismembered soldier, symbolizing defeat. However, a faint flower emerges from the soldier’s hand, which suggests the prevailing hope of the people and the republican government.

Pablo Picasso - 1962
Pablo Picasso - 1962 | Source

Interpreting Guernica

These interpretations of the work may or may not be accurate; without a specific explanation from the artist himself, we can only conjecture as to the intended meaning. While much of the symbolism of Guernica is likely to be accurately interpreted by historians due to the political nature of the painting and its commission, the personal reflections of Picasso’s life and inner-workings are left more to speculation.

It is widely accepted in art and art history that an artist’s personal feelings and experiences most often, though not always, influence their artwork. While this may be true, a work of art serves a different purpose for its creator than it does for its viewer. An artist’s reasons for creating vary; in the case of Guernica, Picasso was commissioned to create the piece by the Spanish republican government, rather than choosing to make it of his own accord. That is not to say the painting does not reflect his personal style or feelings about death. It is to say, however, that these personal reflections almost surely appear differently to Picasso than to his viewers.

The popular phrase “art is in the eye of the beholder” comes from this idea. An artist creates a work in order to invoke an emotion or a reaction or to promote thought from his or her audience. Each viewer’s own background will affect the way in which they interpret or see the image, just as the artist’s background will affect the way it was created, both consciously and subconsciously. People have viewed Guernica from different cultures, experiences, classes, time periods, and more. Rather than writing an explanation of his own specific intentions in the painting, Picasso wrote:

"Those who seek to explain a picture most often go astray. How can a spectator live a picture as I have lived it? How can one penetrate into my dreams, my instincts, my desires, my thoughts, which have taken so long to work themselves out and to come forth? And especially, how can one grasp what I have put into the work, perhaps in spite of my will?" - Pablo Picasso

Picasso’s argument is for one to develop their own thoughts and interpretations of a work rather than focusing on his motives behind creating it, for they can never know it as he has. After all, art is created to evoke something from the viewer. Guernica was commissioned to enlighten the global public about an atrocity; as an artist, Picasso leveraged his personal opinions and channeled his personal influences into producing a painting for the purpose of communicating this. Historians surmise as to what these personal aspects may have been or how they have shone through in the work, but he will never see the painting as Picasso did; he will never see the painting without his own prejudices, ideas, experiences, culture, and other factors influencing his interpretation.

While Picasso’s personal opinions about war and feelings about death are almost inevitably incorporated into Guernica, each viewer will have their own understanding of the message. Though they may share similarities, they are ultimately different from one another’s, and different from Picasso’s due to each individual’s circumstances and personal history. The inspiration for the image, the air strike on Guernica, was a tragic consequence of the Spanish Civil War; the number of innocent lives that were lost in the first international civilian bombing moved the Spanish republican government to commission the mural. Its intention was to make a statement about the new tactic of bombing civilian towns. It has endured, passing the test of time, and today it is one of the most powerful and well-known symbols of the brutality of war.

Source

Learn more about Pablo Picasso and all of his art with this episode of The Power of Art. It includes a detailed examination of Guernica, including the bombing itself, beginning at about 30:27.

The Power of Art - Picasso (complete episode)

© 2014 Niki Hale

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    • Alex Adelman profile image

      Alex Adelman 3 years ago from Oakland Hills, CA

      Your description of Guernica is right on. I have always wondered if the bull is consoling the woman because the bull understands the pain of death in the arena, and Picasso saw many bullfights. My favorite part of Guernica is how the message keeps getting stronger the longer I look at the piece, and that message is clearly that war is a nightmare.