This issue of Sreda online magazine brings you an article on Pablo Picasso’s Guernica written by students of the European University at Saint Petersburg’s School of Arts and Cultural Heritage. Since it was unveiled at the 1937 Paris World Expo, Guernica has given rise to numerous, often conflicting interpretations. To mark the painting’s 85th anniversary, the authors of this article tell the story of Guernica, offering an overview of its main interpretations and supplementing these with their own. The article was written under the direction of the art historian Natalia Mazur.
Pablo Picasso’s Guernica has long been more than a painting. Since its creation, this icon of anti-facist art has been referenced, replicated, revered, and repudiated. Today, no one would think to question the painting’s message, though few would be able to explain the meanings of its individual components. This said, when Guernica was first presented to the public eighty-five years ago, the reaction was far from undivided. To many, the visual language chosen by the artist seemed too obscure for the depiction of a human tragedy. The French communist writer Louis Aragon criticised the painting for lacking the semantic straightforwardness of socialist realism. The British art historian and Soviet spy Anthony Blunt was disappointed with the painting, calling it a “private brain-storm which gives no evidence that Picasso has realised the political significance of Guernica.” This said, when in 1939 the painting was sent to the United States to raise funds in support of Spanish refugees, the difficulty of interpreting Guernica clearly did not prevent it from producing a powerful psychological effect.
Generations of art historians have sought to understand the origins of Guernica’s effect and the meaning of its individual components. In this article, we will review the history of the painting’s interpretations before going on to supplement these with our own.
We will begin with the circumstances of Guernica’s creation. On May 25, 1937, another World Expo, the Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Moderne (International Exhibition of Art and Technology in Modern Life) opened in Paris. Such exhibitions had always been important arenas for political and ideological rivalries between participating countries. In this instance, the main competitors were Germany and the USSR. Their imposing pavilions, both in the neoclassical style, stood opposite one another. A double-headed eagle with a swastika sat atop the first, while Vera Mukhina’s sculpture, Worker and Kolkhoz Woman, crowned the second. The Italian pavilion, also in the neoclassical style, was flanked by an ostentatious eight-meter equestrian statue, the Genius of Fascism. The Spanish Republic, which had spent enormous resources fighting Francisco Franco’s military rebellion, limited itself to a restrained, functionalist pavilion, but reserved a vast wall within it for the soon to be infamous painting by Picasso.
The order for the painting was placed in January 1937, but it did not become clear until early June that it would be fulfilled. At first, Picasso conceived of a painting based on his favourite subject—the artist and his model—but the work did not go well, perhaps because such a theme did not correspond with the tense ideological atmosphere of the exhibition or because its subject was ill-suited to the format demanded by the long wall and low ceilings of the pavilion. The news of the mass bombardment of the town of Guernica, however, would draw Picasso out of this creative apathy.
On April 26, 1937, the German Condor legion, assisted by several Italian aircraft, carried out an air raid that killed around 2,000 people and brought the city of Guernica to ruins. Officially, the reason given for the attack was Guernica’s strategic position and the small arms factory contained within it. In reality, the air strike was intended to demonstrate the Luftwaffe’s military power and to test a new form of warfare—the mass air-bombing of civilian cities. In the years to come, London, Warsaw, Stalingrad, and Dresden would be subjected to this very kind of attack.
This first instance of the erasure of a civilian city from the face of the earth shook the public—many refused to believe the news and photographs from Guernica published in the press. Francoist propaganda insisted that the Basque nationalists had destroyed the city themselves, with the intention of causing outrage abroad and increasing aid to the Republicans. Naturally, the Basque government denied this claim, demanding an international investigation, but it did not live to see one.
The Spanish attitude to the bombing of Guernica was complicated by the fact that the city was the ancient capital of the Basques: Spanish kings had sworn to observe the privileges of this small but independent nation under an oak tree that grew within the town. In October 1936, the Basque provinces of Biscay, Gipuzkoa, and Alava were granted autonomy within the Spanish Republic. However, by June 1937, the Basque Country had been conquered by the Francoists: its autonomous status was abolished, and its parties dissolved. Hundreds of Basques were shot, and the nation’s language, songs, flag, and traditional given names were prohibited.
Supporters of strong power saw a threat of separatism in the Basques’s desire for autonomy and preferred to ignore or deny the tragedy at Guernica. Tensions increased in Spain, and from May 3 to May 8, 1937, clashes between anarchists and communists took place on the streets of Catalan Barcelona, with close to five hundred victims.
The Spanish Civil War divided not just the country in which it took place, but much of the rest of the world. Nazi Germany and fascist Italy openly supported the Francoists, while the USSR and Mexico supported the Republican government of the Popular Front. France banned the export of arms and ammunition to Spain. Officially, Great Britain and the United States remained neutral, but hundreds of British and American citizens fought in international brigades trained by instructors from the USSR.
In light of these events, a clear and unambiguous statement was expected from the Spanish pavilion’s star artist—a statement that would rival with propaganda, fiercely accuse the attackers, and passionately sympathise with the victims. Instead, viewers were faced with a black-and-white heap of odd figures, a nightmare incarnate that eluded straightforward readings.
Since then, art historians have sought to resolve the situation by finding clear political symbols in Guernica. Some discern the emblem of the hammer and sickle on the chest of a running woman on the right side of the painting and interpret her movement towards the wounded horse as an expression of the USSR’s desire to assist the Spanish people. Others, who see the likeness of a five-pointed star on the chest of the woman with a kerosene lamp on the right side of the painting, read into this “backward” light source a symbol of the USSR’s active sympathy for the tragedy at Guernica. The comparatively “advanced” light bulb, enclosed within the bounds of its own halo, has sometimes been interpreted as representing the developed states that attentively but detachedly observed the course of the civil war in Spain. The bull in the upper left corner of the painting was the figure that caused the most disagreements. Some saw in it an embodiment of Franco’s cruelty, others a hint at France’s ambivalent position, still others a reference to the indifference of some Spaniards to the suffering of the Basques.
The greatest obstacle to the search for political meanings in Guernica proved to be Picasso himself. As his work on Guernica progressed, Picasso gradually eliminated straightforward political symbols. In the painting’s initial stages, a soldier lying on the ground raised a clenched fist in a recognisable gesture of communist greeting. In the painting’s final version, however, this gesture is absent, and the soldier’s hand clutches a broken sword (some believe this alteration to have been Picasso’s reaction to the May Days in Barcelona and the subsequent rise to power of a prime minister close to the communists). Picasso himself gave contradictory explanations of the same figures. In an interview he gave to Jerome Seckler between late 1944 and early 1945, Picasso affirmed that the bull represented dark forces, the horse the Spanish people. A few years later, however, he would explain to Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler that the bull was just a bull and the horse just a horse. Yet this statement is difficult to believe, especially if we recall how often Picasso depicted himself through the image of a man-bull—the Minotaur—in his works. In psychoanalysis, a discipline which fascinated Picasso’s surrealist friends, the Minotaur symbolises the unconscious animal instincts in human nature; the bull male aggressiveness and a hidden desire for violence; and the horse a passive and suffering femininity. In light of this, some researchers have seen the bull as Picasso’s alter-ego, a remnant of the painting’s original “artist and model” subject. Yet even when they ascribe such a deeply personal significance to the figure of the bull, art historians still seek to relate it to the political context: noting that the bull (Picasso) recoils to the right, they see a representation of the artist frightened off by the radicalised leftist mood in Spain following the May Days in Barcelona.
Attempts to find political signs and meanings in Guernica will likely continue, but it is unlikely these will lead to an undisputed solution. We will now turn to the question of how the painting was made, and see what the answers to this question can tell us.
The size and format of Guernica’s canvas was determined by the dimensions of the Spanish pavilion—3.5 by 7.8 metres. A horizontal rectangle of this scale would have been most suitable for a so-called “history painting”—the name given to works depicting scenes from biblical, ancient, and modern history in traditional, academic art. Such works were considered “historical” not simply because they depicted events that had gone down in history but because they, in a sense, told the story of these events.
Depicting the culmination of an important historical moment, the painter of a history painting invites the viewer to recollect or imagine the event in its entirety. Figures in history paintings are usually connected with one another by gazes and gestures, as actors are when they perform a dramatic scene. Often, figures are lined up in a row that unfolds before the viewer’s eyes—this kind of composition is called a frieze, by analogy with an architectural frieze. The frieze composition in a history painting might, in turn, be compared with an unfolding narrative in literature.
In Guernica, Picasso made use of the traditional techniques of history painting but adapted them to his own purposes. Giving an interview to Christian Zervos in 1935, he remarked: “In the old days pictures went forward toward completion by stages. Every day brought something new. A picture used to be a sum of additions. In my case a picture is a sum of destructions. I do a picture—then I destroy it. In the end though, nothing is lost…”
In order to illustrate how Picasso engaged with pictorial tradition, we will now turn to a comparison of Guernica with Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper (1495–1498). This masterpiece of history painting also covers an entire wall and has similar proportions (4.6 by 8.8 metres) to Guernica. In both works, figures are arranged in a row in a dark room with a low beamed ceiling and a window or loggia in the background. But Guernica’s rough, transverse beam and its window—which is displaced from the centre of the painting, and from which short, sharp, flame-like reflections fall—make it seem a dark caricature of Leonardo’s fresco, where the lines of the ceiling lead the eye towards a radiant perspective behind Christ’s head. Leonardo skilfully creates the illusion of space and endows it with sacred meaning: for Christians, earthly life is a vale of sorrow, and the way out of it is indicated by the Saviour. Picasso, on the other hand, emphasises the flatness of his image: the viewer’s gaze has nowhere to go, there is no way out of the earthly prison.
A number of references to Christian iconography can be traced in Guernica. Two female figures, forming the left and right flanks of the frieze composition, are depicted in conventional poses. The seated woman on the left holds a dead child on her knees, as the Mother of God did after the body of her son was taken down from the Cross (such depictions of the Virgin Mary are known as Pietà). Renaissance artists often depicted the Madonna in the Pietà pose with a sleeping baby on her knees and in doing so “rhymed” birth with death, the end of earthly life with the beginning of an eternal one. The woman on the right, with her arms raised to the sky and her head thrown back, recalls representations of Mary Magdalene, who was often depicted tormented with grief under the Cross or over the body of Christ after the Descent from the Cross. The Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene were often placed side by side in depictions of the Crucifixion, the Descent from the Cross, and the Lamentation. The iconography of these scenes is also alluded to by the splayed-out body of a soldier, his arms outstretched as if on a cross. This figure, in turn, calls to mind Hans Holbein the Younger’s extremely realistic The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb (1520–22)—the painting that causes Dostoevsky’s Prince Myshkin to exclaim in The Idiot: “That painting! Some people might lose their faith by looking at that painting!” Picasso, it seems, aimed at a similar effect in Guernica.
Such a purpose can be gleaned from other elements in the painting. The seated dove with a broken wing might be the wingless counterpart to the dove of the Holy Spirit that often appeared in representations of the Annunciation. The light bulb with a geometric halo that hangs from the ceiling might be an analogue of the eye enclosed within a solar halo that represents the All-Seeing Eye of God. The meaning of this symbol, which appears in Christian iconography, in Masonic symbolism, and on the American dollar bill, goes back to one of the psalms: “Behold, the eyes of the Lord are on those who fear Him and on those who hope in His mercy” (Ps. 32: 18). Those responsible for the destruction of Guernica did not fear God, and the victims of the bombing hoped in vain for His mercy.
Picasso subjected the language of classical and neoclassical art, which formed the basis of the European artistic tradition, to a similar destruction. Guernica’s overall composition is built upon two simple forms. A narrow rectangle lies at the base of the painting, formed by two figures resembling broken statues: the body of the dead soldier on the left and the twisted female leg to the right. Above this rectangle rises a triangle, topped with a light bulb. This composition has sometimes reminded researchers of ancient temples with triangular pediments, at other times, it has reminded them of pyramids, which neoclassical architects were fond of using in memorial mausoleums. Guernica might be likened to a neoclassical mausoleum hit by a bomb, a symbol of European civilization destroying itself.
Art historians have compared the profile of the woman with the kerosene lamp to the ancient mask of the Muse of Tragedy, seeing in her a kind of analogue of the Greek chorus. In Greek tragedy, the chorus comments on the events of the play but takes no part in them—its role is limited to sympathising with the suffering of the protagonists. A similar pointing gesture—the right arm stretched forward— is found in many history paintings on traditional subjects by classical artists, from Nicolas Poussin to Jacques-Louis David. In Guernica, however, the function of this gesture is more complex than simple pointing: though the woman with a lamp brings light to the figures in the painting, she does not belong to their world. Her hand, against the background of a lighted white wall, recalls the commanding gesture of Christ in Caravaggio’s The Calling of Saint Matthew (1599–1600).
Both the frieze composition and the historical event narrated by it remain in Guernica only in a fragmented form. Art critics have sought to establish connections between individual figures in order to construct a coherent account of the human tragedy at Guernica but have not managed to agree among themselves. Some believe that the bull protects the woman with a child, and that her eyes are raised towards it in hope of salvation, others that the woman with a noble, antique profile has her eyes fixed on the kerosene lamp, others that the woman on the left is rushing to attempt to rescue the horse. What the majority can agree on is that each character in Guernica lives through a private tragedy: even contiguous figures exist in complete disconnection from one another—a technique that is typical of collage, photomontage, and avant-garde posters, but not of history paintings.
The black-and-white colour-scheme, the fragmented composition, the effect of isolated figures—all these features bring Guernica closer to the new forms of art that played an important role in shaping public reaction to the Spanish Civil War. One of these, photography, had first been used for documentation during the American Civil War, but long exposure times limited its pool of possible subjects. Before the beginning of the twentieth century, military artists, not photographers, were the ones who created “live” illustrations of conflict. Even after the proliferation of short-exposure cameras at the beginning of the twentieth century, war photography remained static: its value lay in truthfulness, not artistry. The Spanish Civil War, however, was seen by the world through the eyes of a new generation of photographers, which included such masters as Robert Capa. The poses of Capa’s photographic subjects were so close to centuries-old gestural formulas that he was suspected of staging his photographs—certainly, his skewed shots, cut-off perspectives of faces, and skilful use of light are reminiscent of the experienced illusionists of the High Baroque. Photographs of this kind can rival painting in their artistry, and far surpass it in the truthfulness of their messages.
Photomontage came even closer to classical art. The German communist artist Helmut Herzfeld, who worked under the name of John Heartfield, created photomontages representing events of the Spanish Civil War that combined photographs with “citations” from classical paintings. Heartfield’s photomontages are considered possible sources for Guernica. Picasso may have been inspired by the simple idea of bringing together photography and painting—at the very least, we know that one of the impetuses to his creation of Guernica was a photograph published in the newspaper L'Humanité on April 27, 1937, which represented a woman’s head among the ruins at Guernica. This said, the rendering of the dead soldier’s head in Guernica is thought to have been based on a miniature depiction of the Flood found in the eleventh-century illuminated manuscript, the Apocalypse of Saint-Sever.
Creating a painting from political material, Picasso could not have ignored the language of the poster. The turbulent political events of the first decades of the twentieth century had attracted young avant-garde artists to this media, and they had updated its language: the most daring achievements of the new painting were immediately picked up and distributed in thousands of copies. Creators of posters did not neglect traditional iconography either: a pointing right hand, for example, was used in a number of posters during the First World War. “Your country needs you!” is the best remembered of these posters by Russian audiences. A Pietà pose was used in the poster for Joris Ivens’s anti-war film The Spanish Earth (1937), written by Ernest Hemingway. The poster’s broad scope, clarity of content, and power to move made it one of the main tools for influencing the masses, while innovative artistic language gave it the status of a full-fledged art form. In the summer of 1937, an exhibition of Spanish Civil War posters was held in the United States.
Although Picasso was mindful of the language of the new media in his creation of Guernica, he disagreed with these on what was the most fundamental question for art of that time, namely, the relationship between art and reality/nature. Photography is essentially true to nature, and the poster (excepting the radical experiments of the abstractionists) thus remains connected to reality, at least at the level of basic images. To compete with these art forms in terms of realism of representation would have been a hopeless business. Artists had long ago learned to depict the disasters of war through the help of fantastic images. Another great Spanish artist, Francisco Goya, played a decisive role in the development of this tradition with his famous graphic series The Disasters of War (1810–1820). References to Goya are clear in the works of many artists of the latter half of the nineteenth century and early twentieth century. The German artists Ludwig Meidner, George Grosz, and Otto Dix depicted their first-hand experiences of the First World War in the spirit of fantastic realism. There are direct references to Goya in John Heartfield’s photomontages of the Spanish Civil War.
From January to June 1937, Picasso worked on an anti-war graphic series entitled The Dream and Lie of Franco. Interestingly, this series was inspired not by Goya, but by Jacques Callot, a French artist who—two centuries before Goya—had created a series of anti-war etchings in which he transformed reality through satire and the grotesque. Picasso moved away from Goya’s fantastical realism in Guernica, coming closer to the related—but not identical— surrealism. Through the use of fantastic imagery, Goya and his disciples had emphasised the inhuman character and bestial cruelty of events they depicted. Surrealists, on the other hand, called for the abandonment of universal symbols in favour of individual mythology and appealed not to consciousness but to the subconscious. In 1936, Georges Bataille had declared that fascism could only be resisted on its own territory, through an appeal to collective emotions, the strongest of these being the fear of death. Fascism unites a community around the figure of a strong leader and, for Bataille, effective resistance could only come from a community united around a common tragedy. The destruction of Guernica was such a tragedy for the Spanish people. Picasso’s painting then raised this national tragedy to a universal scale, turning the story of Guernica into one of the foundational myths of European humanism.
Real myths inevitably free themselves from the wills of their creators and live lives of their own, and this would also prove true of Guernica. After an exhibition tour of the United States in 1939, the painting remained at MoMA. Picasso declared in 1969 that it would not return to Spain until the country had once again become a republic. In 1970, in response to the mass murder of Vietnamese civilians at Mỹ Lai by American troops, more than two hundred members of The Art Workers' Coalition and the Artists and Writers Protest called on Picasso to have Guernica removed from display at MoMA. So long as Guernica remained in the museum, their argument ran, it would allow the American establishment to hypocritically empathise with the tragedy of others whilst ignoring their own crimes. Artists set up posters with photographs of victims of the Mỹ Lai massacre alongside Guernica, and even organised a memorial service for the murdered children in front of the painting.
In 1974, the artist Tony Shafrazi spray-painted the phrase “Kill lies all” on Guernica—he did so, he claimed, to ensure the painting did not become a historical relic and remained relevant. In her Guernica 911 (2003), Sophie Matisse coloured Picasso’s black-and-white composition, grimly mocking the repeated runs of footage from the Twin Towers tragedy in television video reports. Vasco Gargalo, in Alepponica (2016) “released” Guernica from ambiguity by adding many clear political symbols to it. Street demonstrators used fragments of Guernica on their posters, protesting the war in Iraq and the bombing of Aleppo. The story of Guernica continues before our eyes...
Further reading on Guernica:
Otto J. Brendel, “Classic and Non-classic elements in Picasso’s Guernica,” in From Sophocles to Picasso, the Present-day Vitality of the Classical Tradition, ed. Whitney J. Oates (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1962).
On Guernica’s place in the history of war-art: Werner Hofmann, “Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ in its Historical Context,” Artibus et Historiae 4, No. 7 (1983): 141–69.
On Guernica and surrealism: Carlo Ginzburg, “The Sword and the Lightbulb: A Reading of Guernica,” in Disturbing Remains: Memory, History, and Crisis in the Twentieth Century, ed. Michael S. Roth and Charles G. Salas (Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2001). The article was first published as part of Ginzberg’s book, Paura, reverenza, terrore. Cinque saggi di iconografia politica, which went on to be translated into many languages, and which includes an article on the history of the pointing gesture in painting and posters.
On the meanings of individual visual metaphors in Guernica: Rachel Wischnitzer, “Picasso’s ‘Guernica’. A Matter of Metaphor.,” Artibus et Historiae 6, No. 12 (1985): 153–172.
On the figures of the bull and horse: Carla Gottlieb, “The Meaning of Bull and Horse in Guernica,” Art Journal 24, No. 2 (Winter 1964–1965): 106–112.
On the myth of the Minotaur in Picasso: Elinor W. Gadon, “Picasso and the Minotaur,” India International Centre Quarterly 30, No. 1 (Summer 2003): 20–29.
Translated by Anastasia Drevale and Charlotte Neve