The Spanish Civil War acted almost as a precursor to World War II, with the bombings of Guernica in the April of 1937 mirroring the devastation soon to be felt on a much more extensive scale. Guernica, a small town in the Basque country of northern Spain, was destroyed by three hours of bombing, as the town was considered one of the centres of the Republican resistance movement. Fires consumed Guernica for three days after the bombing and, as a result, over 1,600 people were killed or injured.
For several years, Picasso had been residing in Paris; he hadn’t returned to his native Spain for many years. News of the Guernica attack reached him through photos in the newspaper. The bombings roused his patriotism, and a sense of personal justice is seen through his disapproval of war in ‘Guernica’. The sheer effect of the attack on Picasso was apparent through the speed of the artwork’s progress which, from start to finish, spanned less than a month.
Most evidently, ‘Guernica’ is a peace symbol. It is a condemnation of war, defying previous depictions of war which seek to glamourize and glory battle, to the extent of beauty (think of John Singleton Copley’s ‘The Death of Major Peirson’, 1783, an oil painting revelling in the moment Major Pierson dies, surrounded by the celebrations of British victory). Picasso loaned ‘Guernica’ to the New York Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) until the end of World War II, but later extended the loan period until Spanish democracy was restored and it could return as a memorial to those lost, injured or otherwise affected by battle. The painting finally arrived in Spain in 1981.
The artwork itself is an imposing mural, standing at 3.5 metres tall by nearly 8 metres wide and composed of black, white and blue oil paint. Upon observation, it appears nearly monochrome, almost photograph-like – Picasso’s way of creating a more objective image. This aspect of realism jars with the traditional Cubist style he utilises, compressing the subjects into two-dimensional objects and creating scars of colour which contrast aggressively together.
The piece lends itself well to a division into people and animals. Attention is drawn initially to the bull and the horse, both typical characters of Picasso’s work – for instance, ‘Bull’s Head’, ‘Bullfight: Death of the Toreador’ or his series of eleven lithographs of bulls, dated from 1946. This makes Picasso’s original symbolic intention harder to define. Its uninjured, tranquil position, staring down at the tumultuous scene might hint at the looming threat of a Fascist regime at the time of painting. Alternatively, it could be a Minotaur, the half-bull, half-man figure from Greek mythology; derived from Minos’s avaricious imprisonment of the beast, a Minotaur could denote human arrogance and egotism. The fear of the unknown is also a possibility, firstly from the Minotaur’s hybrid body but more broadly, the fear of what is yet to come in war. Picasso intended the horse to depict the pain and suffering of the people of Guernica and upon closer inspection, the horse’s nose and teeth form a human skull.
The anthropological consequences of war are portrayed through various scenarios: a soldier lying dead at the bottom of the frame; a mother screaming in pain for her deceased child; a woman looking up at the light. Interestingly Picasso mounts the figures in a triangle of light – is this a suggestion that there is light even in dark, hope amidst the chaos? And since ‘Guernica’ is universal and timeless in its lack of direct allusions to the bombings, is this a notion we must incorporate into modern conflict and suffering?
The deliberate omission of such references, and to the Spanish Civil War overall, renders ‘Guernica’ a transcendent work. It becomes a political symbol of peace, to the extent that it epitomises violence and struggle against the innocent. Indeed, Picasso’s memorialisation of the scene establishes a place in history for Guernica, a concept particularly apt for us during these times.
I saw ‘Guernica’ last year, in Madrid’s Reina Sofia Museo Nacional Centro de Arte. The other day, I realised how fitting an image it is for us today, as we begin our ninth week of national lockdown. ‘Guernica’ isn’t merely a reflection on the atrocities of the bombings and the Spanish Civil War; it is about the broader scope of human struggle. There are no explicit references to the attack on Guernica (aside from it being the catalyst for Picasso’s creation) and as a result, it transcends epochs. Picasso acknowledged this, stating that “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.” We have full manipulation and interpretation over ‘Guernica’, able to apply it as we see fit.
If the horses are civilians, as Picasso intended, do they not represent the pain and hardship we are all suffering at this precise moment in history? The wounded soldier demonstrates the risk people take every day to protect us. Mourners, grieving their losses. People looking for the light and hope. Again, the bull is slightly more problematic to define: a stone’s throw from the destruction, it still symbolises those with status who abuse their power, or at least do not use their power to completely protect the innocent. A certain President springs to mind, who recently suggested that ingesting disinfectant would cure coronavirus. Whilst the war we are fighting isn’t a war of the traditional sense, ‘Guernica’ is still a reminder of the tragedies of suffering and those who inflict it upon us, through their abuses of power.
Picasso’s instant response and condemnation of the Guernica bombings highlights how art can be a memorial to suffering and how progressive change is needed to avoid similar tragedies. Important, though, is the central triangle of light. Even in these uncertain (but certainly horrific) times, there is still light and hope.
Written by Cara Lee