Guernica (1937) by Pablo Picasso
Guernica by Pablo Picasso.
One of the most famous 20th century paintings, Guernica was created by Picasso to express his outrage over the Nazi bombing of a Basque city in northern Spain, ordered by General Franco. Since then, this monumental black-and-white canvas has become an international symbol of genocide committed during wartime. Like another major work of Spanish painting entitled The Third of May 1808 by Goya, Guernica is a pictorial condemnation of a cold-blooded, faceless massacre of innocent people. It came about after Picasso was commissioned by the republican government of Spain to produce a mural painting for the Spanish Pavilion at the World Fair in Paris. At the time, Picasso who was resident in Paris, had been appointed honorary director-in-exile of the Prado Museum, Madrid. (His last visit to Spain occurred in 1934 and he never returned.) After its completion, the mural was exhibited in Paris, amidst growing support for fascist parties in France and other European countries, where it caused considerable controversy both for its Cubist-style figure painting and its political theme. After Paris, it travelled to America, where it was exhibited at the San Francisco Museum of Art as well as the Museum of Modern Art in New York, into whose hands it was eventually placed for safe-keeping. It continued to tour extensively in North America and Europe, but Picasso refused to return it to his native Spain until democracy had been reestablished.
Replete with symbolism, Guernica is a massive work, measuring 3.5 metres (11.5 feet) high, and 7.8 metres (25.5 feet) wide. Although packed with anguished imagery showing the suffering of both people and animals, it is painted in monochrome, using a palette of grey, black, and white. Perhaps Picasso wanted to give his painting a veneer of photojournalistic realism; or maybe the bleak, night-time colour scheme complemented the jagged shapes and terror-stricken faces, and added to the sense of panic and terror. In any event, the lack of colour gives added impact to the flattened Cubist forms, and adds to the drama of the work by allowing Picasso to highlight key faces and objects in white.
The scene depicted in Guernica is a room full of moving, screaming and dying adults, children and animals. Most of the individual images are also symbols (see suggested meaning in brackets). On the left, a bull (virility of man) pierced by jagged shrapnel (its wounds plus its passivity suggests man is in trouble) stands over a wailing woman with a dead child in her arms (pieta image, the age-old suffering of women in war). In the centre a horse (representing innocent people) is whinnying in agony from a terrible injury in its side. Underneath the horse are the shattered remnants of a dead soldier; in the grip of the hand on his severed arm is a broken sword out of which a flower grows. On the palm of his other hand signs of the stigmata of Christ are visible, indicating martyrdom. Above the dying horse is a blazing light (symbolizes incendiary bombs that fell on the town), which is also reminiscent of the bare bulb in a prison cell (torture). On the horse's right, an open-mouthed woman seems to have stuck her head and arm through a window (horrified observer). In her hand she holds a lighted lamp. Another confused woman moves from the right towards the light in the centre (dazed victim). On the extreme right of the room, a figure screams in agony as it is engulfed by flames (innocent victim).
There are numerous other symbols and fragments in Guernica. They include a dove (peace), part of whose body forms a light-emitting crack in the wall (hope); as well as knife-points in place of the tongues of the bull, horse and wailing woman (perhaps indicating the sharpness of their pain). In addition, two supposedly 'concealed images' have been identified: a human skull whose shape is formed by the nostrils and upper teeth of the horse; and the skull-like head of another bull formed by the angle of its front leg.
In September 1981, Guernica was moved from MOMA in New York to the The Cason del Buen Retiro, an annex of the Prado Museum complex in Madrid. In 1992, it moved to a purpose-built gallery at the Museo Reina Sofia, home of Spain's national collection of modern art of the 20th century.
Vie (Life) (1903)
with a Pipe (Garcon à la Pipe) (1905)
of Gertrude Stein (1906)
Nudes (1906) Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907)
Woman (Picasso) (1920) Musee Picasso, Paris.
Bather (1921) Musee de l'Orangerie, Paris.
Women Running on the Beach (The Race) (1922) Musee Picasso, Paris.
in White (1923)
For the meaning of other Cubist masterpieces, see: Homepage.
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