Guernica (1937) by Pablo Picasso
Meaning and Interpretation of Cubist Anti-War Painting

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Guernica (1937)

Guernica by Pablo Picasso.
Regarded as one of the greatest 20th century paintings.


Composition and Interpretation
Explanation of Other Paintings by Picasso


Name: Guernica (1937)
Artist: Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)
Medium: Oil painting on canvas
Genre: History painting
Movement/Style: Cubism
Location: Reina Sofia Art Museum, Madrid

For an interpretation of other pictures from the 19th and 20th centuries, see: Analysis of Modern Paintings (1800-2000).

Analysis of 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.



Composition and Interpretation

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.

Note: Guernica is a comparatively late example of Cubism, which - like Weeping Woman (1937, Tate Gallery, London) - was executed in a more realistic style than (say) his works of analytical Cubism, like Girl With Mandolin (1910, Museum of Modern Art, NY), although it shares the latter's monochrome palette. The other Cubist idiom developed by Picasso and Georges Braque (1882-1963), was synthetic Cubism, a style which incorporated new materials (like collage) into the picture surface. See: Cubist Painters (1906-14).

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.

Note: A tapestry copy of Picasso's Guernica painting was commissioned by the businessman Nelson Rockefeller in 1955, after Picasso refused to sell him the original. Displayed from 1985 to 2009 on the wall of the United Nations Building in New York City by the entrance to the Security Council, it was moved to the San Antonio Museum of Art during the period 2009 to 2012, before being returned to the UN.

Explanation of Other Paintings by Picasso

La Vie (Life) (1903)
Picasso's first major work, commemorating the death of Carlos Casagemas.

Boy with a Pipe (Garcon à la Pipe) (1905)
Rose Period portrait painted at Le Bateau-Lavoir.

Portrait of Gertrude Stein (1906)
Early painting of the Parisian art collector.

Two Nudes (1906) Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Sculptural-like pair of female nudes - as if carved from rough stone.

Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907)
Picasso's pivotal step towards Cubism.

Seated Woman (Picasso) (1920) Musee Picasso, Paris.
A modernist neoclassical version of an antique pose and drapery.

Large Bather (1921) Musee de l'Orangerie, Paris.
Figure inspired by Greek sculptures from the Parthenon.

Two Women Running on the Beach (The Race) (1922) Musee Picasso, Paris.
Classicist composition featuring Dionysian Maeneds in a state of ecstasy.

Woman in White (1923)
From Picasso's neoclassical period.


• For the meaning of other Cubist masterpieces, see: Homepage.

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