Picasso's Guernica:
The History and Transience of Artistic Significance

Claudia Kesela

The bomber pilots dropped their ammunition instead in nearby Guernica's market square…Guernica burned for three days, and Picasso drew the first sketches of "Guernica" that very night, conceiving this idea for one of the world's most influential and long-standing war paintings.

Pablo Picasso, Guernica, 1937.

Pablo Picasso, a prolific Spanish artist who lived a long fruitful life from 1881 to 1973, has often been claimed as one of or the most influential of the 20th century. That claim is certainly not unfounded, considering the significant contributions he has made to numerous artistic movements ranging from African art to cubism to surrealism as well as his monumental pieces that have remained relevant until modern day- among them 1937’s Guernica, depicting a black-and-white scene of violence and suffering inspired by the infamous Spanish Civil War. The changing meanings, the fascinating symbols and the pressing social and political implications found within this painting have been extensively debated among researchers, critics and art-lovers around the world- and in exploring Picasso’s background, inspirations and previous works it seems as if this matrix of artistic and societal significance is exactly what he wanted to foster in creating Guernica.

The political unrest and the unstable social climate reigning over Europe in the early to mid-1900s were two of the most influential factors in shaping the inception and eventual manifestation of Picasso’s Guernica. World War II loomed on the horizon as Nazism flourished particularly in Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy, and the fascist epidemic spread through the continent- eventually also reaching Spain. Soon exploded the Spanish Civil War- raging from 1936 to 1939 between the elected Spanish Republic governed by President Manuel Azaña and the newly surfaced Nationalists led by fascist-militarist Francisco Franco-, one of the bloodiest periods in the Western European nation’s colorful history. It is estimated that about 55,000 civilians lost their lives on Republican (also called Loyalist) territories alone- an alarming death toll that deemed the war a preamble to the coming atrocities of the Third Reich’s regime.

In January of 1937, when Picasso was first officially approached about what would eventually become Guernica, Spain found itself in a particularly troublesome circumstance- the capital of Madrid was already in Nationalist siege, and more personally to the artist, Picasso’s hometown Malaga was surrounded by Italian troops attempting a hostile takeover. As the Republicans continued to lose ground in battle and lacked the military resources to compensate, they turned to alternative means of combat- one of which was to represent themselves as the true hallmarks and protectors of Spanish culture and the native fine arts. It was for that very reason that Joseph Luis Sert and Luis Araquistàin (the Spanish ambassador to France) decided to commission Picasso to exhibit at the Spanish Pavilion of the 1937 Paris World’s Fair. While the two officials had already contracted major artists like Miró, Sánchez, González and Renau among others, Picasso to them was the very emblem of Spanish artistic achievement- and so perhaps with Picasso’s involvement they could wholly accrue international support for their side of the conflict. Moreover, at the fair the statuesque German pavilion stood directly next to the understated Spanish building, and the proximity of their oppressors gave Spain ever the more incentive to culturally outdo their opponents. Picasso understood this political motivation fairly quickly- after all, the men’s request was specific, both were quite clearly representatives of the Republican Party, and in asking for a mural covering an entire wall at a pavilion the whole world would see, the piece was clearly meant to serve as a partisan monument. Most of his earlier war-related works, for example an early Cuban rebellion sketch named Divine Allegory, had always been fairly neutral in tone and constructed from an objective third-party perspective- and hence Picasso did not feel initially comfortable with the proposed political exposure. Feeling rather unenthused, he thus answered their request noncommittally.

This is not to say, however, that Picasso had no experience nor will to express his views through his art. In the beginning of 1937 for example, taking after his friend Paul Éluard’s poem L’Humanité, he made Dream and Lie of Franco featuring the Nationalist leader depicted as a horrendously twisted figure. Essentially the cubist-surrealist caricature cast Franco in a negative, almost derogatory, light and therefore showed Picasso’s rage and disgust with Franco’s political positioning and sabotage of “true” Spanish culture and country. While it was one of the only explicitly politically critical works he had ever executed, it nevertheless paved way for the images of wartime agony he would eventually display in Guernica. Moreover, most of his social circles and even relatives had taken an active role in opposing the Nationalist regime- for one, Picasso’s nephews had fought against Franco while involved with a Barcelona Loyalist battalion. In addition, his closest friends, the surrealist poets Louis Aragon and the aforementioned Éluard, had long committed to the Republican party and as Picasso spent a lot of time with them as well as with their families he could never truly separate himself from their politics despite never officially joining the party himself.

Pablo Picasso, Dream and Lie of Franco, 1937. Etching.

Pablo Picasso, Dream and Lie of Franco, 1937. Etching.

His professional life did not remain entirely unshadowed either; in 1935 he had exhibited with Sert in the Amigos de las Artes Nuevas (ADLAN) gallery dedicated to modern art and strongly opposed to the classicist style and working class-inspired compositions of rightist groups. Picasso was also nominated the honorary director of the Museo del Prado- the very same museum where he had in his youth spent hours on end admiring the works of old Spanish masters like Goya- in 1936, by none other than President Azaña himself. Although the museum was destroyed a few months later by Nationalists, it remained evidence of Picasso’s unwitting association with the political ideals he was now being asked to commit himself to.

On April 26, 1937, just a few months after Picasso was first met with Sert’s proposition, it seemed the artist’s inspiration and his decision to accept the Republic’s commission finally arrived. On that fateful day, one of the first air raids and most controversial acts of war violence on a defenseless civilian town took place in Guernica, a small Basque township- a struggling faction of mostly Republican supporters native to the Bilbao region in northern Spain. Franco’s legion led by General Mola was attempting to acquire this sole remaining area in northern Spain still unconquered, by destroying a bridge situated over the Mondaca River in hopes of strategically halting traffic and therefore Republican transfer of resources and weapons. Unfortunately for Mola, the mission sub-delegated by Officer von Richthofen and executed by the German Condor Legion and the Italian Aviazione Legionaria went awry from the very beginning as Richthofen released the two groups for a trial run. The bomber pilots misestimated the location of the target, and dropped their ammunition instead in the middle of nearby Guernica’s market square. The city burned for three days, and when Nationalist ground troops arrived to finalize their takeover, they found not the opposition they were expecting but only an unintentionally destructed town littered with the bodies of its innocent citizens.

The press reports of the Guernica incident were highly conflicting and largely misrepresented the chain of events due to the media industry being primarily controlled by rightist politics- especially in France, where Picasso was residing at this time, since the French were afraid of the Nazis turning against them. Nevertheless, international upset ensued over the large-scale massacre and when Picasso first heard of the event on May Day (the Spanish equivalent of Labor Day on May 1st of each year), he was indignant. In fact, he drew the first sketches of Guernica that very night- and so the idea for one of the most influential and long-standing war paintings was conceived.

While the historical context of Guernica certainly cannot be overlooked in considering its message and legacy, neither can its artistic elements and influences particularly in terms of style, organization as well as general themes. Observing the painting from a solely visual point of view, the cubist-inspired breakdown of the canvas as well as the starkness of its grey-scale color scheme become prominent and notably add to its vibes of chaos, destruction and pain. Similarly, the cartoon- and caricature-like figures (reminiscent of The Dream and Lie of Franco) heighten the work’s emotionally dramatic tint. A surrealist influence of distortion can be seen specifically from the presence of mythological figures like the bull (derived from the image of a Minotaur, the possible implications of which will be discussed later), as well as from the piece’s general oddity and unnaturality stemming from certain incongruities such as the depiction of an electric sun.

The  triangular form of the focal points in the piece draws from the pedimental architecture found in ancient Greek temples. The first triangle is formed by an apex at the light bulb, connected to the woman on the lower right by an auxiliary line and to the fallen soldier on the lower left. The second triangle, upside down, connects the bull with the falling woman with an apex at the broken sword of the fallen soldier. Such a linear pattern centers the viewer’s eye on Guernica’s key components, and creates a framework within its mayhem.

There is a discernible thematic influence of Picasso’s artistic idols, including Gericault, Goya, Delacroix as well as the German expressionists, especially George Grosz. Delacroix’s The Massacre at Chios (1824), for instance, presents the vulnerable image of women and children, the intimidating portrayal of masculinity (the bull in Picasso’s piece) through the dark male figures, unforgiving violence as well as the emblem of the horse. Gericault’s The Raft of Medusa (1818-19) and Goya’s early Yo lo vi (1810-12) perpetuate similar concepts of senseless brutality, chaotic war, evil, and human suffering, remaining true to the tragic ideas that can clearly be found in Guernica as well. Grosz’s influence on Picasso contrastingly revolves around depictions of collective madness, cubist angular entropy and human-caused destruction, specifically from Dedication to Oskar Panizza (1917-18).

The most debated of Guernica are the bull and the horse. The bull has numerous historical references, beginning in Greek mythology as the Minotaur. Secondly, the bull has long been central to Spanish tradition due to its association with corrida, or bullfighting, and with duende, the brave spirit of passion and inspiration shown even on the brink of death. These two cultural notions are moreover strongly intertwined, as the act of corrida requires the kind of courage and strength through which duende manifests itself. Picasso’s interest in these ideas came through even in his earlier sketches, and throughout his career he slowly became more and more fixated on the image of the bull and of heroic demise. In fact, many of the figures Picasso chose to include in Guernica are incidentally reappearances from his previous works, which holds true for the bull derived from his 1935 etching Minotauromachia. Moreover, the bull is conventionally seen as a hallmark of brutal and virile masculinity, which in turn gives way to its interpretations in context of the Civil War. As it looms ominously above the rest of the canvas, the bull has been taken to depict the threatening fascist regime, or even Franco himself. The horse symbol then, which acts as an inverse to the bull in Guernica, has consequently been seen as an emblem of feminine vulnerability and therefore also as the suffering people of the Spanish Republic. However, critic Juan Larrea among others have contested the opposite view, stating that the imposing bull represented the brave Spaniards fighting against Franco while its counterpart the tormented horse supposedly was a symbol of eventual Nationalist defeat. Picasso has neither concretely rejected nor confirmed either of these interpretations, which makes the painting ambiguous and highly subjective. Another interesting element, while not as contested as the bull or the horse, is the electric sun, considered at times a symbol of detached awareness. The combining of artificial and natural light creates ambiguity in terms of the scene’s location either outdoors or indoors, or during the day or night, hence likewise alluding to the impossibility of a single meaning.

The potential struggle between the aforementioned male and female forces in Guernica could also have applications to Picasso’s personal life, examined most famously by a Swedish critic named Jan Runnqvist. Considering the family and women-related issues Picasso was suffering through during and before Guernica’s inception, the appearance of the horse-bull gender conflict in the painting has been thought logical. If observed closely, the bull in Guernica could be said to wear the stricken expression of someone witnessing something horrendous- and so perhaps it is a representation of tormented Picasso himself. Other personal touches that could affirm his presence in the piece have been noted in the human figures, whose eyes in particular eerily resemble Picasso’s self-portraits.

What made Guernica so divergent from Picasso’s previous career were the facts that it was uncharacteristically motivated and inspired by a single historic event, and that in 1937 he made a huge leap in constructing two political pieces, The Dream and Lie of Franco and the World’s Fair mural some four or five months later, whereas before he had remained largely removed from propaganda-style art. Another peculiarity of Guernica was Picasso’s introduction of a new audience perspective that placed the viewer directly in the role of victim- a rare psychological effect first noted by critic Stephen Sender. These shifts in the nature of his art gave way to multiple angles of interpretation and thought on his mural, and furthermore opened an extensive speculation of Guernica that would last well into this modern age. If there exists any consensus about the painting, however, one would be that it has become a generally accepted symbol of sympathy for victims of terrorism and war, and has been generously used as a centerpiece in anti-military protests and movements promoting peace and liberty, for instance American demonstrations opposing the Vietnam War in the 1950s and ‘60s. It is also for the most part agreed upon that Picasso creatively reused elements from his previous pieces and made familiar images together portray the fright he saw in Guernica’s bombing- and some would say the atrocity he reflected in this way was a message of doom, a foreshadowing of the Second World War that would soon eclipse the already-struggling continent.

While these few consensuses are largely shared by the art world, there is significantly more disagreement that surrounds Guernica. Picasso himself has in fact been cited saying, at some point during his lengthy career, that,

“A picture is not thought out and settled beforehand. While it is being done it changes as one’s thoughts change. And when it is finished, it still goes on changing, according to the state of mind of whoever is looking at it. A picture lives a life like a living creature, undergoing the changes imposed on us by our life from day to day. This is natural enough, as the picture lives only through the man who is looking at it.”

Just as Picasso changed the meanings of earlier-used images to fit the historical scene he wished to recreate, the entire mural itself has also transformed and metamorphosed throughout time and progressions of society. The piece started out as propaganda, given that it was indeed commissioned by the members of a clearly defined political group and its final form was at least somewhat affected by that political group’s instruction. As the canvas was first being installed, Picasso allegedly stated that, “In all my recent works of art, I clearly express my abhorrence of the military caste which has sunk Spain in an ocean of pain and death,” as well as that he associated himself with the “protectors of the Republic” from whom he had received his payment.

Predictably enough, the initial attack and criticism then came from the Republic’s political enemies. The Nazi Germans, for one, called it the work of a madman and of an ignorant, unskilled child. Despite the political resistance it inspired, Guernica was nevertheless well received within Picasso’s own circles, particularly the literary and artistic Cahiers d’Art magazine publisher Christian Zervos. Zervos, much unlike the Germans, praised Picasso’s keen ability to represent realistically the way the world was at that time without necessarily nailing down a set structure of symbolism, and soon dedicated an entire issue of his journal to its discussion- an act that launched Guernica into the international artistic platform after which the debate over its relevance continued. In London, it was seen both as a welcome tribute to abstract art opposing the classicist realism that many had begun to find obsolete, and contrastingly as a naïve and inaccurate deposition of Europe’s political and social state: a sentiment that exactly opposed that of Zervos. As the mural next made its way across the Atlantic to the United States in 1939, it was met with an audience less informed of the Spanish Civil War and less aware of the time, place and circumstance in which the painting was originally derived- and so it was often called trivial and mindless.

The U.S, however, was eventually the first location where Guernica was applied to new political affairs, for example the cause of those resistant towards the Vietnam War or the Cold War, and complimented for its formal elements and skillful organization while many were confused about the genre it should belong to (abstraction versus social realism). The painting was placed at the Museum of Modern Art, already recognized as a new cultural center, where it gained even more attention and public exposure, and it was later made even into a tapestry hung in the United Nations Security Council building. The canvas itself stayed in New York for a significant period of time, because the strongly anti-Franco Picasso had made it very clear from its first Paris installation onwards that it was never to return to Spain, at least until the people’s liberty was restored and a truly democratic and fair government was established. The Spanish nation, however, had been clamoring after Guernica for many years and shortly after Picasso’s death the painting was finally allowed to leave the United States and to travel by special air transit back to its artist’s motherland. There it became a symbol of the “new” Spain, of reconciling the past and of healing from the war from which its ideology stemmed. The proud Spaniards, finally the guardians of perhaps the most influential piece any of their countrymen had ever produced, placed Guernica in the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, where it remains today.

Guernica’s commonplace images of death and anguish embellished with Picasso’s unique influences, stemming from both his indirect involvement with the cause he was asked to support as well as from his earlier works and personal problems, are the elements that play together to create the mural’s dynamism and artistic impact. Understandably, Picasso was hesitant towards the commission offer at first as he found its obvious political agenda unnerving- and yet in seeing the struggles and meaningless suffering of his own people he was inspired to soon create the piece that would become one of the most universally symbolic and applicable paintings of the 20th century. His use of striking formal elements, such as the black-and-white cubist scheme and the pedimental organization, only serve to emphasize the themes of human violence, agony, political madness and good versus evil that have been debated every which way. Guernica's symbols and figures, like the bull and the horse, have been interpreted in differing ways throughout time, shaped by their audiences and contexts. And perhaps this overall feeling of uncertainty is what Picasso intended all along, per his statements on the subjectivity and transience of art. As we have and will continue to appreciate and debate the significance of Guernica, its connotations will surely shift again and again, and the perpetual interest of its spectators is where its real beauty and influence lies.

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[1] H.H Arnason, and Elizabeth C. Mansfield, History of Modern Art: Painting, Sculpture, Architecture, Photography, 6th ed, (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2010), 159.
[2] See Appendix A.
[3] Ibid., 346.
[4] Herschel B. Chipp, and Javier Tusell, Picasso’s Guernica: History, Transformations, Meanings, (Berkeley: U of California, 1988), 3.
[5] Ibid., 5-6.
[6] Hugh Thomas, The Spanish Civil War, (New York: Modern Library, 2001), 259.
[7] Chipp, Picasso’s Guernica (see footnote 3).
[8] Ibid.
[9] Ibid., 4.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Ibid. See Appendix B.
[12] Ibid., 17.
[13] See Appendix C.
[14] Ibid., 11-12.
[15] Chipp, Picasso’s Guernica (see footnote 3), 7.
[16] Ibid., 11.
[17] Ibid., 7.
[18] Ibid., 36.
[19] Ibid., 27-31.
[20] Ibid., 35-36.
[21] Chipp, Picasso’s Guernica (see footnote 3), 38.
[22] Ibid., 43.
[23] Werner Hofmann, “Picasso's "Guernica" in Its Historical Context”, Artibus Et Historiae 4, no. 7 (1983): 141-69, JSTOR, 149.
[24] Kathleen Brunner, "'Guernica': The Apocalypse of Representation", The Burlington Magazine 143, no. 1175 (2001): 80-85, JSTOR, 80.
[25] Eugene B. Cantelupe, "Picasso's Guernica", Art Journal 31, no. 1 (1971): 18-21, JSTOR, 18-19.
[26] See Appendix D.
[27] See Appendix E.
[28] William Proweller, "Picasso's "Guernica": A Study in Visual Metaphor", Art Journal 30, no. 3 (1971): 240-48, JSTOR, 240-241.
[29] Hofmann, “Historical Context” (see footnote 21). See Appendix F.
[30] Cantelupe, “Picasso’s Guernica” (see footnote 23), 20.
[31] Chipp, Picasso’s Guernica (see footnote 3), 45-48.
[32] Brunner, “The Apocalypse of Representation” (see footnote 22), 82-83. See Appendix G.
[33] Chipp, Picasso’s Guernica (see footnote 3), 192-193.
[34] Rachel Wischnitzer, "Picasso's "Guernica". A Matter of Metaphor", Artibus Et Historiae 6, no. 12 (1985): 153-72, JSTOR, 158-159.
[35] Chipp, Picasso’s Guernica (see footnote 3), 196.
[36] Wischnitzer, “A Matter of Metaphor” (see footnote 31).
[37] Chipp, Picasso’s Guernica (see footnote 3), 192-193.
[38] Idib., 195.
[39] Idib., 192.
[40] Idib., 193.
[41] Chipp, Picasso’s Guernica (see footnote 3), 44.
[42] Idib.
[43] Idib., 194.
[44] Idib.
[45] Chipp, Picasso’s Guernica (see footnote 3), 195.
[46] Mary C. Carter, "Response to Tavin's "The Magical Quality of Aesthetics"", Studies in Art Education 50, no. 4 (2009): 400-04, JSTOR, 400.
[47] Chipp, Picasso’s Guernica (see footnote 3), 171.
[48] Ibid., 198.
[49] H.H Arnason, et al., History of Modern Art (see footnote 1), 346.


Arnason, H.H, and Elizabeth C. Mansfield. History of Modern Art: Painting, Sculpture, Architecture, Photography. 6th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2010. 159.

Brunner, Kathleen. "'Guernica': The Apocalypse of Representation." The Burlington Magazine 143, no. 1175 (2001): 80-85. JSTOR.

Cantelupe, Eugene B. "Picasso's Guernica." Art Journal 31, no. 1 (1971): 18-21. JSTOR.

Carter, Mary C. "Response to Tavin's "The Magical Quality of Aesthetics."" Studies in Art Education 50, no. 4 (2009): 400-04. JSTOR.

Chipp, Herschel B., and Javier Tusell. Picasso's Guernica: History, Transformations, Meanings. Berkeley: U of California, 1988. Print.

Delacroix, Eugene. The Massacre at Chios. 1824. Oil on canvas. 13’9” by 11’7”. The Louvre, Paris.

Gericault, Theodore. The Raft of Medusa. 1818-1819. Oil on Canvas. 16’1” by 23’6”. The Louvre, Paris.

Gottlieb, Carla. "The Meaning of Bull and Horse in Guernica." Art Journal 24, no. 2, 106. JSTOR.

Grosz, George. Dedication to Oskar Panizza. 1917-1918. Oil on canvas. 55” by 43”. Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart.

Hofmann, Werner. "Picasso's "Guernica" in Its Historical Context." Artibus Et Historiae 4, no. 7 (1983): 141-69. JSTOR.

Picasso, Pablo. Divine Allegory. 1895-1896. Watercolor, pen, and pencil. 9.9” by 6”.

Picasso, Pablo. Dream and Lie of Franco. 1937. Etching.

Picasso, Pablo. Guernica. 1937. Oil on canvas. 11’6’’ by 25’8’’. Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid.

Picasso, Pablo. Minotauromachia. 1935. Etching, printing and engraving on copper. 19.5” by 27.4”. The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Proweller, William. "Picasso's "Guernica": A Study in Visual Metaphor." Art Journal 30, no. 3 (1971): 240-48. JSTOR.

Thomas, Hugh. The Spanish Civil War. New York: Modern Library, 2001. Print.

Wischnitzer, Rachel. "Picasso's "Guernica". A Matter of Metaphor." Artibus Et Historiae 6, no. 12 (1985): 153-72. JSTOR.