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Understanding Picasso: A Look Into Guernica

Understanding Picasso: A Look Into Guernica

This week we bring our focus around to Pablo Picasso’s masterfully painted mural entitled “Guernica”. This is a special and unique painting that stands out amongst the rest of Picasso’s body of work, because it belongs in a category known as Narrative Art. Or put more simply, art that tells a story.

A Look Into Picasso


So before we dive into the painting let’s take a quick look at the man behind it all. I’m sure many of you have heard of Pablo Picasso, if you haven’t yet… congratulations on your first day out of the womb! This is a pretty awesome world, you’re going to love it!

Pablo Picasso was the most dominant and influential artist of the first half of the twentieth century. Associated most of all with being one of the pioneers of Cubism, he also invented collage and made major contributions to Symbolism and Surrealism. This is an important point to take into consideration when analyzing any of his works.

Unlike Magritte, whom we’d discussed last week, Picasso saw himself above all else as a painter. That being said, his sculpture was greatly influential, and he also explored areas as diverse as printmaking and ceramics.

Finally, he was a famously charismatic personality; his many relationships with women not only filtered into his art but also may have directed its course, and his behavior has come to embody that of the bohemian modern artist in the popular imagination.

Though what is primarily perplexing about Picasso’s body of work to most people outside of the art world is… Why is he so famous? What was it about Picasso’s work that makes people all around the world feel so moved? Why do professional art critics continue to insist on his status as an influential artist, even though most people seem to think his work is reminiscent of a 5 year old’s wall drawings after they found the crayons you hid away?

Well, it comes back to what we said earlier, he made major contributions to Symbolism and Surrealism. Above all else, these two points are most important when viewing any of Picasso’s paintings.

We’d touched a little on surrealism last week, and we will go into more detail in the near future. But for now, just remember that surrealism is intentionally abstract. It was a counter movement to realism, and many artists used it as a tool to get you to better understand the emotion of a scene without getting bogged down by the actual things within the scene itself.

That being said, let’s move to Picasso’s amazing use of symbolism. It seems an odd combination at first, to place specific items within a scene to help portray a message when at the same time you want people to avoid focus on any specific objects within it. Though Picasso was a master of threading that line, and his work within Cubism was a definite reason as to why.

A Look Into Cubism

In Cubist artwork, objects are analyzed, broken up and reassembled in an abstracted form. This allowed Picasso the ability to use a surrealist view to emphasize the emotion of a painting first and foremost, while still having people be able to analyze the scene and what was meant by it.

Now, with all of that being said, let’s take a look at one of my personal favorites and one of Picasso’s most notable works, ‘Guernica’.

Understanding Guernica

Though it may look chaotic and difficult to decipher at first, Guernica is actually a moving piece of art that tells a powerful story about the Spanish Civil War.

The two most striking features of the painting when you first see it, are first, its size and second, its use of color… or rather, lack thereof.

Guernica is almost a full mural, stretching over 25 and a half feet long and standing over 11 and a half feet high. This aids its depiction of the suffering caused by war because of its ability to tower over you and engulf your whole field of vision.

Its unique use of a monochromatic scale, specifically that of black and white, also help to further convey its anti-war message.

Though before we dive into the symbolism behind the painting, let’s first take a look at the historical context surrounding it.

History Of Guernica And The Spanish Civil War

On April 26, 1937, the Spanish Nationalist government had its allies, Nazi Germany bomb Guernica, a town in Northern Spain. The number of victims of the attack is still disputed, though is estimated to be as high as 1,600 people killed.

There were also claims that the city was vacant of all eligible fighters, as they’d already signed up to fight at the front lines of the Spanish Civil War, and so the bombing was committed against primarily women, children, and the elderly.

Picasso was commissioned by the Spanish Republican government to create a large mural for the Spanish display at the 1937 World’s Fair in Paris. His initial sketches for the project were somewhat dispassionate.

However, shortly after reading an eyewitness account of the bombing of Guernica, Picasso was moved to shift his subject to the bombing. After 35 days of work, he had finished his painting.

Picasso And Symbolism

Let’s walk through the mural one piece at a time and look at Picasso’s use of symbolism as it pertained to his anti-war message.

The Bull Of Guernica

First, off to the far left we see a bull, depicted with a dark body and white head. The expression it wears is one of shock, most likely caused by the horrors that surround him. Picasso himself had said that the animal was placed there to further signify brutality and darkness.

Virgin and Child

Underneath the image of the bull sits a woman clutching a dead child, her head facing the sky in an anguished cry, her eyes in the shape of tears. This image was meant to resemble the classic catholic image of the Virgin and Child, albeit tainted by war.

Picasso's Dead Soldier

Working our way further down still we see a dead soldier on the ground. The soldier however does not have a complete body, but rather a series of disjointed parts strewn about the floor. We can see his head and both arms. In one arm he carries a broken sword and the other he carries a flower. We will come back to this soon.

The Light Bulb And The Bomb

Above it all, there is a light bulb. The symbolism behind this particular item is somewhat debated among scholars, but it is widely believed to have multiple meanings. First, it is intentionally shaped like an eye, and it’s positioning at the top of the painting leads many to believe that it is God’s eye as he overlooks the madness and destruction caused by war. It is also believed to be a symbol of technological advancement as it is placed immediately next to an oil lamp. This comparison is particularly striking, as a large part of the reason that Nazi Germany and Italy both agreed to the bombing of Guernica, was for a chance to test out their newly created equipment in a live battle setting.

Finally, if you were to have learned Spanish in Spain, you would find the word for bulb, bombilla, is very similar to the word for bomb, bomba. Which would also go towards explaining its position at the top of the painting.

Guernica's War Horse

Situated in the center of the painting we find a horse, appearing as though it is about to collapse and is in some way wounded. We can only make out the horses head with its mouth open as it gazes out at the horrors of war. The rest of its body is overlapped by other images, which in turn form more images such as a human skull.

The Injured Woman

Down now to the bottom right corner we see a woman with an injured leg she is bleeding from the knee and is trying to stop the bleeding with her hand.

The Bombing Victim

Above her we see a man pleading at the sky, perhaps to god, perhaps to the German Planes to stop the destruction. As he does so, the building continues to burn and crumble around him. It has come to be a powerful artistic representation of the anti-war feeling given across by the mural.

The Spirit Of The Spanish Republic

Finally we come to the woman with the oil lamp. Her face appears to be one of shock and bewilderment. She has been considered to be the ghostly representation of the Spanish Republic.

Taking all of these elements into account it is simple to see the anti-war message that was clearly intended by the artist. As your eye flows through the painting, the destruction, death, mutilation, and suffering are all very clear. Though Picasso, whether intentionally or not, included one more element into his painting. Much like at the bottom of Pandora’s Box, if we look deep enough into this mural, we can find hope.

Picasso's Hope Within War

Let’s take a look at 3 small elements somewhat hidden in the commotion.

White Poppy

The first was the flower in the dead soldier’s hand. It was an odd choice to place it there, as soldiers are not know for carrying bouquets to battle, and also considering the broken sword in the soldiers other hand. This simple little flower sends a clear message of peace to come. Though it is not discernable, the flower in the soldier’s hand resembles a white poppy flower. Ever since the end of World War I, poppies have traditionally symbolized peace and the end and remembrance of war.

The Dove

The second was a small bird between the bull and the horse. It is not a very clear symbol as it appears to be just a flash of white. Though in the Catholic Church the Holy Spirit is often represented as a white dove. This leads many to believe that the bird may be a symbol for the Holy Spirit beginning to break past the darkness of the events around it to once again usher in peace for the near future.

The Lamp

Finally, we have the oil lamp. If studied carefully, you will see that the source of what is lighting the scene is not the electric light bulb above, but the oil lamp immediately beside it. This small flame is strong enough to shed light upon the entire scene, and if it is in fact the spirit of the Spanish Republic that wields it, then it is a source of hope for those in the scene itself. This would also explain why the injured woman below looks up longingly toward the lamps light.

Hopefully, that helped shed a little light on not just who Picasso was as an artist, but how his incredibly effective use of symbolism put him into the limelight as one of the 20th century’s most influential artists.

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