Guernica by Pablo Picasso

Echoes of Agony in Modern Art

One of the most important painters of the 20th century, Spanish-born Pablo Picasso, was already a famous name in Modernist and Cubist art by the time he created his masterpiece Guernica in 1937.

While living in Paris in 1937, Pablo Picasso was commissioned by the Spanish Republican government to create a mural for their pavilion at that year’s world fair. At the time, Spain was embroiled in a civil war, with the Nationalists led by General Francisco Franco rebelling against the government. The Republicans viewed the fair as a chance to affirm their legitimacy and denounce Franco’s brutal tactics. Although Picasso rarely mixed politics with art, he accepted the commission.

Pablo Picasso

Pablo Picasso

Several months later, German aircraft supporting the Nationalists bombed the city of Guernica in a three-hour raid that almost obliterated it, killing or injuring a third of its inhabitants. This atrocity propelled Picasso to start his commission. He finished the vast mural in roughly three weeks. The 11-foot-wide oil painting, rendered in grayscale, powerfully depicts the horrors of war, especially those inflicted on civilians. It creates a feeling of intense anxiety—anyone looking at it instantly knows that whatever is being shown is painful.

Guernica by Pablo Picasso, 1937

Guernica by Pablo Picasso, 1937

Although Guernica is painted in Picasso’s highly cubist and abstract style, known for compressing 3-dimensional visuals into a 2-dimensional space—essentially, “flattening” a cube into a square—scholars generally agree on the painting’s primary subjects.

In the center, a horse is falling after being pierced by a lance, illuminated by the sharp rays of a light bulb. Under the horse is a fallen soldier, perhaps missing body parts. To the left, a bellowing bull seems to overshadow a grieving mother cradling a dying child, and to the right, flames and ruins engulf a screaming figure. A ghostly figure with an oil lamp that resembles a candle emerges from the top right, possibly symbolizing the spotlight Picasso aimed to cast on the destruction and pain caused by the Spanish Civil War.

Guernica in ruins, 1937

Guernica in ruins, 1937

Picasso offered little explanation, leaving the interpretation to viewers, critics, and historians. Yet, he described the bull as representing “brutality and darkness” and noted that the horse in the mural symbolized the people of Guernica. 

After the fair, the Spanish Republic took Guernica on tour across Scandinavia and England to raise support and funds for their cause. However, the Republicans surrendered to the Nationalists in 1939. Firm in his convictions, Picasso insisted that the painting should not return to Spain as long as Franco was in power.

The painting will be turned over to the government of the Spanish Republic the day the Republic is restored in Spain!

Pablo Picasso

This marked the beginning of the painting’s lengthy exile. Picasso passed away in 1973, two years before Franco’s death, and did not see Guernica’s eventual return to Spain.

Words of wisdom

“Art is the lie that enables us to realize the truth.” —Pablo Picasso

“Dwell on the beauty of life. Watch the stars, and see yourself running with them.” ―Marcus Aurelius

“To get the full value of joy you must have someone to divide it with.” ―Mark Twain

“Courage is the most important of all the virtues because without courage, you can’t practice any other virtue consistently.” ―Maya Angelou


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