I remember the first time I laid eyes on the work of Pablo Picasso. guernica. The large oil painting the Spanish artist painted in 1937 now hangs in the Museo Reina Sofía in Madrid, Spain and sticks out like a sore thumb. Not only because of its immensity but also because of the images that are displayed on it, it is impossible to take your eyes off it. It’s only when you see it in person that you realize how powerful this anti-war paint is. It is 3.49 meters (11 ft 5 in) high and 7.76 meters (25 ft 6 in) wide and portrays the suffering caused by violence and chaos. In the composition, a gored horse, a bull, a screaming woman, a dead baby, a dismembered soldier and flames stand out. While it’s clear Picasso wanted to protest the nature of war, why did he choose to paint this and is it his best work?
History behind the art
When one thinks of Picasso, one thinks of cubism and his love for women and animals. He also thinks about the different eras that he chose to paint with certain colors or objects. and then it comes guernica which has its own category: war. picasso painted guernica at his home in Paris in response to the April 26, 1937 attack in Guernica, a city in the Basque Country in northern Spain. Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy mercilessly bombarded the city at the request of Spanish nationalists. Picasso wanted to draw the world’s attention to the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939, and what better way to do that than through works of art? This painting was displayed in the Spanish exhibit at the 1937 Paris International Exposition and at other venues around the world that helped raise funds for Spanish war relief.
When you look at the painting, it seems as if Picasso was so passionate about what he was painting when it actually took time for him to get to that point of intensity. He worked somewhat dispassionately from January until the end of April on the initial sketches. And then everything changed when he found out about the bombing of Guernica on April 26. His friend and poet Juan Larrea visited Picasso and urged him to make the bombing his theme. American artist John Ferren then helped him prepare the canvas, and his lover Dora Maar documented his creation as an experienced photographer. It is this documentation that would act as a publicity tool for the painting, as Picasso rarely allowed outsiders into his studio to watch him work. guernica he was an exception and is said to have admitted influential visitors to observe his progress in painting. While he was talking about his painting, he said “I clearly express my hatred for the military caste that has plunged Spain into an ocean of pain and death.”
Symbolism and its meaning.
Picasso took 35 days to complete this masterpiece. He chose to paint this using matte house paint to avoid the glossy effect paints have. He had never before seen a black and white painting that was so striking. The symbolism and images displayed also surprised me. You see a wide-eyed bull to the left with a tail suggestive of flames and smoke billowing up as seen through a window standing over a grieving woman holding a dead child in her arms. Once you get past what you’ve seen on the left side, you’re faced with a horse falling and dying in the center of the painting with a large hole in its side. The dead and dismembered body of a soldier is seen under the horse. These are just some of the symbolism of war that you can see in the painting. It is full of devastation and pain and agony and the painting moves you. You can’t help but be both horrified and fascinated by the images that Picasso has so carefully painted on the canvas. However, the interpretation, just like in a work of art, differs from the viewer. For example, the interpretation of the painting’s two main images, the bull and the horse, have varied among critics and historians alike. According to art historian Patricia Failing, the bull and the horse are important characters in Spanish culture and Picasso used these characters to play many different roles over time. Ironically, when the master of cubism himself was asked about the meaning of the bull and the horse, he said “…this bull is a bull and this horse is a horse… If you give meaning to certain things in my paintings it can be very true, but it is not my idea to give it that meaning.”
The relevance and importance of the painting can be seen in the symbolism. I consider guernica to be an icon of modern art, the Mona Lisa of our time and Picasso’s best work to date. And just as Leonardo da Vinci promoted a Renaissance ideal of serenity and self-control, guernica it should be seen as Picasso’s commentary on what war can do and how art can protect us against overwhelming forces such as political crime, war and death. These issues remain relevant to us and will remain so until there is a concept of war.
next in Behind the Art: Because it is the milkmaid of famous Johannes Vermeer?