During the early to mid twentieth century, a rise in abstract and cubic art coincided with political and cultural turmoil throughout the world. One painter in particular, Pablo Picasso, exemplified the cohesion of these two aspects of art: style and message. As a respected and revered contemporary painter, many of Picasso’s works have been picked apart and analyzed to discover the arguments he intended to make. In one of his most famous paintings, Guernica, Picasso utilizes a number of symbolic images as well as a cubist style to create a lasting piece that demonstrates his own antiwar feelings to the audience. The work has been the subject of a number of different controversies over the past sixty years, as many scholars debate its subtleties and pick apart Picasso’s use of imagery. However, the one message that is never disputed is the artist’s demonstration against war and the reflection of his feelings in the painting.
During the 1930s, Spain, like the rest of the world was on the brink of major upheaval. Towards the end of the decade, a civil war broke out between the Nationalists and Republicans that encompassed the entire country and had disastrous effects on civilian life. The population divided, people supporting either side were brutally persecuted, tortured and murdered for their political and religious beliefs. In 1937, the fragile Spanish Republican government commissioned, Pablo Picasso, one of the most respected artists of that time to create a work for the Paris World Fair (Guernica: Testimony of War). Picasso, deeply disturbed by the atrocities committed in his country, painted a black and white depiction of the bombing of the Spanish town, Guernica, by German forces in1937 (“Picasso’s Life”). Guernica went on to become the centerpiece for the Spanish exhibit in Paris and one of the strongest expressions of antiwar sentiments of the early twenty first century (Guernica: Testimony of War).
“Since its unveiling in 1937 there has been endless debate about what Picasso’s Guernica represents…” (Brunner 80). In her article, “’Guernica’: The Apocalypse of Representation,” Kathleen Brunner discusses the longevity of controversies surrounding Picasso’s work. She goes on to say that the main controversy stems from the fact that the painting doesn’t show the “actual bombing in the Basque town…” and that this entices confusion and discussion (Brunner 80). While I agree with Brunner that this painting is still a contemporary issue, I have to disagree with her reasoning. The scene depicted in the painting is made clear by its title and leaves little room for discrepancies. What merits consideration is the symbolism of the work, most specifically of the animals. The debate that started from the painting’s first showing in 1937 remains alive today in the minds and words of scholars who choose to discuss the imagery. This adds to Guernica’s impact and contemporary worth by ensuring that the painting remains relevant and discussed.
Style is also a large component of the message in the painting. Picasso, along with Georges Braque, is considered to be the father of cubism (Picasso’s Life). Cubism is a style of art that displays many geometric shapes incorporated into abstract designs. One of Picasso’s most famous cubist works is Guernica. In the article, “Picasso’s Guernica”, by Eugene Cantelupe, the author focuses on the geometric structures found in the cubism of the painting. He makes a comparison of the lines in the work to that of a Grecian temple, saying, “the oblong-pyramidal scheme of Guernica fuses the two basic geometric shapes of a Greek temple façade” (Cantelop 18). While I see how the author came to this conclusion, he is reading the cubist style in the wrong way. The Greeks incorporated many geometric shapes into their places of worship, but they also utilized much detail into robust images of gods and goddesses. Where as in Guernica, the geometric figures lack detail and serve to add to the chaos and disembodiment of the terrors depicted in the painting. Picasso showed the world that “it was possible to make political statements using non-realist forms” (Held and Potts 33). The cubist abstractism in this case actually adds to the display of tumultuous panic and the argument against senseless war by appealing to the emotions of audiences. The chaotic shapes representing things from dismembered limbs to terrified livestock transfers the horror of the event to the viewer and allows him to understand the passion behind Picasso’s antiwar feelings.
Picasso was able to manifest his feelings so prominently because they were in line with those of the authorities, the Republican government of Spain. The Republicans wanted the world to see the atrocities of the Fascists, and Guernica, on display in Paris, did just that. According to W. J. H. B. Sandberg in his article, Picasso’s “Guernica,” the Spanish building at the world’s fair was “not to be a commercial pavilion, but a home for democracy” (Sandberg 246). He goes on to state, “Hundreds of thousands of exhibition goers wandered by, looking upon it as a wall depiction, just a Europe wandered by the human drama of the Spanish Civil war…” (Sandberg 247). Sandberg is mistaken in his belief that people “wandered by” and took little notice of the suffering in the work. The painting’s goal of impacting those who viewed it was furthered by the fact that it was displayed in such a prominent setting. Also, his claim that “Europe wandered by” the Spanish Civil War is erroneous; while it is true that most Western governments ignored the scuffle, volunteers from both the United States and the Soviet Union came to the aid of the Republicans in Spain fighting the Nationalists.
Other crucial elements of Picasso’s Guernica are the nature and position of the subjects (most specifically the bull and horse). In “Picasso’s Guernica”, Cantelupe draws attention to the relationship between the two animals. Many art critics and contemporary writers seek to analyze and explain this link; along with Cantelupe Carla Gottlieb also comments on the symbolism in her article “The Meaning of Bull and Horse in Guernica.” Cantelupe sees the bull as the male principle and the horse as the female (Cantelupe 20). He draws on examples from Picasso’s past work to explain his conclusions, most importantly, Minotauromachy. This work is an etching done by Picasso only a few years before Guernica and one that also features prominent bull and horse imagery. Gottlieb sees the horse as the “massacred civilian population of the Basque town [Guernica]” (Gottlieb 11). She comments on the location and stance of the bull saying, “it stands at the Western end and turns its head away from the nightmarish event” (Gottlieb 12). In this way, Gottlieb seems to be saying that the bull represents the governments of Western Europe, who stood by and did nothing to help relieve Spain of their sufferings.
To each author, the bull symbolizes something different, and while one of them may be correct, it is also valid to say that neither is. The bull is not a well-known symbol of any of those groups, so disregarding claims to such is acceptable. However, the situation remains that the bull is the only character throughout the painting that is not a victim. Rather it stands towards the outside, looking in on the chaos that is unfolding around it, doing nothing to help the After doing more research on Minotauromachy, I came to agree with the Cantelupe. The bull in both paintings, while portrayed in completely different styles, is the aggressor, the horse the victim. This goes along with Picasso’s own statement that “…the bull is…brutality and darkness…” (Cantelupe 20).
Guernica, a synthesis of pop culture and political statement, is a constant reminder of the horrors of war and destruction that is caused by it. Picasso draws upon both cubist style and obfuscatory symbolism to convey his antiwar message to audiences and ensure its relevance in to years to come. While the world may never understand every aspect of Picasso’s painting, his intention is effectively transmitted. As Sandberg puts it Guernica is a “pathetic symbol of the recent past and a warning for the future (Sandberg 247).
(Picasso’s Life). Picasso.com, 18 Oct 2011. Web. <http://www.picasso.com/life/index.php>.
Guernica: Testimony of War. Treasures of the World. 18 Oct 2011. Web. < http://www.pbs.org/treasuresoftheworld/a_nav/guernica_nav/main_guerfrm.html>
Cantelupe, Eugene. “Picasso’s Guernica.” Art Journal, 31.1 (1971): 18-21.
Held, Jutta, and Alex Potts. “How Do the Political Effects of Pictures Come About? the Case of Picasso’s ‘Guernica’.” Oxford Art Journal, 11.1 (1988): 33-39.
Sandberg, W. J. H. “Picasso’s ‘Guernica’.” Daedalus, 89.1 (1960): 245-252.
Gottlieb, Carla. “The Meaning of Bull and Horse in Guernica.” Art Journal, 24.2 (1964): 106-112.
Brunner, Kathleen. “‘Guernica’: The Apocalypse of Representation.” The Burlington Magazine, 143.1175 (2001): 80-85.
As a historical interpretation, or do I dare say "document", Guernica marks the moment of terror the citizens of this small country town in northern Spain experienced as the Germans used it as a bombing exercise during the Spanish Civil War. Picasso uses this horrific moment in history to make a very powerful statement about the aftermath of war…all wars.
The composition takes on a triangular motif, angular and dynamic, the triangle serves to provide order to this otherwise chaotic scene. There is only one seemingly "calm" being, that of the bull on the upper left of the composition. Often thought of as a symbol of Spain, the bull can be perceived here both as a country which remains standing, even after this brutal attack; or perhaps quite the opposite, the beast causing the massive brutality and contemplating it. There is a paradox implied between the bull's straightforward eyes and the larger "eye" towards the center, which seemingly provides light to the scene. A metaphor for hope and liberty, the extended arm that holds a lantern, draws closer to the larger eye, almost as if directing a "way out" through the dark abyss of the triangle it emerges from. With the exception of the bull, both humans and animals share the experience of war and death. Balancing the two ends, we see two figures, screaming in agony. The composition presents two opposite triangles, the one on the right created with hands reaching up, the figure on the left holding a dead child, a tragic outcry of a mother, perhaps referencing Michelangelo's Pieta. The man with the sword, symbolic of the "matador" has been defeated.
PIcasso's narrative serves as an important example of a historical narrative with a personal and powerful interpretation. Similarly to the gentle, everyday visual objects introduced by Shaun Tan in the first pages of the Arrival, Picasso's "objects" here: the lightbulb, lantern, eye, bull, horse, broken sword, also allow us to decipher meaning and order in an otherwise chaotic experience.
- Prof. B. Lauto