Guernica is actually a country town located in Spain. But the name of the town is mostly known today as the name of a legendary painting found in Madrid’s Museo Reina Sofia. The painting, simply titled Guernica, is one of the most renowned artworks in the world, and it is painted by none other than Pablo Picasso, who is an influential artist in the 20th century. Guernica is a prime example of the genius and intricate artistry of Picasso, one of the foremost exponents of Cubist style in art.
Picasso and the Spanish Government
Before we get into the story behind Guernica, it is important that we first know the background of its painter so that we can somehow connect his life with his art. Pablo Picasso is born on October 25, 1881, in Málaga, Spain. Since he was a child, he has already displayed a high level of artistry that was never seen on the children of his age during that time.
To pursue a career in art, he left his home country of Spain to live in France to learn more and explore different art styles. He would frequently change his style of painting depending on what is trending or popular during a specific period, and sometimes he would even popularize a specific art style, which is why his artworks are divided into different styles, such as the Blue Period, the Rose Period, the Analytic Cubism Period, and the Crystal Period. When he was painting Guernica, he was fascinated by the subtle surrealism expressed by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, as well as several Surrealist poets and writers. It is a known fact that Picasso mostly spent his life in France and never returned to Spain after visiting his home country in 1934.
On an unknown day in January 1937, Picasso is in his home at Rue des Grands-Augustins in Paris when he was commissioned by the government of the Spanish Republic to create a mural at that year’s Paris World’s Fair. The artist was never passionate about the project from January until early April, but when he first learned about the bombing of Guernica on April 26, 1937, from poet and good friend Juan Larrea, he was inspired to do a mural based on the tragic event.
The Bombing of Guernica
What further inspired Pablo Picasso to create Guernica was a tragedy that befell the town of the same name in the Spanish Civil War (1936 – 1939). On April 26, 1937, the town of Guernica was bombarded by bombs that were dropped down by the warplanes of Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, who was backed by the Spanish Nationalists. The bombs killed thousands of innocent people and domestic animals.
Two days after the tragedy, Picasso happened to read an eyewitness account of the tragedy that was published by The New York Times and The Times. The account was narrated by George Steer, a journalist from Britain who reported on the battles that happened in the Spanish Civil War as well as the Second Italo-Abyssinian War. Both of these wars would later contribute to the rise in power of Nazi Germany during the course of World War II. Steer’s eyewitness account brought the spotlight on the horrors that are occurring in the affected European countries, and his reports prompted the Western countries to take action.
Picasso, who hadn’t shown much interest in the war till then, decided to express his protest against the violence brought upon his fellow countrymen. It was the culmination of Picasso’s anger over the incident that became the inspiration to Guernica.
Guernica is a mural-sized painting measuring 3.49 m of length and 7.76 m of height. Picasso did not portray the bomber planes or the havoc they created upon the town in his artwork. Instead, he expressed the horror of the calamity through the perspective of a household destroyed in the bombing. He portrays the residents and the domestic animals suffering from the tragedy, along with many symbolic representations.
According to interpretation, the picture presents the events happening inside a room. It is full of scattered and abstract figures that are painted in a surreal manner that made them disproportionate. The painting depicts a bull with a wide eye, a mother grieving over her dead child, a horse crying from pain, a frightened woman, a dismembered soldier, and many other grotesque figures. People will also be able to see many objects with peculiar triangles and symbolic subtexts throughout the painting.
As previously stated, Guernica actually began as a project commissioned by the Spanish Republican government. But when Picasso heard about the bombing, he decided to stop the initial project and paint Guernica instead. The mural was finished in June 1937, and Picasso took only weeks to finish the work. The short creation time may have been fueled by Picasso’s anguish over the incident that he never stopped thinking about the painting. He has utilized the various styles that he learned throughout his career for the artwork, but the most prominent style that appears on the Guernica is Cubism.
Guernica was first shown in the Paris International Exposition in the Paris World’s Fair in 1937. Then, the mural went on to be displayed at different venues in various countries around the world, including Britain and the United States of America, which allowed the artwork to attract worldwide attention. Because of the painting’s popularity, many people began knowing about the tragedy of Guernica, but sadly, the tragedy was mostly forgotten today, and what was left behind was a painting that lost its purpose and was overshadowed by its monetary value. However, some art enthusiasts believe that the painting serves as a reminder that war cannot bring peace or any good to a country, as it can only bring tragedy to the people affected by it.
The mural is currently displayed at Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid. There are a few paintings found in several exhibits that express the anti-war sentiments as powerfully and emotively as Guernica, and these artworks bring attention to the negative aspects of war.