Guernica Picasso Visual Analysis Essay

Picasso's Guernica 

I was a young teenager when I first saw the famed Guernica at the Museum of Modern Art in NYC. At that time, it was on a long-term loan from the Prado Museum in Spain. I was so taken back by this piece, that I chose to make it the subject of my final thesis paper in a contemporary art history course during my college years, (many years ago). The links I provided for you below will give you a detailed analysis and historical content of the piece, but I wanted to introduce some of the elements and metaphors in order to get you to start thinking about how you can also use such elements in your visual work. 

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
Above is a compositional illustration on how the main triangles in this dynamic composition begin to emerge. The outlined triangles are only the more obvious. Study the work and notice an array of actual triangular spaces as well as smaller triangular shapes that organize the entire piece. Notice that the large "eye" can also be directed to the far ends of the work, encompassing then, the largest triangle that holds the entire composition in place.

HomeModern Spanish PaintingGuernica


'Guernica' was painted by the Cubist Spanish painter, Pablo Picasso in 1937. The title 'Guernica' refers to the city that was bombed by Nazi planes during the Spanish Civil War. The painting depicts the horrors of war and as a result, has come to be an anti-war symbol and a reminder of the tragedies of war.

Historical Context

The town of Guernica is situated in the Basque Country in the North of Spain. Guernica was considered, by the Nationalist forces in the Spanish Civil War, to be the hub of Basque culture and the base of the Republican resistance. It was therefore a strong symbol for the Republicans, which made it an ideal target for the Nationalists.

In the afternoon of the 26th of April 1937, German planes began bombing the town of Guernica, trying out some of their new weaponry and military tactics. Germany, under the direction of Adolf Hitler, had supported the Nationalist side of the Spanish Civil War with weapons and other material supplies, and so in repayment, General Francisco Franco allowed them to bomb Guernica.

The bombing attack was clearly meant to intimidate the resistance as there seemed to be no clear target. There was in fact a factory in the town that manufactured various military supplies although this building remained unscathed; hence the bombing was not tactical.

Reports differ depending on which side people fought on. However, according to the Republicans, although most of the men from Guernica were away fighting in the Spanish Civil War, which left women and children in the town at the time of the attack.

The bombings started many fires in Guernica which spread quickly due to many of the buildings being made of wood. The following destruction of roads, bridges and other buildings meant that it was almost impossible for the people of Guernica to escape.

Thanks to the efforts of the New York Times journalist, Georges Steer, a Republican sympathiser, the horrors of April 26th were brought to the attention of the world. It also sparked the attention of Pablo Picasso, who was working on a painting for the Paris Exhibition of 1937, a painting which he had been asked to do by the Spanish government. However after hearing about the tragedy in Guernica, Picasso decided to change his idea altogether. The painting was then unveiled at the Paris Exhibition, however it received very little interest.

Following this, the painting did a tour of the world, bringing the Spanish Civil War to the attention of the international community. The painting finally returned to Spain in 1981 where it was displayed in the Museo del Prado (Prado Museum) in Madrid. You can now study this Spanish painting in the Reina Sofía Museum, where the painting was moved to in 1992.

The Painting

'Guernica' is a very large painting, measuring 3.5 metres in height and 7.8 metres in width. The painting is painted in oil and in monochrome colours of black, grey and white. The picture is full of symbols yet its overall theme is one of suffering. Suffering of innocent people and animals alike. From left to right the symbols are as follows:

Bull - The bull is depicted with a dark body and white head. The bull appears to be stunned or shocked at the horror surrounding him. When asked about the significance and meaning behind the animal, Pablo Picasso said it was to signify brutality and darkness.

Mother with a dead 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 is meant to resemble the classic Catholic image of the Virgin and Child, albeit tainted by war.

Pidgeon - The pigeon can be found between the bull and the horse. It is not a very clear symbol as it appears to be just a flash of white. In general, this symbol has been considered as a representation of broken peace.

Dead soldier - The soldier is made up body parts and is not a complete body. We can see his head, one of his arms and the left forearm. In one of his hands, the soldier is holding a broken sword and a flower. The flower could therefore be interpreted as a ray of hope amongst all of the destruction.

Light bulb - The light bulb is a particularly intriguing symbol. It has been said that it represents technological advancement, as in the technological advancement being tested during the Guernica bombings. If you were to learn Spanish in Spain, you would find that the word for bulb 'bombilla' is also very similar to the word for bomb, 'bomba'.

Horse - Situated in the centre of the painting, it looks as though the horse is about to fall down. We can only see the head of the horse, with its mouth open. The rest of its body is overlapped by other images, which in turn form other images such as a human skull.

Kneeling woman - This woman has also been described as the 'Injured woman' as her leg is clearly visible and appears to be dislocated or broken. She is bleeding from the knee although she is trying to stop the flow with her hand.

Woman in the oil lamp - This woman's face appears from the oil lamp, illuminating the picture. Her face appears to be in a state of shock and bewilderment. She has been considered to be a ghostly representation of the Spanish Republic.

Imploring man - The man to the far right of the painting seems to be pleading at the sky, perhaps at the German planes above to stop the bombing. It has come to be a powerful artistic representation of the anti-war feelings in the painting.

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