War, Art and "Guernica" 1937
"Guernica", filling an entire wall, is surely the best-known
20th-century work of art. It relates to a specific historical event,
and expresses Picasso's political commitment. For this reason, art and
politics, the creative hallmarks of the work and its historical
circumstances, must be treated as inseparable.
By 1936 at the latest, Picasso's lack of interest in current
political events was at an end. In April that year, the alliance of
Socialists and Communists known as the Popular Front came to power in
France, a development matching what had already been a reality for
some months in Spain. Since the end of the military dictatorship and
the proclamation of the republic on 14 April 1931, Spain had been
undergoing violent social and political upheaval. In 1934 the moderate
Republican and Socialist government was replaced by a coalition of
Monarchists and right-wing republicans, which rescinded reforms. This
prompted a miners' revolt and a general strike - bloodily put down by
the army, under the supreme command of General Franco and with the
assistance of Fascist Italy. In November 1934 the Falange, the Spanish
wing of the international Fascist movement, was constituted. Not till
19 February 1936 did the political tide turn, when the Popular Front
won the election and was able to form a government - legally and with
full democratic legitimacy. The first months of that government were
marked by conflict on all sides, the Falange in particular trying to
crush the workers' movement via terrorist methods.
The assassination of the leader of the Monarchists on 13 July 1936
signalled the start of open revolt. On 17 July civil war began with
the rebellion of the army (under Franco) in Spanish Morocco, a
rebellion which spread to Spain itself on 18 July. The Republican
government found itself facing an alliance of Nationalists, Falangists
and anti-Republicans, led by the forces of Franco, who, helped by
Italy and Nazi Germany, transferred his troops from the North African
colony to Spain. The war was to last till 28 March 1939 and cost one
and a half million lives. The Falangist side was aided by Italian and
German troops, particularly the notorious Condor Legion, a German air
force unit. The Republican government was supported by the Soviet
Union and by numerous volunteers from many countries; the official
government policies of France and Great Britain, however, dictated
From the outbreak of civil war, Picasso was on the side of the
legitimate Republican government, which appointed him director of the
Prado in Madrid, Spain's most important art gallery, in July 1936. In
January 1937 the government commissioned him to paint a mural for the
Spanish pavilion at the Paris World Fair, due to open in July. At the
same time, he moved to a new studio in the Rue des Grands-Augustins in
Paris (the street where Balzac's tale "Le Chef-d'oeuvre inconnu" was
set). At first Picasso intended to meet the commission with a
representation of the freedom of art, using a studio scene with
painter and model.But when the news of the bombing of the holy Basque
town of Guernica reached him, he changed his mind. On 26 April 1937
the town was totally destroyed in just three and a half hours by
Falangist forces, Spanish, Italian and German troops, under German
command. The town was of no military importance; its destruction was
an act of pure terrorism. But it rapidly acquired political
significance as reports of the atrocity appeared in the world press.
Guernica was transformed by those reports into a symbol of modern
And Guernica also became synonymous with the horrors of the civil
war. For it was not the first time something of the sort had happened.
In November 1936, for example, large numbers of the civilian
population were systematically killed in the several weeks of
bombardment that accompanied the attempt to take Madrid. And on 31
March 1937 the small Basque town of Durango was almost totally
destroyed by German aircraft. With these new impressions of war vivid
in his mind, Picasso abandoned his original idea for the mural and
began sketch work on a new idea on t May
1937. By mid-June the finished work was being mounted on the wall
of the Spanish pavilion at the World Fair, and the building was
officially opened on 12 July. The pavilion showcased Republican Spain
in mortal jeopardy; and Picasso's painting fitted perfectly, though he
made his statements exclusively in symbolic form. There was no
specific depiction of warfare in the work, nor was there any emphasis
on political events. In fact Guernica, the great symbol of the terror
of war, had prompted an allegorical composition.
The painting is monumental in effect but not oppressive. The
horizontal-format composition uses seven figures, or figure groups; it
is clearly yet subtly divided up. Two presentations occupy the left
and right sides, with a flat triangle between. In the middle,
unnaturally posed, stands a wounded horse, its neck wrenched to the
left, its mouth wide open in pain. To the right, from a square space,
are a stylized human head in profile and an arm holding a lighted oil
lamp over the scene. Above the horse's head is an ambivalent motif: a
large eye of God, surrounded by a circlet of irregular jags, with a
lightbulb for a pupil - standing for sunlight as well as electric
light. To the right of the horse a woman is hurrying, her pose plainly
conceived to fit the falling diagonal: this is where the central group
is completed, in compositional terms. A counterpart to this figure is
a warrior statue on the ground to the left below the horse, its arms
outstretched, a broken sword in one hand. The statue has been smashed
into hollow pieces.
Picasso avoids the involuntary rigidity of precision composition.
The sun and lamp are to the left, the equally striking white house
wall to the right of the painting's central vertical axis. Above the
smashed statue stands a unified group. A mother is kneeling before a
bull, screaming, holding her dead child in her arms. A corresponding
figure at the right edge of the canvas has its head flung back, mouth
open to cry out, and arms stretched heavenwards in a gesture of
profound emotion. The use of dark and light areas and irregular jags
suggests that we see this as a falling, burning figure against a house
in flames. The spatial situation of the composition has been
systematically unsettled by various lines leading into the depths and
by irregular perspective foreshortening. The dark-light use heightens
this unsettling effect of destabilization, since no definite source of
light can be made out. The scene is happening neither inside nor out:
it is, so to speak, everywhere.
Picasso reconciled primal forms of expression, his own formal
idiom, and motifs and images that were readily understandable,
familiar through a long tradition. In painting "Guernica" as an
allegorical history, he was using a traditional picture genre. And
quite clearly the tripartite structure of the composition was an echo
of the exalted triptych, the classical form of Christian altar
paintings. Picasso's use of the form was utterly contemporaneous: the
triptych had long since become a secular mode, and had been used in
both abstract and representational art for a variety of purposes.
The great triptychs of the German painters Max Beckmann and Otto
Dix were important for Picasso. Beckmann and Dix had conveyed the
turmoil of the age and the horror of war in allusive yet highly
realistic works. Picasso, for his part, proved a virtuoso in
code-shifting in traditional modes and methods. Though it is readily
taken in as a whole, "Guernica" is nonetheless a work of multi-layered
complexity. Therein lies its attraction and greatness. It is far more
than agitprop art. The preliminary studies, by a Picasso who was
already fully aware of his significance in the history of art, enable
us to follow the evolution of the work exactly. Forty-five dated
studies and a number of photographs showing the different states of
the work in progress provide unparalleled documentation. The labours
they bear witness to were carried out with the utmost concentration.
From the start on 1 May to the completion on 4 June, Picasso took just
five weeks. For a work on so monumental a scale, and of such formal
and thematic complexity, it is staggeringly fast. But the explanation
lies in Picasso's characteristic way of working, manoeuvring motifs
from his own repertoire and from the stock of European art through the
Study for "Guernica"
Study for "Guernica"
The first state (11 May) merely placed the outlines of the key
figures on the canvas, not necessarily in their final positions. The
bull stands over and to the right of the mother with the dead child.
Beside the bull, one arm of the reclining warrior rises like the
outstretched arm of a man crucified. This is plainly the central
motif; the horse is turning to the warrior, too. To the right, Picasso
has already drawn in the figure with the lamp, the hurrying figure,
and the burning figure, but the details are different; for instance,
the hurrying woman is carrying a dead body. Familiar sources in the
European art tradition have influenced this composition. Peter Paul
Rubens' great allegorical painting "The Horrors of War" (in Florence)
provided forms and subjects for Picasso's treatment of the topic. The
lying man with outstretched arms, the mother with child, the frieze
effect, the overall impact of extended arms and dynamically
interlinked forms, all derived from Rubens.
But the figure at right with uplifted arms is no mere variant on
Europa in Rubens' painting. It combines, two figures against a burning
house wall in Raphael's Vatican fresco of the Borgo fire. And
yet another traditional image influenced the woman with the dead child
in her lap: the pieta of the Virgin holding the dead Christ. The
woman's head and the lamp are also variations on a historical motif:
light as a symbol of Enlightenment, represented by an allegorical
female form bearing a torch. The most famous figure of this kind is
the Statue of Liberty in New York, by the French sculptor Frederic-Auguste
Bartholdi. The mother with the dead child alludes to the ancient
Pasquino group which Picasso had already drawn upon for his Minotaur
works. The bull and horse themselves, of course, relate to the
Minotaur and bullfight complex which Picasso had been using since the
mid-1930s, not least to convey political statements.
The work Picasso did on the studies and on the final canvas of "Guernica"
shows how he altered what were at first unambiguously political
symbols in order to endow them with universal validity. When he began
work on 1 May 1937, his idea of the total picture was still fairly
vague. However, sketchy as some of the preliminary work was, it did
include everything of moment: the standing bull at the left, the horse
in the middle, the house wall at right with the figure bearing a lamp.
By 9 May, after much work on detail, the composition was ready to be
transferred to the huge canvas. The last of the studies shows,
however, that the first canvas state had taken the development of the
idea further and was not merely a one-to-one transfer. In the sketch
(No. 15), the bull's head is turned to the right, and a large
wheel has been introduced to the centre of the composition; houses are
grouped around an area strewn with prostrate soldiers and the dead,
not very readily distinguishable, and at right by the house wall a
single arm is stretched out. The picture makes a cluttered and unclear
overall impression. The first canvas state is calmer, and the figural
groupings, few in number but clearly articulated, enrich the impact of
Study for "Guernica"
Study for "Guernica"
But Picasso's reasons for altering his compositional concept once
it was on canvas were not merely formal. The first state marks a
caesura in terms of content too. In the sketch, crudely stylized
though the presentation is, we can still make out a real market
square, and so make the connection with the Basque town of Guernica.
On canvas, we can no longer identify any place. Only the burning house
suggests a particular inhabited place; but it stands more generally
for human shelter, and its violent destruction.
Another photograph shows that in the second canvas state the lying
warrior's outstretched hand was circled with a halo of fire, and many
of the individual figures were painted in, in large areas of black or
grey. Next Picasso got rid of the outstretched arm and transformed the
aureole into the eye of God. Given the shift in the compositional
weight, he turned the warrior so that his head was now at the left.
The removal of the arm and clenched fist, with the aureole that
emphasized them, was done for reasons of content. The gesture was an
international symbol for the struggle of the Left, used by Communists
and, in Spain, particularly by the Popular Front. A motif that came
with so unambiguous a connotation would have reduced the entire
painting to agitprop.
In the next state, Picasso deliberately used the contrasts of large
black, grey and white areas to define his motifs further. The photo
shows how he tried out his effects before fixing them on canvas,
taping wallpaper remnants over critical zones, removing them after
testing the impressions, then painting in relevant details. The
absence of the warrior's arm had left an empty space in the centre. To
fill it, Picasso changed the position of the horse. Now it stood
erect, mouth open, head tossed back to the left. This had the effect
of placing sheer animal suffering, the primal scream of pain, at the
heart of the composition: primaeval, emotional, a formulation directly
communicating the main concern of the work.
The motif was a quotation from Picasso himself. In a gouache of 10
May 1936 on the minotaur theme the horse appears in the very same
position as now in "Guernica"; Picasso simply transferred the lance
and wound from the minotaur to the horse. This variant on a figural
grouping he had been using since 1924 shows the continuity in
Picasso's repertoire of motifs. Picasso also changed other parts,
reducing the falling figure at right by the burning wall and
redefining the lamp and sun in the middle. The final version of the
painting had essentially now been arrived at.
In the fifth state, its body realigned, the bull is emphatically on
the left, transformed in attitude and bearing into a protector of the
mother and child. Blacks, whites and greys are now deployed across the
canvas with more consistent deliberation than ever. The dead body in
the arms of the hurrying woman has been definitively abandoned. Yet
the overall impact still does not seem quite to add up: centre and
sides are played off against each other, true, but at left the figure
of the lying warrior makes for a diffused effect.
Study for "Guernica"
Study for "Guernica"
In states six and seven we see Picasso establishing a more cogent
solution, formally and in terms of content. He left the warrior's head
where it was, but turned it to look up, and, echoing a still life of
1925, changed the figure into a smashed statue. He used short parallel
strokes to indicate the horse's coat, which introduced a dynamic
restlessness to the texture of the centre. Finally Picasso reworked
some of the details in the seventh state, eliminating (for example) at
the very last moment the anecdotal detail of the tear rolling down the
hurrying woman's cheek. The work as completed on 4 June was a
composition uniquely unified in modern art, and of unparalleled
conviction. Its impact derives not only from the subtle complexity of
the composition and content but also from the stylized, schematic
manner in which the figures are presented, at once tunelessly ancient
and universally accessible.
Prior to, during and after his work on "Guernica", Picasso did a
series of political pictures that dealt quite differently with
Franco's war on the legitimate government of Spain. These etchings
bore the title "Dreams and Lies of Franco". In two sheets of
nine scenes each, Picasso (for the only time in his entire oeuvre)
used a series of pictures to indicate a time sequence. They were
intended to be sold separately as single postcards in support of the
aid campaign for the Spanish Republicans. On 8 and 9 January 1937
Picasso etched fourteen of the eighteen scenes, then after a break
reworked them in aquatint on 25 May and completed the work on 7 June,
when he added the remaining four scenes. By then he had abandoned the
idea of selling individual pictures in postcard format and had decided
to sell the series as a whole.
This also involved a stylistic change, linked to his work on the
newly completed "Guernica". Unlike the latter, "Dreams and Lies of
Franco" was intended as satirical, partisan agitprop ridiculing
Franco, branding his campaign as anti-human, cruel and senseless.
Picasso subordinated his style to his political aims. Positive
characters retained their natural form; Franco appeared deformed and
surreal. Picasso illustrated stages in Franco's vanquishing at the
hands of the Spanish people. For printing reasons, the scenes appear
in reverse order and should be followed right to left.
In the first scene, the Caudillo appears as a perverse Christian
knight, a parody of the legendary El Cid or Miguel de Cervantes' Don
Quixote. Derided by the sun, he gashes his own horse. In the second,
the general is tightrope walking, his monstrously erect phallus a
burlesque of his machismo, his boastful stance as a glorious warrior.
The third panel shows Franco using a pick in the attempt to smash a
female bust (for Picasso a symbol of art and perfection): the general
is a threat to culture. In the fourth scene, Franco, dressed as a
woman, represents cowardice. In the fifth he is attacked by a bull,
symbolic of the defeat of Fascism. The sixth shows the Caudillo
praying to the monstrance of high finance, in a barbed-wire compound.
In the seventh, a parody of the biblical creation of the world, the
general, exhausted by his labours, is resting amongst vermin. In the
eighth, mounted on Pegasus, he is setting off to the sun: but he has
transfixed the winged horse, symbol of poesy, with the shaft of his
banner. So in scene nine we see him mounted on a pig, again setting
off to the sun: the change symbolic of Franco's fall and the salvation
of Spain. The tenth scene shows Pegasus dead, slain by Franco. The
eleventh and twelfth show a dead woman and a dead horse, victims of
Franco, the horse cradling its fallen rider with its neck. In the
thirteenth, the bull is presented as Franco's enemy, killing him in
the fourteenth. The last four scenes, added later, deploy figures from
the "Guernica" repertoire and illustrate the sufferings of Franco's
victims in the civil war.
Dreams and Lies of Franco I
Dreams and Lies of Franco I
Picasso was using motifs of his own but also others from Spanish
art: figures and scenes from paintings by Velazquez and Francisco de
Goya, particularly his bullfight sequence "Tauromachia". Picasso's
form and content suited a direct attack on a political enemy; his
style employed elements of caricature.
In "Guernica" it is entirely different. Any direct evocation of an
identifiable contemporary reality or even a political grouping has
been carefully avoided. The symbolic idiom is deliberately
generalized. The bull and horse, through their association with
bullfighting, stand for Spain: the horse is the people suffering, the
bull the people triumphant, but both are victims of aggression and
destructive violence. All the figures in "Guernica" are victims. The
meaning of the painting, deliberately stated in general terms borrowed
from Rubens' great painting, lies in its representation of the
destruction of human civilization by war.
The form of the work matches its fundamental simplicity of
statement perfectly. There is neither caricature nor propaganda in it.
Picasso's allegory is rigorously done. The blacks, greys and whites
echo the old use of grisaille in altarpieces. Nothing in the work is
specific to the medium of paint: it is a draughtsman's creation. The
simultaneity of perspective and figures, the juxtaposition of linear
and volumed representation, and varying frontal and profiled angles of
vision, are all stylistic devices Picasso had already developed in
earlier work. Nevertheless, the simple primaeval power of the picture,
so seemingly archaic in tone yet so sophisticated in composition, did
mark a new departure. Once again, Picasso's stylistic quest had been
catalysed by examination of source material.
In this case, the key is the fourth sketch of 1 May, the first
detail study for "Guernica" (preceded by three compositional drafts).
The study shows a horse (No. 4). It is drawn as a child would
draw a horse, its physical proportions purely symbolic, all four legs
and both eyes equally visible. In the third sheet (No. 3) there
are seemingly infantile uses of line as well. These, however, are a
response to surrealist figural work. Both strands - children's
drawings and Surrealism - were interwoven and important influences. In
"Guernica" Picasso combined his linear style, widely termed classical,
with surreal recordings of the subconscious; and the foundation on
which the combination was established was the basic idiom of
children's drawings. Children's principles determined his contouring,
the use of detail motifs, and the perspective.
Study for "Guernica"
Study for "Guernica"
For Picasso, the idiom of children's drawings was evidently a
completely new discovery. His early professional training had given
him no opportunity to draw in a childlike way himself, nor had his own
children prompted in him an awareness of the child's way of seeing the
world. This is all the more remarkable since Picasso had portrayed his
little son Paul drawing and painting. It was not till the Thirties
that Picasso, under the influence of Surrealism, occasionally admitted
the child's manner to his work, as in "The Crucifixion" (1930). Taking
a detour through another style in art, Picasso came to value the
expressive power of children's art. The Surrealists, looking for modes
of expression that were untainted by existing mental and cultural
pressures, had discovered children's creative powers for themselves.
And that discovery in turn helped Picasso. Thus "Guernica", for
Picasso, became a great synthesis of the very various artistic
approaches he had been taking since his period of so-called
(1st state; 2nd state; 3rd state; 4th state)