Pablo Picasso: Guernica
“Guernica”: How it Is Meant to Be Seen”
“Guernica”: How it Is Meant to Be Seen”
Picasso’s influences and culture, and artistic movements
Before discussing Picasso’s Guernica and, we must first understand the historical and political atmosphere of the time period in relation to Picasso’s life and work. Pablo Ruiz Picasso was born in Malaga, near the southern tip of Spain, on October 25, 1881.
As a child, he displayed great artistic gifts, which his father, an instructor in the fine arts, encouraged. At the age of fourteen, he was given an exam, at his father’s request, which would place young Picasso in an advanced standing at the School of Fine Arts where his father taught in Barcelona. Picasso had one month to complete the exam, but he completed it — effortlessly and impeccably — in one single day (Penrose 32).
The Spanish Civil War arguably inspired some of the greatest art and literature of the twentieth century. As a precursor to the Second World War, it set the stage for modern warfare, and the creative genius of the period responded in kind. “It was not for nothing that the Civil War inspired the greatest writers of its day in a manner not repeated in any subsequent war,” claims Penrose (1973). These writers — and artists alike — added to the discourse of their time period by producing works that responded to events affecting their world like never before. Picasso’s genius is not an exception. Picasso created some of his most well-known art during and shortly after the Spanish Civil War, and from these pieces come the ones we will analyze here for their rhetorical force. The piece I will analyze here is, Guernica.
Before the bombing of Guernica by the German Condor Legion, Picasso had created only one piece of art that made a direct statement on the Spanish Civil War. Dream and Lie of Franco was originally created as a piece of anti-Franco propaganda to be sold as postcards to benefit Spanish refugees. He began Dream and Lie of Franco on January 8, 1937, but he did not finish it until after he finished Guernica (Utley, 2000).
That January, the Republican government of Spain asked Picasso to paint a mural for the Spanish Pavilion at the upcoming World’s Fair in Paris. Reluctant at first, Picasso eventually accepted. He had planned to paint an artist at work in a studio, but that idea was quickly thrown aside after the bombing of Guernica for a mural that would more directly address the atrocities of the era (Utley, 2000).
The mural was completed on June 4, 1937, a little more than a month after the attack. Measuring more than 11 feet tall by nearly 26 feet wide, Guernica (Figure 1) was the central piece of the pavilion (Arnheim 1962). Painted solely in black, white, and shades of gray, it portrays both the bull and the horse that Picasso had painted in so many forms. Additionally, there are six human figures displaying a range of emotions from shock to agony, grief, and even death. A mourning mother holds a dead infant on the left side of the canvas. A decapitated head lies on the ground under the speared horse. The scene is neither indoors nor outdoors. Images of roofs, walls, doors, windows, and lights confuse the location of the already chaotic scene. On the right side of the canvas, buildings are burning, and a woman falls from what could be a great height. Another woman illuminates the scene from a window with a lamp that shines like the sun, and an injured woman leans toward the light, attempting to escape the devastation. The painting consumes our peripheral vision, sucking us into the scene of death and destruction.
Figure 1-Guernica (May 1?June 4, 1937).
Guernica’s importance lay in its spiritual and historical significance. Guernica was the site of the famous oak tree where it is said that Spanish monarchs agreed to honor Basque independence. It was the ancient capital of the Basque nation and the “spiritual capital of the Basque people” (Jackson 1974). While Spain was united into a single state in the sixteenth century, the Basque people always took pride in retaining their own identity, and Franco sought to destroy that independence.
Here it is important to note that from its very inception, the preparatory sketches for El Guernica were carefully recorded by Picasso. In fact, early in 1935 during an interview with Christian Zervos, the artist remarked about his desire to have “the metamorphoses of a picture” recorded photographically. He also added that “in this way one might perhaps understand the mental processes leading to the embodiment of the artist’s dream.” (Oppler p.142) In the case of El Guernica it was the first tie that an artist thought about systematically preserving all the stages of a painting, and catching them, before actually starting on the final work. (Hilton, p. 234) While working on the canvas, Dora Maar, Picasso’s close companion at this time, photographed the different stages of his work, from the first sketches to the conclusion of the painting.
Detail of Guernica, Grieving motherFigure 3- Detail of Guernica, Horse’s head..
Let’s begin with the expressive act of Picasso communicating his colossal sadness over the turmoil and destruction of his homeland. In Guernica, Picasso communicates this sorrow through the melancholy tones of black, white, and gray. Zervos writes, “Expression and color are closely related: sadness, like all the great abstractions, is severely simple and is expressed in no other tones but black, white and gray.” Also, through the faces of the figures in Guernica, Picasso communicates sadness, particularly through the down-turned eyes of the grieving mother and the heavy eyelids of the figure sweeping in from above.
More so than sadness, Picasso is also attempting to express the pain and suffering endured by the victims of the Franco regime. He does this, once again, through the bodies and expressions of his figures. In Guernica, the figures of the grieving mother (Figure 2) and the horse’s head (Figure 3) both have sharp, pointed tongues, representing their cries of agony. The mother and the falling woman opposite her both have their heads thrown back and mouths wide open. These positions place their mouths above their eyes, and as Brunner points out: “The aural supersedes the visual. In this sense Guernica is a unified silent scream”
Oppler (1988) in his book ‘Picasso’s Guernica, quotes an interesting observation the artist had made in 1935: “basically as picture does not change…the first “vision” remains almost intact…” (p. 76). In this initial drawing each of the figures is located in its final place as well. The woman is pushing the lamp out of the window; the bull is in the same place as in the final painting, so, too, the bird perched on the bull, although in the finished work it will stand on a table.
The grieving mother is the least changed, and the stricken horse is the central component of the mural from the beginning. These elements obviously held particular significance for Picasso. The grieving woman, we’ve already seen, is a theme he carries from Guernica into other works. In an interview with Jerome Seckler — a soldier, admirer, and amateur painter — Picasso himself admits that the horse symbolizes the people. Its injury is that of the people.
Picasso’s anger toward Franco and others who are ravaging Spain is quite apparent in his work of this period, specifically in Guernica, which along with Weeping Women is the most obviously expressive of Picasso’s speech acts. In a statement regarding Guernica, Picasso says, “In the panel on which I am working, which I shall call Guernica, and in all my recent works of art, I clearly express my abhorrence of the military caste which has sunk Spain in an ocean of pain and death” (Golding, p. 103). In Guernica, Picasso communicates his rage by exposing the senseless violence that destroyed the village. The fallen soldier along the bottom of the mural is decapitated, still gripping his sword, which reveals the seeming futility of the fight.
Symbolism in El Guernica
In the early thirties, Picasso executed many drawings and prints depicting the bull or Minotaur as representing his alter ego. These series are epitomized in 1935 with his large, mystifying etching Minotauromachy. Allusions of this print’s composition in El Guernica have long been recognized. The original drawing on the metal plate has great resemblance to the painting. This suggests that Minotauromacy has such an impact on Picasso’s psyche that unconsciously he was influenced by its composition when making El Guernica. The characters in both works match. The bison-headed Minotaur corresponds to Guernica’s bull; both wounded horses share the same positions and poses; the flower-child with candle on the ladder corresponds to the falling woman. Concerning the etching, many interpretations have been made ranging from the most personal; dealing with Picasso’s hidden anxieties and private life, to his own interpretations of Mediterranean mythologies and “Jungian models of the collective unconscious.” (Oppler, p. 80)
Seen in a different context, the animals of El Guernica are considered as having ambiguous symbolic meanings to. From a naturalistic point-of-view, they could well be farm animals since the town was an agricultural centre and it was a market day when the bombing occurred. In addition to this, critics have identified the bull and horse with the Spanish corrida (bullfight) associating the two opposing actors of the bullfight with the two main opponents of the civil war. And when asked about the symbolism behind the bull and the horse, Picasso said: “the bull there represents brutality, the horse the people.” (Jerome Secklor, 1945) When interviewed in 1945 by New Masses, Seckler, his interviewer, suggested if the bull was a symbol of Franco and fascist brutality, Picasso emphatically replied: “no, the bull is not fascism, but it is brutality and darkness.” (Oppler, p. 148)
Based on the etching plates of Dream and Lie of Franco, other critics interpret the bull of El Guernica in a completely different manner. In one plate the bull ferociously attacks the caricatured Franco and in another, as it is haloed in sun rays, it confronts a despicable creature representing Franco and by the end of the series, the bull manages to survive the catastrophes of the war depicted in the final scenes. The bull in this respect, is “the symbol of the enduring force of life, the only power capable of eternal survival” an emblem of the very soul of Spain. (p.96)
The horse also embodies several meanings. If associated with its role in the bullfight as the creature in charge of inflicting pain on the bull, the horse can well be interpreted as the symbol of Franco’s forces. However, for Picasso, the horse conveys positive connotations. In El Guernica the horse clearly embodies suffering and the spectator is compelled to sympathize with its agony. It becomes a symbol of “the universal victim.” (p.100)
The three women, depicted in the painting, with their dramatic gestures, heads and arms raised in agony and mouths opened wide have been interpreted as making reference to important historical works of art. The action and gestures of the woman carrying her dead child has been closely related to those found in the works by Guido Reni and Nicolas Poussin’s Massacre of the Innocents, ca. 1611 and 1628-29 respectively, where the mouth wide open gesticulating a scream, and head violently thrown back in anguish are common traits. The running woman on the right side of the painting and the woman falling in flames are also protagonist in this classical work of art where woman are portrayed in the most extreme human suffering.
Guernica is an obvious assertive speech act about the atrocity of war. About the mural, Arnheim writes, “The picture is not a statement about Picasso but about the condition of the world” (p .5). Notice that there is no reference to any political party in the final painting. There is no direct reference to the aerial bombardment by the Germans, and there is no direct reference to Franco, certainly not like the references in Dream and Lie of Franco. Utley writes, the “perpetrator is present only in the destruction he left behind” (Arnheim 1962, p.23). Also, the existence of the walls, buildings, and the overhead lamp in Guernica confuses our sense of location. “The scene is happening neither inside nor out,” writes Warncke; “it is, so to speak, everywhere” (p.390).
In the end, Guernica makes a statement about the destruction of human civilization by any war (Warncke 2002, p. 398). “Picasso’s witness aims not to express the reality of war,” writes Cabanne (1977), “but its truth now and forever” (p.302). Truth is symbolized in the mural by the large overhead lamp in the shape of an eye, which shines its light on the scene below. Also, the woman leaning out her window with a lantern could be Truth herself, coming to reveal the horrors of war (Read, Herbert 1982, p. 209).
Arnheim, Rudolf. The Genesis of a Painting: Picasso’s Guernica. Berkeley: U. Of California P, 1962.
Arnheim, Rudolf. The Genesis of a Painting: Picasso’s Guernica. Berkeley: U. Of California P, 1962.
Cabanne, Pierre. Pablo Picasso: His Life and Times. Trans. Harold Salemson. New York: Morrow, 1977.
Ellen C. Oppler, editor, Picasso’s Guernica, Illustrations. Interoductory Essay, Documents, Poetry, criticism, Analysis, (New York and London: W.W. Norton & Co., 1988), p. 76, and p. 142
Jackson, Gabriel. A Concise History of the Spanish Civil War. London: Thames, 1974.
Penrose, Roland. Picasso: His Life and Work. New York: Harper, 1973.
Read, Herbert. “Picasso’s Guernica.” A Picasso Anthology: Documents, Criticism, Reminiscences. Ed. Marilyn McCully. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1982. 209? 11.
Utley, Gertje R. Picasso: The Communist Years. New Haven: Yale UP, 2000.
Warncke, Carsten-Peter. Pablo Picasso: 1881?1973. Ed. Ingo F. Walther. Trans. Michael Hulse. Koln: Taschen, 2002.
Zervos, Christian. “On Guernica.” A Picasso Anthology: Documents, Criticism, Reminiscences. Ed. Marilyn McCully. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1982. 202?06.
in-depth formal and iconographic analysis of the specific
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