Picasso’s Guernica: 80 Years Later
80 years later the images in Guernica are still being debated; even though Pablo Picasso simply stated, “The horse is a horse and the bull is a bull.” (Arbeiter, “15 Fascinating Facts About Picasso’s Guernica”) However, Picasso declared the inspiration for the painting was the aftermath of the 1937 attack of the Spanish town Guernica. On market day April 26, 1937, the citizens of Guernica gathered for their customary shopping and socializing; unfortunately, German war planes descended upon the town. The Nazis bombed Guernica and killed 1600 people; fires burned for three days and destroyed the town. Picasso captured the “la douleur et la mort” or “pain and death” of the aftermath. Yet, Picasso maintained his place that he did not assign meaning to the individual images. Nonetheless, this large-scale monochromatic painting encourages the inner critic to react, deconstruct, and create their own dialogue. Some of the usual suspects up for debate are the horse, the bull, the women, and the solider.
The central focus of Guernica is the wailing horse; the mortally wounded animal reverberates with torture and horror. This dagger tongue horse is a nod to the horses of the Apocalypse, according to Dora Maar. Dora Maar documented the process of Guernica with her photographs. (Richardson, “A Different Guernica”) Some critics look at the terrorized horse as the people of Guernica; while others believe it represents the Republicans against the Fascist bull.(Robinson, “Picasso, Guernica) Also, the image shows animals are casualties of war.
Ms. Maar believed, “The bull along with the bird are sacrificial victims.” (Richardson) Clearly, Guernica illustrates the opposing reactions to the bombing between the bull and the horse. The bull’s gaze is devoid of empathy; Picasso has remarked that “brutality and darkness” rein. Another point-of view believes the bull embodies Fascism and represents Francisco Franco the Spanish Dictator. (Robinson) (Pablopicasso.org) Furthermore, Picasso used images of both bulls and Minotaur’s in earlier works and critics have said these images are the artist’s ego. (pablopicasso.org) (BBC News, “Piecing together Guernica”)
The dichotomy of life and death is revealed in the image of the inconsolable mother and lifeless child. Reference to this image is akin to Michelangelo’s Pieta; additionally, the image of Mother and Child is a staple used in the media to convey the effects of war. (BBC News) Notice the positioning between the bull and other characters; the grieving mother and the two other women facing the bull in distress, the mortally wounded horse, and the dying solider. They, alone, give cause for their own life and death story.
The Women and Solider
Muse, fate, grace, mourners, liberators; these are different types of feminine gender roles found in Guernica. (BBC News) Conchita, Picasso’s sister whom he lost to an illness, is the woman in the painting that is baring forth the light. Dora Maar, self-proclaimed that she was the inspiration for two of the women; the woman in the foreground and the other woman to the right. (Richardson) Entangled amid the agonizing women a solider is found on the floor broken and torn; yet, still holding his shattered sword, a direct causality of war.
The symbolism in Guernica has many stories; some seem clear while a few contradict each other. Picasso advised the viewer to not read too much into the images.
If you give a meaning to certain things in my paintings it may be very true, but it is not my idea to give this meaning. What ideas and conclusions you have got I obtained too, but instinctively, unconsciously, I make the painting for the painting. I paint the objects for what they are.- Pablo Picasso
The quote from author John Steinbeck is like Picasso’s statement about art.
A man who tells secrets or stories must think of who is hearing or reading, for a story has as many versions as it has readers. Everyone takes what he wants or can from it and thus changes it to his measure. Some pick out parts and reject the rest, some strain the story through their mesh of prejudice, some paint it with their own delight. A story must have some points of contact with the reader to make him feel at home in it. Only then can he accept wonders. -John Steinbeck
Picasso did not assign meaning to the images in Guernica: however, these images inspire the observer to create their own war story with heroes, villains, oppressors and martyrs. Furthermore, a tapestry of Guernica hangs in the United Nations building as an icon for the antithesis of war. Eighty years ago Picasso presented Guernica at the Paris World’s Fair as a tribute to the aftermath of the bombings. Moreover, it is still relevant as a construct to external and internal struggles of war; case in point, Syria, Palestine, Israel, Afghanistan, Iraq, Rwanda, Sudan, Bosnia and the Ukraine. In two more decades Guernica will be 100 years old; the world will still be full of warring spirits and Guernica will continue to remind us of the autocracies of war.
Arbeiter, Michael. 15 Fascinating Facts About Picasso’s Guernica. mentalfloss.com/article/63103/15-fascinating-facts-about-picassos-guernica. Accessed 1 Jun. 2017.
BBC News. Piecing together Guernica. news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/7986540.stm. Accessed 1 Jun. 2017.
Pablo Picasso Paintings, Quotes, and Biography. www.pablopicasso.org/guernica.jsp. Accessed 1 Jun. 2017.
Richardson, John. The New York Review of Books. A Different Guernica. www.nybooks.com/articles/2016/05/12/a-different-guernica. Accessed 1 Jun. 2017.
Robinson, Lynn. Picasso, Guernica. KhanAcadamey.org. Khanacadamey.org/humanities/art-1010/early-abstration/cubism/a/Picasso-guernica. Accessed 1 Jun. 2017.
Steinbeck, John. The Winter of Our Discontent. Viking Press. 1961, New York.
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