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Picasso's Guernica: Definition, Symbolism & Analysis

Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

In Picasso's most famous political piece, 'Guernica' depicts the death of innocent civilians, the agony of wounded animals, and the fog of war with none of its glories. Read more about this painting and then take a short quiz.

Background

During the 1930s, Pablo Picasso's homeland of Spain was embroiled in a fierce civil war, with Republicans (marginally backed by the West, supported with more vigor by the Soviets) engaged in a hard-fought struggle against the Nationalists under General Franco (in turn heavily supported by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy). As the struggle became increasingly brutal, the Spanish Civil War provided the Nazis a chance to debut many of the terrors of modern war that they would later unleash upon civilian populations during World War II.

By 1937, Picasso had a contract with the Republican government, based in Paris, to produce a work denouncing the Nationalist forces. With the bombing of the market town of Guernica, a small Basque town in northern Spain, Picasso had his moment. In attacking the city, the German bombers chose a date and time to have the greatest number of casualties, ensuring a demoralizing effect. Within hours of the beginning of the raid, the city had been demolished, and hundreds lay dead.

Guernica after the bombing
Guernica after the bombing

Symbolism and Analysis

The painting itself is painted in shades of gray, invocative of dust, ash, and smoke that would hang in the air following such a destructive raid. However, once the viewer moves past the color, one sees the expressions of absolute pain and suffering, ranging from screaming humans to agonized beasts. In fact, Picasso is sure to make sure that even within the chaos of his composition, that beyond color, agony is the reaction of the viewer to Guernica.

One feminine figure departs from the feelings of pain to a feeling of sadness, rushing to a pile of rubble to see what other sadness may befall her. This is despite her own injuries, as Picasso drags her foot out, giving the viewer the idea that this woman is by no means in a position to truly be able to walk on her own. Another mourns loudly, holding her dead child. Rubble and broken stones are symbolized by a jumble of shapes, which for Picasso represents the most fundamental building blocks of form, whether on canvas or in life. Amidst this rubble a concerned face holding a disembodied lamp searches for life, finding only a corpse.

Guernica is also notable for the fact that despite being a painting depicting a bombing, no glorification of war is offered. At the bottom of the rubble there is a broken sword, held by an obviously amputated arm, a double reminder of not only the futility of such acts, but also the fact that Guernica was not a military target. Further, in choosing a sword, and breaking it, Picasso takes an image of the noble war, embodied by the sword, and smashes it from above.

The only allusion to the possibility of destruction from above comes from the sun, whose rays shine a particular pain on those it immediately meets. Further, the sun serves as a secondary symbol, in that it reminds the viewer that the bombing took place on a market day, at a time that guaranteed that a large number of people would be present.

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