Guernica is a large painting that was created by Pablo Picasso in 1937. The artwork is regarded as one of Picasso’s most popular paintings due to its powerful meaning and symbolism. It is supposed to depict the violence and chaos that occurred during the bombing of Guernica, Spain, on April 26, 1937, right at the peak of the Spanish Civil War. The painting was first displayed and showcased at the 1937 Paris International Exposition, and it would move around the world for people to know more about the Spanish Civil War. The funds that they have accumulated throughout the world tour were given to the war relief organizations in Spain. What inspired Picasso to paint an abstract depiction of the bombing? The answer can be found as we take a look at the interesting origins of Guernica.
The Spanish Republican government commissioned Picasso to create a large mural in January 1937, and the artwork was planned to be displayed at the 1937 Paris World’s Fair. The commission was given to Picasso during the time when he was living in Paris and had not visited Spain since 1934.
Picasso was not interested in creating or finishing the project, and the ideas that he came up with were only a depiction of his studio at Rue des Grands Augustins. However, when he heard about the bombing of Guernica by Nazi Germany (by the request of the Spanish Nationalists) on April 26, 1937, he was immediately inspired to do a mural based on the tragic event. The same idea was also recommended to Picasso by his dear friend, a Spanish poet named Juan Larrea. Unable to actually picture what happened during the bombing, he read an eyewitness account written by war correspondent George Steer and published on The Times on April 28. From then on, Picasso was fueled with both inspiration and anger to create the imagery of the mural.
The artwork was painted using a matte house paint that was requested by Picasso to an unknown paint company. Picasso specifically requested matte paint since he wanted the least possible gloss for the painting. When Picasso created most of his paintings, he usually doesn’t allow people to visit him whenever he is working. However, for Guernica, he asked several of his popular friends to take a look at his progress and see if they can add anything to it. Some believed that allowing popular visitors in the studio was Picasso’s way to raise publicity for both the painting and the bombing.
Picasso took 35 days to finish the painting, which was quite an amazing feat given the artwork’s size (137.4 inches tall and 305.5 inches wide).
When you take a closer look at the painting, you will find various figures that have unproportioned body parts. On the left, you will see a bull’s head located on top of the crying woman who seems to be grieving over her dead child. At the center, you will be able to notice a horse that is screaming in agony while there is a hole on its side. A soldier, whose body has been dismembered possibly due to the impact of the bomb’s blast, is seen at the bottom of the horse.
Witnessing the agony of the horse is a woman’s head located at the upper right. The elongated arm that is holding a lamp seems to belong to the said woman. Another woman is seen at the bottom staring at the light produced by the lamp. The final visible figure on the far right is a woman that seems to be unable to open a door while she is being engulfed in flames.
All of these figures are supposed to represent the suffering that was experienced by the people and animals who died or were injured during the bombing of Guernica. The black, white, and gray paint that Picasso used further emphasizes the somber tone of the painting. Many art experts tried to interpret the painting with different meanings and symbolisms, but Picasso ultimately countered their interpretations by saying that it was not his intention to give meaning to the painting, and he only painted the figures based on what he felt whenever he thinks about the tragic bombing.
When Guernica was presented at the Paris Exhibition in 1937, it didn’t receive much praise, as the ones who commissioned it, along with the visitors of the exhibition, wanted to see a more traditional painting that is easier to decipher and understand. However, when it was toured around Europe in 1938 by Paul Rosenberg, Picasso’s friend and longtime dealer for his art, it was received with critical acclaim. The success of the European tour allowed Rosenberg to move the painting to the United States in 1939. From then on, it has garnered popularity among the media, and it soon appeared in various newspapers and magazines in the early 1940s.
Picasso kept a photo of Guernica when he was still living in Paris during World War II, and it was believed that the photo was supposed to remind him of the bombing and how he felt after he heard about it. When a German officer came to visit him, the soldier allegedly saw the photo and asked Picasso, “Did you do that?” Picasso answered, “No, you did.”