Pablo Picasso's Guernica


Pablo Picasso’s Guernica—a powerful and shocking image of modernwarefare—depicts the chaos wrought by German bombers on a small town during the Spanish Civil War.

Guernica is considered to be one of the visual art worlds greatest anti-war works and Picasso’s greatest masterpiece. Despite the enormous interest the painting generated in his lifetime, Picasso obstinately refused to explain Guernica’s imagery. Guernica has been the subject of more books than any other work in modern art and it is often described as…”the most important work of art of the twentieth century”, yet its meanings have to this day eluded some of the most renowned scholars.

In the first aerial assault on a strictly civilian target in history, German bombers commanded by fascist authorities, bombed and destroyed the Basque town of Guernica in northern Spain during the Spanish Civil War. Picasso, dismayed at the event and sympathetic to the Republicans, made the attack the subject of a huge mural (eleven by twenty-five feet), hoping to draw international attention to the war. Dora Maar, Picasso’s mistress at the time, documented his progress in a series of photographs.

The composition of Gurenica consists of a central triangle flanked by two rectangles. A the apex of the triangle, the starkly illuminated head of an injured horse conveys the suffering of all the innocent victims. To the left is a bull that, according to Picasso, represents brutality and darkness. Below the bull, a lamenting woman holds her dead child in a pose evocative of Christian images of the Virgin Mary holding her crucified son. Sprawled at the foot of the picture is a fallen figure clutching a broken sword with which he had hoped to combat the fighter planes. On the right are three more figures in agony. The painting is executed in as style reminiscent of synthetic cubism. Although Picasso did not use collage, some of the figures appear as though they were cut out of newsprint and pasted on to the canvas.

After the work was exhibited at the Parisian Exposition, it was sent to Scandinavia and later on to London. After the fascists defeated the Republicans in Spain, Picasso requested that Guernica be sent to the Museum of Modern Art in New York. (Picasso was also an avid promoter of his own works.) He specified that the painting should be returned to Spain only after the country had been liberated from fascism. After General Franco’s death in 1981, the painting was sent to Madrid where it is displayed at the Museo Reina Sofia.


Additional Facts
  • A tapestry copy of Guernica was commissioned by Nelson Rockerfeller for the United Nations.
  • Basque nationalists have petitioned to have the painting sent to the new Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, thirty miles from Guernica.