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The Hidden Symbolism in Picasso's Guernic

by Kamna Kirti 2 months ago in art

An anti-war painting portraying civilians vulnerability against fascism

Guernica by Pablo Picasso. Source- Public Domain

Pablo Picasso's Guernica is one of the most monumental paintings in the history of modern art. This painting was an artistic translation of the aerial bombing that happened in the Basque town of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War on 26th April 1937 leading to the mass killing of thousands of innocent civilians. Francisco Franco collaborated with Nazi Germany and Italy to carry out this operation and captured Northern Spain.

The Spanish Republican government commissioned Picasso to create a large-scale mural for the Spanish Pavillion at the Paris World's Fair for the same summer when the Guernica incident occurred. Picasso was living in Nazi-occupied Paris during that time.

Just two months away from the exhibition and struggling through his own personal and creative crisis, Picasso was unable to create anything for the commission. As soon as news of the Guernica attack broke out, it shook him to the core and that became a catalyst for Picasso; he captured the war, brutal attack, and death on the canvas.

A German officer allegedly asked him, upon seeing a photo of Guernica in Picasso's apartment, "Did you do that?" Picasso responded, "No, you did."

Guernica was first unveiled to the public at the Spanish Pavillion in Paris. Then, it moved internationally, gathering funds for the Spanish war relief before it was housed in the New York's Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). Picasso was adamant about not moving it to Spain. It was in 1981, after Picasso's and Franco's death, and Spain established the republican status, the mural was brought back to its homeland.

Interpreting Guernica

There have been numerous interpretations of Guernica that contradict one another.

Picasso said, 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.

• The bull in the extreme left and the horse nearly in the center are two main elements in the composition. According to art historian Patricia Failing, the bull and the horse are important characters in Spanish culture. Towards the left, a woman is screaming and looking directly towards the sky with her dead child in her lap. The eyes of the woman are shaped like tears and this is referenced as Michelangelo's Pietà. The wide-eyed bull stands over the woman and is compared to the fascists.

• The horse is depicted in the screaming gesture with a dagger inserted in his tongue. The legs of the horse are stomped on a wounded soldier raises the question about the horse being a victim or an attacker. The torn newspaper print appears on the horse representing Picasso might have learned about the Guernica bombing reading in the newspaper. The right hand of the soldier grasps a sword from which a flower grows (a ray of hope).

• Besides the bull, there is a bird screaming towards the sky and could possibly be a dove representing the symbol of peace.

• A light bulb is shown just above the horse that might be interpreted as showing the aerial bombing in Guernica.

• The right side of the painting shows women in agony. One of them carries a flame-lit lamp and holds it near the bare bulb with another woman staring at the light bulb. The woman in the extreme right is raising both her arms in shock and is entrapped by fire from above and below. The right hand of the woman suggests the shape of an airplane.

Last thoughts

Guernica as a painting acted as a medium to gather the attention of world leaders about the wrongdoings happening in Spain due to the fascist rule.

Artistically, Guernica is a timeless masterpiece showing the "tragedies of war" and the killings of innocent human beings. This painting is a classic example of how art can expose political upheavals and save humankind.

Picasso's Guernica is filled with symbolism and is an embodiment of peace.


1. Guernica, 1937 by Pablo Picasso

2. The Tragic Story Behind Pablo Picasso's Guernica, One of World's Most Famous Paintings

3. Guernica

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About the author

Kamna Kirti

Art enthusiast. I engage with art at a deep level. I also share insights about entrepreneurship, founders & nascent technologies.

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