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Guernica : Horrors Of War

Devised with a supremely calculated method; mocking the bombing, followed by the long-standing demise of a minute yet strategic civilization, Guernica by Picasso showcases the ugly truth of 26th April 1937. What started as a dispassionate project, Endured several scraps for ideas as claimed by the artists himself; turned out to be a political marvel, in a matter of thirty-five days.

Guernica, June 1937

Factually noted, to be commissioned by the Spanish Republican government for the Spanish pavilion at the 1937 Paris World's Fair, this piece held personal significance to the artist, who, since he left Spain in 1934, was the Honorary Director-in-Exile of the Prado Museum under the dictatorship of Francisco Franco, the General-in charge of the bombing at Guernica.

During the Spanish civil war, different organizations were united, at face value, in their opposition of nationalists so as to return back to a republican dream led by law, order, and traditional Catholic values. The town in the province of Biscay in Basque Country was seen as the northern bastion of the Republican resistance movement and the centre of Basque culture. This added to its significance as a target. It is said that the bombing at Guernica continued for more than two hours, enough to ruin the space for a long time thereon. In addition, it is also said that as a majority of Guernica's men were away, fighting on behalf of the Republicans at the time of the bombing, the town was hence populated mostly by women and children. These demographics are reflected in the painting as well. though It was a minimal star in favour of the Spanish civil war, yet the ruins left behind were bigger than life for those who succumbed to the bombing; for Picasso, it was horrors of war come alive in reaction and death.

In his own words, Picasso said “the Spanish struggle is the fight of reaction against the people, against freedom. My whole life as an artist has been nothing more than a continuous struggle against reaction and the death of art. How could anybody think for a moment that I could be in agreement with reaction and death? ... In the panel on which I am working, which I shall call Guernica, and in all my recent works of art, I clearly express my abhorrence of the military caste which has sunk Spain in an ocean of pain and death."

And hence his work began, composed of solids of black, grey and white, with minimal gloss so as to truly capture the somber and void that the piece carries. Picasso was also assisted by photographer Dora Maar, who helped him to eschew colour and give the work the black-and-white immediacy of a photograph.

The piece includes broad strokes of black and grey entwined with fine brushwork in white, it encompasses a scene rich in symbolism. The scene occurs within a room where, on the left, a wide-eyed bull stands over a grieving woman holding a dead child in her arms. A horse falls in agony in the centre of the room, with a large gaping hole in its side, as if it had just been run through by a spear or javelin. The horse appears to be wearing chain mail armour, decorated with vertical tally marks arranged in rows. A dead and dismembered soldier lies under the horse. The hand of his severed right arm grasps a shattered sword, from which a flower grows, and the open palm of his left hand contains a stigma, a symbol of martyrdom derived from the stigmata of Christ. A bare light bulb in the shape of an eye blazes over the suffering horse's head.

To the horse's upper right the head and extended right arm of a frightened female figure appears to have floated into the room through a window, and she witnesses the scene. In her right hand, she carries a flame-lit lamp and holds it near the bare bulb. From the right, below the witness, an awe-struck woman staggers towards the centre, looking into the blazing light bulb with a blank stare. Daggers that suggest screaming have replaced the tongues of the horse, the bull, and the grieving woman. A dove is scribed on the wall behind the bull, part of its body comprising a crack in the wall through which bright light from the outside shines. On the far right a fourth woman, her arms raised in terror, her wide open mouth and thrown back head echoing the grieving woman's, is entrapped by fire from above and below. Her right hand suggests the shape of an aeroplane. A dark wall with an open door defines the right side of the room.

In addition to this, there are two hidden images that occur in the Guernica, A human skull overlays the horse's body and A bull appears to gore the horse from underneath. The bull's head is formed mainly by the horse's entire front leg which has the knee on the ground. The leg's knee cap forms the head's nose. A horn appears within the horse's breast. The bull's tail forms the image of a flame with smoke rising from it, seemingly appearing in a window created by the lighter shade of grey surrounding it. The essence of the canvas lies in all that its viewer can interpret, for every corner has a piece of symbolism that has been beautifully placed by Picasso himself.

Two of the artist's signature images, the Minotaur and the Harlequin, also figure in Guernica. The Minotaur, which symbolizes irrational power, dominates the left side of the work. The harlequin, a partially hidden component just off-centre to the left, cries a diamond-shaped tear. The harlequin traditionally symbolizes duality. In the iconography of Picasso's art, it is a mystical symbol with power over life and death. Perhaps the artist inserted the harlequin to counterbalance the deaths he depicted in the mural. The two symbols are considered to be the primary arches of the piece.

Pablo Picasso working on Guernica, 1937

In an alleged comment, when questioned about the piece by a German officer upon seeing the Guernica in his apartment, he asked “did you do this?” to which Picasso replied, “no, you did.”

In a matter of thirty-five days, Picasso created a marvel that was equally painful as it was enormous, it shows the aftermath of a long-driven war at its best and still stays safe at the Museo Reina Sofía in Madrid as a ring in the ears for those who live no more to see it.


Britannica ( 2017, April 24 ) | Guernica : Work by Picasso.

Museo Reina Sofía ( 2013, May 15 ) | Pablo Ruiz Picasso : Art Works in Collection.

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