Before getting into Guernica, the painting, let me give you a short introduction to the worlds political climate.
It was April 26th 1937, it was the middle of the Spanish Civil War. The country was divided in two political sides, the Republicans (the liberal party) and the Nationals (the conservative Party, led by Franco) At this point in the war, the Nationals were losing power and Franco needed a powerful statement in order to regain power.
Franco asked for help from the Nazis (Hitler) and the Italian Fascist (Mussolini). The three dictators worked together for the first time. The aerial bombing technique used in Guernica, set the basis for war techniques during WWII. It was the first time this “total destruction” technique took place.
Picasso and Guernica
Thanks to the articles and especially the pictures taken by George Steer for the “The London Times” Pablo Picasso heard about what happened in Guernica. He was overwhelmed and understood that what happened in Spain was just the beginning of a terrible war.
Picasso at that time was commissioned to create the Spanish pavilion for the 1937 Paris universal exhibition. He was painting his series “Horrors of the War” talking about the Spanish Civil War. The moment he heard about the bombing, he changed the subject and painted in less than two months this complex master-piece.
He decided to paint it all in different shades of black, because what he had seen of the bombing were the newspaper pictures taken by George Steer. I personally think that he also wanted to give the image of a picture, he is not inventing anything, he is showing us a real fact, but there is one thing Picasso hides in the painting, it is the village of Guernica, we don’t see the village at all,
we only perceive the destruction and chaos of war, this is what makes this painting a universal ICON against war, it can be transported to any war around the world at any time.
In order to protect himself and the painting from the Nazis, Picasso never explained the meaning of each one of the elements in the painting. Throughout his live, Pablo shared some tips of the symbolism of some of the pieces of this puzzle.
Today, this magnificent mural (11,5 x 25,5 feet) is exposed at the Queen Sofía Museum in Madrid.
Let´s go piece by piece in this puzzle
When we think about a Pietá, what comes to mind is the magnificent marble sculture by Michelangelo. Hi representes his Pietà in 1496 as a beautiful mother holding the body of her dead innocent son. Her face is peaceful, she knows that the death of Jesus had a meaning, and the Father knows. She has faith.
Picasso takes this symbol and shows us a mother holding her dead son. This time it is not a grown-up man, it is a baby. The innocent among innocents. The mother is not at peace, she is screaming, her tongue feels like a knife breaking her from the inside out.
The Pietá in Guernica is looking up for God. Not in a praying position, she is screaming to God “WHY?, why did you let something like this happen?
This image is borrowed from Goya´s “Killings of the 3th of May”. Goya portrays the shootings of innocent people of Madrid when Spain was conquered by Napoleon troupes in 1808. The central image is a man wearing a white shirt, he is not dead yet, but he is the next one. He is totally defeated.
Picasso pays tribute to Goya, reinterprets this symbol of horror and makes us understand that innocent people have died in the history of wars.
Pablo shows us a woman trapped in a burning house, she can do nothing, she is going to die. Her eyes show us defeat, she has given up on live.
We feel that she has been wounded, but we don’t see any scars or blood on her. She is dragging her leg but to me she is dragging not her physical pain but rather her emotional pain. She has survived the attack but her soul has been damaged forever.
Her soul has been wounded more than her body.
THE SEARCH FOR LIGHT
This figure is a person coming out of a window from a house in flames, carrying an oil lamp that represents intellectualism. It represents the struggle Pablo had trying to understand the atrocity of this barbaric bombing.
EYE OF GOD
The lamp is a Masonic symbol that represents that God is watching everything. Pablo is letting us know that God is watching and not even the light of God can put any sense into this. It kind of feels that not even praying we will be able to understand nor will comfort us.
With this image I have a double feeling. My brain says that it could represent one of the horses of the Apocalypses destroying everything as it runs. But as a Spanish person, my guts say that it is another reference to Bullfighting. In the arena, the horse represents power. It is the animal that protects the matador. It is the animal that whenever you need to run away from danger it will take you to a safe place. Picasso´s horse is twisted, he cannot move, he is in agony.
In the Spanish tradition, we say that the bull is the only animal that does not show fear, not even in the bullring when he is about to die. Picasso, many times portrayed himself as a bull or minotaur, he was a passionate person who was not afraid of anything. To me this is a self-portrait, to make it clearer, Pablo humanizes it by drawing the bull with human eyes, and in this case, we feel the fear in the bull, the fear in Pablo´s eyes.
DOVE OF PEACE
There she is, hidden, struggling in the smoke. She is choking, can barely breath, there is no peace in an act like this. It is an agonizing representation of peace.
The dove in Guernica can not fly, her wings are broken. We can only see a ribbon of light in her, a ribbon of light is not enough to clarify the horror of this bombing.
The dove of peace was a recurrent theme in Picasso’s work. He was a man in search of peace. In one interview he said that Guernica’s dove was the saddest one he ever painted. The rest of his doves of peace are very positive and full of love.
The representation of the army is broken, it looks like a broken sculpture. Even his sword is broken. There is no honor in this type of war, this is not war anymore, this bombing of innocent people is simply evil.
In the hand of the soldier, and on top of all the destruction, we find the only symbol of hope, a delicate flower.
Hope is what us as humans can not lose. We need to find hope no matter the situation, even in the horror of war.