One of the most influential artworks by Pablo Picasso (Pablo Ruiz Picasso), Guernica has become a timeless masterpiece that depicts the horrors and cruelties of war and the suffering it inflicts upon individuals, particularly innocent civilians. Due to its powerful political statement, the painting has gained a monumental status by becoming a constant reminder of the tragedies of war, an anti-war symbol, and an embodiment for peace. Picasso’s motivation for painting the scene in this great work was the news of the German aerial bombing of the Basque town of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War.
Although the painting is revered for its surreal take on modern art with its strong political message, the greyscale masterpiece hadn’t begun its journey the way we think it would. While at the Paris International Exposition of 1937, the German and Soviet pavilions were giant architectural displays of authority and power, the Spanish Republic, less than a year into the Civil War needed a way to expose the atrocities of war that were going around through countless of artworks. Thus, Picasso received the commission for a mural-sized painting in January 1937.
In some of the earliest drafts of the painting, Picasso included few other elements which did not make the final cut. For example, a raised fist, a universal symbol of solidarity in resistance to oppression. He depicted the fist empty-handed at first but later on made the fist grasping a sheaf of grain. At one point during the piece’s development, he even considered the idea of introducing color to the project by adding a red teardrop sprouting from a crying woman’s eye along with swatches of colored wallpaper throughout the painting.
Guernica portrays a frenzied tangle of six humanoid figures (four women, a man, and a child) along with perhaps the most iconic horse and bull. The action transpires within a claustrophobic, low-ceilinged interior, below an overhead lamp that appears to be bursting with light. While Picasso never specified the symbolism behind each of Guernica’s figures and objects, much of it can be taken at face value. Scholars have long tried to decode the significance of each of the symbols the artist incorporated in the painting. Naturally, Picasso was probed to explain the use of these creatures in his painting but he was adamant that the viewers should be given the liberty to interpret the meanings by themselves.
“It’s up to the public to see what it wants to see,”
Picasso insisted when asked.
Today, Guernica is celebrated as one of Picasso’s premiere achievements as an icon of modern art, the Mona Lisa for our time. But it wasn’t always hailed as a masterpiece. Among the piece’s leading detractors were American critic Clement Greenberg who had once called Guernica“jerky” and “compressed”. French painter and communist Edouard Pignon said that the painting lacked empathy for the working class and maligned it for its misplaced political message. French philosopher Paul Nizan also shared Pignon’s opinions, and even further called Guernica “a product of the bourgeoisie mentality”. At one point while at the New York City’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), Guernica even suffered an act of politically-charged vandalism. In 1974, Tony Shafrazi, a currently respected art dealer, spray-painted the words “KILL ALL LIES” over the mural-sized painting. Upon his apprehension by the museum security, he shouted, “Call the curator. I am an artist.”
Following the end of the Paris International Exposition, Guernica went on tour in Europe. Even after the war ended, the painting continued to travel and helped to raise funds for Spanish Republican refugees who had fled the country. Between 1939 and 1952, Guernica traveled to art institutions across the U.S, Brazil, and throughout Western Europe—until 1958, when it was returned to MoMA and considered no longer fit to travel as the decades of transportation, including stretching and restretching the canvas on many instances, had left the painting in a precarious condition. It remained in New York until 1981. It was during this time that Guernica took on a life beyond its canvas. It became a stand-in for Berlin, Dresden, Hiroshima, synonymous with places where defenseless civilians had come under attack. In time, it began to take on particular resonance toward anti-war protestors.
As time went by, many contemporary artists began to incorporate the imagery of Guernica in their own work as a means of response to the recurring war and violence. Guernica became a universal symbol warning humanity against the suffering and devastation of war and had helped to revolutionize anti-war sentiments.