Occasionally, a piece of art comes along that makes a more powerful statement than any number of words ever could.
That’s exactly the case with Pablo Picasso’s famous art work, Guernica. Painted in response to one of the most terrifying events to befall Picasso’s home country, Guernica gives a sense of the turmoil the painter was feeling.
A Hectic Scene
A mural-sized painting, Guernica depicts a scene of general chaos and destruction. Painted in black and white, the image feel starker still by the lack of color when coupled with the disturbing content.
On the edges of the composition, you can make out distinct figures. On the left, a woman appears to be holding the limp body of a child, rearing her head back in agony. Behind her, a bull appears shocked. On the right, another person throws their hands up with a similar expression, the bottom half of their body swallowed by some ambiguous darkness. Next to that figure, a woman peeks her head out of a window, holding a lamp.
The center of this piece of art gets more chaotic still. An injured horse has apparently trampled a soldier holding a broken knife, and another limping figure approaches from the right. The entire piece is meant to echo the grainy narrative that the newspapers gave of the event which inspired the work.
Guernica finally found a permanent home at the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid in 1992, and it can still be visited there today.
In the 1930s, Spain had entered a Civil War. Hitler, who was the leader of Germany at the time, threw his support behind Spanish Nationalists in a very real way. Germany warplanes bombed the city of Guernica, often viewed as the Northernmost holdout of the resistance movement.
They first flattened the buildings, as they wanted to ensure that a fire would burn easily through the city. Reporters who arrived on the scene concluded that the attack had been largely an attempt to terrorize civilians, as military posts did not appear to have been targeted.
Picasso, disgusted by the blatant disrespect for human life, went to work on a piece of art titled for the targeted city. It was clear that innocent civilians had been targeted in the attack, and Picasso made that especially easy to discern with his depiction of a woman holding a child’s body in her arms.
When the piece debuted at the World’s Fair, Guernica caused a great deal of commotion. It forced viewers to confront some ugly truths of about the realities of war, and is still today viewed as a piece of anti-war sentiment. Guernica traveled the world, spending many years in New York, before it finally made its way to Picasso’s homeland of Spain.
Though the intention behind the work was obviously to draw attention in some way to the atrocities occurring during the Spanish Civil War, Guernica’s relevance has transcended any single conflict to represent a greater, peace-promoting message.
In His Own League
Picasso, like many great artists of all types, went through different phases in his career. At different times, he could be classified as a Cubist, a Neoclassicist, and a Surrealist.
In any case, Picasso always maintained his own distinct style. While you can see parallels between the abstraction in works of artists like fellow Surrealist Salvador Dali and Picasso, there is no mistaking Picasso’s work for anyone else’s, and certainly no chance of fitting it squarely in a single box.
Guernica is one of Picasso’s most famous pieces because it is one of his most impactful, and his passion can be felt clearly through the piece.