In 1937, the Spanish government commissioned Pablo Picasso to paint a mural for the 1937 World Fair in Paris, France. Picasso painted Guernica, a large, oil-based mural. Spain placed the 26’x11′ mural at the entrance of their pavilion. Picasso found inspiration from reading about the bombing of Guernica, Spain by the German Air Force. The oil-based painting, however, is not a thorough portrayal of the consequence of war, but does deliver the agony and pain of the Spanish people of Guernica. Picasso emphasizes the misery of the people rather than focusing on the entire incident.
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When observing Guernica for the first time one would generally concentrate on the middle of the painting. There seems to be a central focal point where lines intersect, which can draw one’s attention. The main diagonals, which start at the bottom corners and meet at the top of a lamp, are fashioned with overlapping, varying shades, and stylistic images of people and animals. One can notice a woman in the bottom right whose body parts point along one of the angled lines. The diagonal lines are continuous in the background by a distinction between light and dark forms. The middle is framed by these angled lines and is emphasized by being some of the lightest shades within the piece. One’s eyes can also be drawn to the center of the painting by the large, white, linear shape in the background. The different shades and chaotic entanglement of objects also attracts the viewer’s attention.
Even though preliminary focus will most likely be concentrated around the heart of the painting, Picasso’s Guernica directs a greater measure of the eye from the bottom, right corner to the top, left corner. The majority of the individuals in the painting have his or her head/eyes facing the top, left corner. The others are either looking left or upward, for example the lady holding her child. Shading of the neck makes the horse appear to be turning its head around to the left. The woman on the right seems to be falling from a window. Just to the left, a woman appears to be tumbling to the ground from once again, right to left. The right to left movement results from the direction of the individuals’ eyes.
The monochromatic shaded of Guernica helps make the images extra influential, as the deficiency of color possesses the viewer’s focus on the theme of tragedy and death. Picasso’s stylistic images do not divert one from engaging his or her concentration on the imagery. Pondering the meaning is the only choice a viewer can have while observing this work and taking in the suffering of the characters.
At the extreme right of Picasso’s mural, a woman is falling from a burning building. Flames appear to be spewing from the top of that building. The flames consist triangles with different values of gray. The same light triangles are coming from the woman’s dress. Her arms flail upwards as she falls, and it is her fall that draws the eye downward and moves the viewer through the work. Below lies the woman picking herself up off the ground as she flees. This woman is made up of overlapping shapes. Picasso’s abstraction is also very evident. The woman’s knee is grossly enlarged, perhaps reflecting an injury. Most importantly, strong line moving up to the horse is created by her outstretched left arm, her leg, and her neck.
In the middle of the mural lies the horse, a significant focal point. Unlike any other figure in the work, the horse has some texture due to the newsprint of its body. Picasso incorporates the look of newsprint in Guernica because this is how he himself first learned of the tragedy at Guernica. The horse is fatally wounded, as indicated by a gash in the body directly under the head. Because of this, its head and neck are twisted as it cries in pain. The horse is assumed to be suffering incarnate, and represents the innocent Basque people. All suffering in this work is a direct result of the attack on Guernica, and the horse as a victim shows that war has no digression. The suffering of the innocent, Guernica’s central theme, is emphasized.
Above the horse, there are several light sources. One is a light bulb and one is an oil lamp. These lights do not serve as a significant light source within the work, but have a more symbolic role. The exploding light bulb is one of the only specifically modern elements in Guernica. Ironically, it does not serve as a light of hope or a light of life, but it serves as a light of destruction. The light bulb symbolizes the bombs that terrorized Guernica for hours during the attack. Llorens notes, “In Spanish, an electric bulb is called ‘bombia,’ and ‘bombia’ is like the diminutive of ‘bomb.’ So, ‘bomba-bombia’ is a verbal poetic metaphor for the terrifying power of technology to destroy us.” Furthermore, the theme of the 1937 Paris Exposition was modern technology. So, Picasso is commenting on the fact that technological developments can bring death and destruction, as well as amenities. Modern mechanical development always has a darker side. Notice that the oil lamp is not as modern, nor is it exploding. It burns a natural flame as opposed to an electric filament. It contrasts with the electric bulb, because even though is it not illuminating the scene, it is enlightening the world on the bombing of Guernica. The oil lamp, held by a grossly outstretched arm, is the light of truth. The innocence of the natural world relative to man is highlighted. Perhaps this is as close as Picasso comes to directly protesting the Nazi attack. Picasso mainly seeks emphasize the suffering of the subjects, but here he is educating everyone at the World Fair on the tragedy in Spain.
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Follow the central axis of Guernica down to the ground. There lays a severed arm clenching a broken sward and a flower. Again, the sward speaks to old and new. The sward is thought to be the “paraphernalia of pre-modernism,” and represents the world in a less technologically advanced era, an era without warplanes and bombs. This pre-modern sword is in sharp contrast to the modern weapons of the Luftwaffe. Indeed, “the warrior in Guernica is no match for the engines of modern warfare.” Much of Guernica was burned to the ground during the attack, and so the fact that a sole flower remains next to this sward is significant. The flower’s scale is small in comparison to most other figures in the mural, almost unnoticeable. Picasso is saying that despite such horrific attacks, life goes on. It’s life might seem trivial is the midst of such death, but it will continue to grow and continue the life of the town.
The dying horse initiates the worse scenes of Guernica, and the figures to the left of it continue in that tradition. There is mostly death from this point on. A decapitated soldier lies at the bottom. Like all other human faces in this work, his face is almost pure white. This makes them stand out against the background and draw the viewer’s attention. Picasso is able to emphasize the suffering of the individuals by drawing attention to them in this way. In addition, a dead child is being held in his weeping mother’s arms. A woman and her child is this type of situation had been a common subject of Picasso’s previous works. According to Patricia Failing, ” . . .to see that Picasso was able to take that traditional academic motif and actually rework it and make it relevant again to this particular time and this particular circumstance, . . . is really one of his greatest achievements in this painting.” Note that all subjects of Picasso’s mural thus far are victims. There is no depiction of the attackers. Only an indirect reference to the bombers, the electric bulb, has been made. Picasso is getting at the larger theme of the injustice of war and the horror of the murdered innocent.
Finally, the viewer’s focus lands upon the bull. Picasso’s bull lies in the upper left-hand corner of Guernica. The bull is arguably the most contented figure in Picasso’s Guernica. It has no injuries and does not appear to be screaming like all the others. Additionally, it is almost looking away from the scene, but with a perked ear. This contrast to the rest of the subjects in the mural suggests to many that it represents the Spanish Fascists, perhaps even Franco himself. Other interpretations claim that the bull represents the country of Spain, divided in civil war. The body of the bull is very dark in comparison to its head, representing two distinct partitions and a clear division.
Picasso procrastinated in starting his mural scheduled to debut at the Paris World Fair until he received news of the bombing of Guernica. When he learned of the attack, he set to work immediately “determined to . . . shock and disturb its viewers.” Certainly, Picasso’s Guernica is fundamentally a historical account, a vivid depiction of a singular event. But, the underlying theme of Guernica is also clear; all war is an injustice to mankind and despite the fact that mankind will overcome and reunite, war is the worst tragedy to fall on anyone.
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