Titre: Guernica in 1937, the republican government then in power
Artiste, auteur : Picasso
Technique : huile sur toile
Dimensions : 752 x 351 cm
Lieu de conservation : musée de la Reina Sofia, Madrid
Date : 1937
In 1937, the republican government then in power (just before being overthrown by Franco) commissioned Picasso to paint a canvas for the Spanish pavilion at the Universal Exhibition in Paris. Since 1936 it is the civil war in Spain. It pitted the Republican government against Franco's government, led by General Franco, who was trying to take power.
April 26, 1937 is a market day in Guernica. The small Basque town was the target of a German air raid. At Franco's request, four squadrons of the Condor Legion bombed the town. One of the objectives of this raid was to test their new weapons. The Condor Legion was a German air force, sent by Hitler to support General Franco who was his ally.
The aim was not military, but to kill as many civilians as possible, because in Guernica only women, children and old people were left. Indeed, the men of the city, supporters of the Republicans, had left to fight against Franco's regime. The bombing lasted three hours, with explosive bombs and incendiary bombs, 70% of the city was destroyed. The raid caused 2000 victims, mainly women and children. Picasso, horrified by the event, immediately set to work on his work. For two months he worked actively, making a hundred sketches and drafts before completing the painting.
What is Picasso trying to denounce?
Through this painting, Picasso wanted to denounce the horrors of conflicts and wars, especially when the victims are civilians. Even if a specific event is at the origin of the painting, Guernica evokes all wars, past and future.
Picasso's painting is not a simple illustration of an event, but its transposition into a succession of extremely complex images. The figures represented by Picasso are sometimes very clear in what they express, sometimes more ambiguous. It is this complexity that also makes Guernica so rich.
Almost at the centre of the composition, it symbolises, according to the painter himself, the people. A spear pierces its side and wounds it to death. The head is thrown back, the mouth seems to be screaming, leaving the teeth and the pointed tongue visible.
The mythical figure of the Minotaur is a central motif in Picasso's work. In the middle of the debacle he appears impassive, static. Only his open mouth and pointed tongue give him expression, and his eyes are human. He seems to stare at the viewer. It is an ambiguous figure. Some see it as a figure of bestiality and cruelty, others as a symbol of resistance.
Barely visible, between the horse and the bull, it could be a dove, symbol of hope and peace.
The mother and child
This woman is holding her dead child in her arms, evoking a pietà, a figure of the Virgin weeping over the death of Christ. The mother's pain and screams are visible, the eyes and nostrils are shaped like tears, the sharp tongue protrudes from the screaming mouth. The face, both front and side, is turned upside down, tilted upwards, the mother screams to heaven in distress. The child in her arms has empty eyes, head and arms flailing.
The dead soldier
He lies dismembered at the bottom of the picture, his head and one arm cut off. His hand is still clasped on a broken sword. From this hand comes a flower, symbol of hope and rebirth. But its fragility is underlined by the thinness of the outline.
The woman in the flames
She has her arms raised to the sky, Picasso is probably referring to the painting Tres de Mayo by Goya.
The woman running away
On the right, below, a woman is dragging herself, one knee almost on the ground. Her whole body, but especially her face and her disproportionate neck, are completely stretched out towards the lamp.
The woman with the lamp
A woman emerges from a house to the left and towards the centre of the composition. The elongation of her arms and head, which are tapered, gives an impression of very dynamic movement. She seems to be emerging from the destroyed city.
Why did Picasso choose black, white and coloured greys for his work?
First of all they evoke the gravity of the subject. The austerity and absence of colour can symbolise grief and death. Moreover, the black and white is a reminder of the text and the pictures of Guernica published in the press after the bombing. What is the purpose of the value contrasts? Value contrasts highlight or conceal shapes and figures. These value contrasts structure the painting, just as much as the compositional lines.
Despite an impression of chaos at first glance, Guernica turns out to be a very well thought-out work. The painting is first "read" as a frieze, from left to right. Then a triangular organisation becomes apparent. At the base of the pyramid there is death represented by the soldier, and at the top hope symbolised by the lamp. This triangular composition highlights a division into three parts that structure the painting. Finally, a distinction can be made between the lower part of the painting, in which the forms are tangled, horizontal, and evoke death and chaos; and the upper part, in which the forms are vertical, more widely spaced, and express life to a greater extent.
During a Gestapo raid on his Paris studio, an officer asked Picasso.
"Did you paint this? Picasso replied, "No, it's you.