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The Creation and Meaning of Guernica

The Creation and Meaning of Guernica

The Civil War in Spain began in 1936, when the military uprising broke out against the democratic government. The war was between the democratic Republican Government and General Francisco Franco, the fascist leader of Spain powered by Adolf Hitler. On 27 April, 1937, Hitler supported air force attacked the small city Guernica, which had a very little military importance. The first bomb struck a three storey building in the central of Guernica. Soon the emergency hospital was full by injured people. People were fleeing into the open fields of the nearby town. Some were tried to take shelter into the mountains. The attack was begun at 4.30 and ended up at 7.45 pm, nearly three hours and fifteen minutes. The planes were not only bombed the city, but also charged machine gun to the people who were peasants, working in the fields. The innocent people tried to flee to the mountain. Near about 1600 civilians were killed in the attack. The massacre of the civilians and the sufferings of them was the subject matter of the epic painting Guernica.[1]

Father Alberto de Onaindia was an eye witness of what happened in Guernica. Father told there was heavy bombing repeatedly at the central of the small town. He stated, after dropping the bombs by the first plane, the attack was more severe by the second and third squadron of fighter planes. The smoke and flame were covered the sky. He described of cattle, sheep and horses from the nearby animal market scattering the countryside. People were fleeing to the hills, but the fighter planes were following them. Over three hours, more than 100,000 pounds of explosive were thrown to the city. The fires were burning next three days. Maximum areas of the city were destroyed and one third of its population were killed. Castor Uriarte, the city architect, reported 71% of the total town were completely destroyed.[2]

Picasso was a supporter of the Republican government and lived in Paris by that time. He was given a task by the exiled Spanish government for the Paris International Trade Fair in January, 1937. The fair was nothing about politics but science and technological innovation. When Picasso heard the news of bombing in Guernica, he decided to paint something represents the massacre and the sufferings of the people. For Spaniards, Guernica was a place of their ancient pride and democratic freedom.[3] The attack on Guernica was not only the attack by a fascist general, but it was an attack against the Spanish people and democracy.

The Painting Guernica

At first look the painting seems chaotic and the subjects are placed arbitrarily. At the top, there is an eye shaped light bulb emitting lights to the whole picture. The mural is divided into three panels, both triangular and rectangular.[4] One small rectangle on the left, where a bull is standing over the woman is holding her dead child, yelling to the sky. Her child’s neck is hanging awkwardly, showing the visitor the cruelty of war. The bull is standing insolently and the only object unharmed in the total painting. Another rectangle on the right with three women, a burning woman upholding her hands, a lady entering through the window with a lamp, and a wounded woman crawling to the horse. The lady with a lamp is entering to scene as a hope of light. Between the two rectangles, there is another triangular, pyramidal panel, depicts the carnage of Guernica.[5]

The top of the pyramid, a horse is agonizing with pain. The screaming horse with its visible tongue is a horrific scene. At the bottom left of the pyramid, the bust of a dead soldier beneath the bull is visible. His separated right hand with a broken sword represents the defeat of the Spanish people by the fascists. The flower emerges from his palm is a symbol of hope in difficult times. At the bottom right of the pyramid, an injured woman with her nearly separated and ugly looking leg is visible. She is trying to stop bleeding from the leg and moving forward. Between the bull and horse, a nearly invisible dove, tweets, its head uphold, suggests peace has been gone.

There are endless debates about the meaning of the symbols in Guernica. The total number of figures is only nine. Six of them are human, including four women, one child, one dead soldier, a horse, a bull and a bird. The light bulb on the top suggests it is a night time scenario, though the attack was in day time.[6] Some argued that the bull represents the fascist symbol of Franco, whereas, the horse represents the anguish of the Spanish people.[7] Although, there are reverse argument exist as well. They said, the bull represents the strong protest of Spanish people and the horse’s agony is the agony of General Franco. Picasso only told that the bull is a symbol of evil and brutality. From the very beginning he was reluctant to interpret Guernica. With an interview by Georges Sadoul, Picasso declined to explain the painting. He also told that it is not the duty of the painter to explain the meaning of a painting. He only demonstrated his support for the Republic. In Guernica, there is no panoramic view of the ruined city, nor the airplanes, no parliament or church rather than a corner of a destroyed room witnessed by the peasants. [8]

The monumental work is drawn in black, white and grey. The size of Guernica is impressive. Like black and white photography, this monochromatic gives the picture more contrast between light and shadow. Picasso drew some of the sketches with colour which suggests his thinking of colouring it. But, at last, he decided to remain the painting black and white. The newspaper prints tells how Picasso knew about the carnage.[9]

Picasso used both Analytic and Synthetic Cubist form in the painting.[10] Cubist style is visible everywhere in the painting, through the horses head on top to the dead soldier in the bottom, the bull from the left side, to the wounded woman with her broken leg in the right side. The forms are distorted and cubic sharp angles are visible in the horse’s head, the bull, and in the four women figures. The eyes in the bulls head, like human eyes, both are visible. In a three dimensional world, this is visible only from multiple perspectives. The similar triangular shapes are also visible in the bull and horses ears. The twisted neck of the horse is not a depiction of a real horse. This is more likely a column of wooden structure. The tongue of the horse looks like a geometric figure.[11] The dead soldier’s eyes are opened and right angel to each other. The same eye characteristic can be found in the lady with her dead child, as well as the woman burning in the fire. In a natural world this is not possible to view these scenarios from a single point perspective. The distortions of the figures are also a characteristic of Cubism.

Inside the Deep of Guernica

Art is not only a visual representation. It depends on the personal reasons of why the artist choose a specific subject matter, iconography and why did the artist arrange this subjects in that particular way.[12] To search this answers in Guernica, the observer can ask, “What is the relationship between this particular painting and the artist himself? What is the thinking behind the artwork and the iconography? What does the bull and the horse stands for?” The bull and the horse are not any subject matter of war. So, why did Picasso draw it? To search the answers, the later paragraphs would be helpful. It will also spotlight on corrida and the girls in Picassos life.

Picasso watching a bullfight

Understanding the Spanish corrida and its importance on Picasso, is helpful to realize Guernica. In corrida, the bull, the horse and the matador takes part in the violent play. The picador is the man who fought with the bull riding back on the horse. Maximum time the bull had been killed by the matador, but sometimes, the bull took revenge over the horse. The Spaniard painters were inspired by corrida since long. Not only Picasso, but also the great painter Goya was attracted by bull fighting. His 1816 etching, La Tauromaqia, is an example of it, where the bull charges the horse, down its head, and probes the horn deep into lower belly of the horse. The horses head is turning up to the sky in pain, which is similar to the groaning horse of Guernica. Picasso had drawn sketches of bull fighting again and again. He was obsessed with corrida and with the bull and horse also. He loved to draw the agony of the horse when the bull inserted its horn into the deep of the horse.[13]

1934 and 1935, these two years were very difficult time in Picasso’s life. Marie-Therese became pregnant.  Wife Olga left him; took their son with her, which was painful for Picasso. In the etching of Femme Torero, the battle of the triangular love and hate of Picasso, Marie-Therese, and Olga is demonstrated. The uprising horse with its growing pain, the ferocious bull is kissing the bare breast girl remembers the viewer of Marie-Therese. This bull, horse and Marie-Therese is now depicted in Guernica, but the context is changed. The bull is now an evil force, the horse represents the Spanish people and the lady with the lamp resembles Marie-Therese.

On March 23, 1935, Picasso started on his biggest etching Minotauromachy[14], and spent at least one month on it. The beast with a human body and a bull’s massive hairy head is depicted in this drawing. A disembowelled horse and a bare breast girl appeared as Marie-Therese lying on the horse back. It was one of the hardest times of his life. Because of the domestic trouble, he was trying to get peace in writing poetry and drawing but left painting. Here, the suffering of the Minotaur is the sufferings of his own personal life. This horse, bull, and the sufferings of Marie-Therese are visible later in Guernica. The horse’s pain is clearly visible in Guernica, probably the most eerie symbol in modern art.

Another example is the caricature, the dream and lie of Franco (9 January, 1937),[15] Picasso drew Franco as a monster, riding on a miserable-looking horse. One of the panels Franco is devouring the entrails of a disembowelled horse. In etching number 4 and 5, reading from the right, Franco is smashed by a heroic appeared bull and left his religious banner and swords. Number 3 represents a dead horse, a symbolic view of the Spanish people. Also no 6 & 7 depicts a suffering woman and mother with deceased children. These iconographies are also later visible in Guernica.

Marie-Therese and her influence on Guernica

Pablo Picasso, Portrait of Marie-Therese Walter

Marie-Therese was Picasso’s extramarital girlfriend. From 1927 Picasso was using Marie-Therese as his model and got obsessed with her. His relationship with Marie-Therese was reflected a great impact on his art and Guernica itself. He used the face and figure of Marie in his paintings, drawings and sculptures which is already discussed. The Sculptors Studio series is another example of this, where he depicts 45 etchings in March and April 1933.

William Rudin, one of the leading Picasso scholars says, “Each picture there is a real model influenced Picasso”.[16] He also argued, discussing two of Picaso’s painting, Seated Bathers (1930) and Bather with Beach Ball (1932), the girls had a direct relationship with Picasso's paintings and the ups and downs of his life. Rudin suggested, the girls were not merely model of Picasso’s paintings, nor simply an antithetical model of them. The question, “Who is she?” is important because if it is known, we can decipher the code of the painting, like Casagemas was the code of la vie. From the previous paintings and drawings of Marie-Therese, it can be safely concluded that the women’s images in Guerinca was inspired by Marie-Therese. [17]

Though it is hard to conclude who is the lady of the lamp, but it is sure to conclude what the lady and the lamp means. Explaining this motif can be helpful comparing with the sculpture of Woman with a vase (1933). It was placed in the garden of the Spanish pavilion. The lady holding a lamp is very similar to Guernica’s the lady with the lamp. Before Picasso’s death two bronze casts were made of the sculpture. His signed statement was found in one of them, “this sculpture belongs to the Spanish Republican Government.” It gives an extended meaning of Guernica and Picasso’s profound love for his country and the Republic. The motif is now placed in front of Museo del Prado in Madrid, together Guernica.[18]

Picasso’s Guernica is based on real anguish. His models were based on realism. The bull, the horse was his real life experience from corrida. The agony of the girls was the agony of her girlfriend, wife and daughter Maya, who he had observed and sketched carefully by Picasso. The expressions of emotion in Guernica are realistic, but extendable as the viewer can imagine more and more.

The Final Mural

Picasso started the first sketch of Guernica, 1 May, 1937. He also made a couple of sketches before the final painting. Interestingly, in any single sketch, there is no plane attack, bombing scenario, or machine gun firing. On Tuesday, 11th of May, less than two weeks, Picasso finally finished his first composition. It was 25’8” x 11’6”, a massive 300 square feet canvas. The height of Guernica was at least double of the painter! Dora Maar, Picasso’s girlfriend, took photographs of the total epic painting process. She had taken photographs at least nine times, of the different stages of the painting. The exhibition closed in 1 November, 1937, with the closing of the fair. [19]

The bombing and massacre in Guernica was transformed in Picassos painting of violence and sufferings. In Guernica, Picasso drew nothing new. All the concepts were taken from his previous works and personal relationships as discussed. The scenario of bull and horse taken from corrida and the girls are transformed from the intimate affairs of his life. Though, in Guernica, there is nothing direct drawings of warplane, bombing, soldiers or massacre, the absence of planes and bombs are significant. Picasso created the powerful painting which talks on behalf of the sufferings of the war without directly painting the battle scenarios. Guernica is actually a mental representation of war than physical depiction. As long as the mankind exist, it will inspire people against war.



Adams, Laurie Schneider. A History of Western Art. New York: McGraw Hill, 2011.

Arnheim, Rudolf, The Genesis of a Painting: Picasso’s Guernica, University of California Press: 1962.

Berger, John. The Success and Failure of Picasso (1965), selection in Gert Schiff, Picasso in Perspective, Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1976, 117-126.

Cantelupe, Eugine B. “Picasso’s Guernica.” Art Journal, Vol. 31, No. 1 (Autumn, 1971): 18-21

Chipp, Herschel B. Picasso’s Guernica: History, Transformations, Meanings. London: Thames and Hudson Ltd., 1989.

Krauss, Rosalind. “In the Name of Picasso.” Art World Follies, Vol. 16 (October, 1981), 5-22

Van Hensbergen, Gijs, Guernica: the Biography of a Twentieth-Century Icon, New York: Bloomsbury, 2004.


[1] Herschel B. Chipp, Picasso’s Guernica: History, Transformations, Meanings (London: Thames and Hudson Ltd., 1989), 18.

[2] Chipp, Picasso’s Guernica, 31-7.

[3] Arnheim, ‘The Genesis of’, 19.

[4] Eugine B Cantelupe. “Picasso’s Guernica,” Art Journal, Vol. 31, No. 1 (Autumn 1971): 18.

[5] Cantelupe. “Picasso’s Guernica, 18.

[6] The attack was begun at 4.30 and ended up at 7.45 pm.

[7] Arnheim, ‘The Genesis of’, 22-24.

[8] Chipp, Picasso’s Guernica, 153.

[9] Cantelupe. “Picasso’s Guernica,”: 18-21.

[10] Laurie Schneider Adams, A History of Western Art (New York: McGraw Hill, 2011), 486.

[11] Cantelupe. “Picasso’s Guernica, 18-21.

[12] Arnheim, ‘The Genesis of’, 17.

[13] Chipp, Picasso’s Guernica, 45-58.

[14] https://www.moma.org/collection/works/60110

[16] Rosalind Krauss. “In the Name of PicassoArt World Follies, Vol. 16 (October 1981): 5-7, 11-13.

[17] Chipp, Picasso’s Guernica, 61.

[18] Chipp, Picasso’s Guernica, 61.

[19] Chipp, Picasso’s Guernica, 110.


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