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The History and Art of Guernica

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Historical Context of the Masterpiece

Guernica, a town located in the province of Biscay in the Basque Country, played a significant role during the Spanish Civil War. It was considered a stronghold of the Republican resistance movement and a center of Basque culture, making it a prime target.

The Republican forces, comprising various factions such as Communists, Socialists, and Anarchists, had diverse approaches to governance but shared opposition to the Nationalists. On the other hand, the Nationalists, led by General Francisco Franco, aimed to restore Spain to its past glory, emphasizing law, order, and traditional Catholic values.

On Monday, April 26, 1937, at around 16:30, warplanes from the German Condor Legion, commanded by Colonel Wolfram von Richthofen, unleashed a devastating two-hour bombing raid on Guernica. Germany, under Hitler’s leadership, had provided support to the Nationalists and seized the opportunity to test new weapons and tactics during the war. This aerial bombardment became a crucial element in the subsequent Blitzkrieg strategy.


Guernica: A Symbol of War and Liberation

Guernica stands as an iconic masterpiece of modern art, comparable to the Mona Lisa in its cultural impact. Just as Leonardo da Vinci portrayed serenity and self-control during the Renaissance, Guernica represents Picasso’s commentary on the role of art in asserting individual freedom and protecting against overwhelming forces such as political crimes, war, and death.


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10 Facts about Guernica

  1. Guernica, Picasso’s most politically significant painting, remains relevant as both a work of art and a symbol of protest, keeping the memory of the town’s nightmare alive. During World War II, while living in Nazi-occupied Paris, Picasso allegedly showed a photograph of Guernica in his apartment to a German officer who asked, “Did you do that?” Picasso replied, “No, you did.”
  2. Guernica was commissioned by the Spanish Republican government as a mural for the Paris Exhibition to be held in the summer of 1937. However, after learning about the bombing, Picasso abandoned his original idea and began working on Guernica on May 1, 1937. Despite initially receiving little attention at the exhibition, it later gained immense power as a symbol of war’s destruction on innocent lives.
  3. In the painting, Picasso incorporated torn newsprint as a reference to how he learned about the Guernica bombing through newspapers. This element is visible as the chain mail on the horse.
  4. Despite living in Paris and being away from his birthplace for several years, Picasso’s sense of justice and patriotism led him to be deeply affected by the bombing in Guernica. The attack, which predominantly targeted women and children, shook him to the core.
  5. In 1974, artist and anti-war activist Tony Shafrazi defaced the mural with red spray paint as a protest statement while it was on display at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. The curators promptly cleaned the painting, and Shafrazi faced legal consequences for criminal mischief.
  6. Picasso insisted that Guernica should remain at the Met until Spain reestablished a democratic republic. It wasn’t until 1981, after Picasso’s and Franco’s deaths, that Spanish negotiators were finally able to bring the mural back home.
  7. During the creation of Guernica, Picasso allowed a photographer to document its progress. Historians believe that the resulting black and white photos influenced the artist to revise earlier colored versions of the artwork, opting for a starker and more impactful palette.
  8. Picasso not only eliminated color to emphasize the stark aftermath of the bombing but also used matte house paint with minimal gloss. This, along with shades of grey, white, and blue-black, set an outspoken yet unadorned tone for the artwork.
  9. The mural contains hidden images, including a superimposed skull over the horse’s body and a bull formed by the horse’s bent leg. The mouths of the horse, bull, and screaming woman are depicted with three daggers instead of tongues.
  10. Two signature symbols in Picasso’s art, the Minotaur and the Harlequin, are present in Guernica. The Minotaur, representing irrational power, dominates the left side of the painting, while the partially hidden Harlequin, shedding a diamond-shaped tear, symbolizes duality and has mystical significance related to life and death.
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Frequently Asked Questions

In Guernica, during the Spanish Civil War, a devastating bombing took place on April 26, 1937, carried out by German Condor Legion aircraft. This bombing, which lasted approximately two hours, caused extensive destruction and loss of life, primarily among innocent civilians.

Picasso chose to paint Guernica in black and white to intensify the visual and dramatic impact of the artwork. By removing color, he aimed to convey a more powerful sense of tragedy and suffering, resembling a journalistic photographic record.

Picasso’s Guernica does not contain an explicit visual representation of a dove. However, the dove is a universal symbol of peace and is often associated with the desire to end violence and war.

Although the dove is not present in Guernica, in the context of the artwork, it could symbolize a desire for peace and reconciliation in the face of the brutality and suffering represented by other elements of the painting, such as the bull and the horse.

The interpretation of the bull in Guernica has been a subject of debate and varied interpretations. In this context, the bull could represent the brutality and violence unleashed by fascism during the Spanish Civil War.

The “Picasso’s eye” is an expression that refers to the way the artist depicted eyes in his works. Picasso adopted different styles and approaches in representing eyes, ranging from realistic to abstract. There is no specific meaning associated with the “Picasso’s eye,” but it is a distinctive feature of his artistic style.

Author Profile

Irene was born and raised in Bilbao. She has a deep rooted passion for her country and culture. She has a Bachelors degree in education and has traveled to over 85 countries throughout the world.
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