oil on canvas
Madrid, Spain: Museo Reina Sofia
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It is modern art's most powerful antiwar statement... created by the twentieth century's most well-known and least understood artist. But the mural called Guernica is not at all what Pablo Picasso has in mind when he agrees to paint the centerpiece for the Spanish Pavilion of the 1937 World's Fair.
For three months, Picasso has been searching for inspiration for the mural, but the artist is in a sullen mood, frustrated by a decade of turmoil in his personal life and dissatisfaction with his work. The politics of his native homeland are also troubling him, as a brutal civil war ravages Spain. Republican forces, loyal to the newly elected government, are under attack from a fascist coup led by Generalissimo Francisco Franco. Franco promises prosperity and stability to the people of Spain. Yet he delivers only death and destruction. 
Hoping for a bold visual protest to Franco's treachery from Spain's most eminent artist, colleagues and representatives of the democratic government have come to Picasso's home in Paris to ask him to paint the mural. Though his sympathies clearly lie with the new Republic, Picasso generally avoids politics - and disdains overtly political art. 
The official theme of the Paris Exposition is a celebration of modern technology. Organizers hope this vision of a bright future will jolt the nations out of the economic depression and social unrest of the thirties. As plans unfold, much excitement is generated by the Aeronautics Pavilion, featuring the latest advances in aircraft design and engineering. Who would suspect that this dramatic progress would bring about such dire consequences?
On April 27th, 1937, unprecedented atrocities are perpetrated on behalf of Franco against the civilian population of a little Basque village in northern Spain. Chosen for bombing practice by Hitler's burgeoning war machine, the hamlet is pounded with high-explosive and incendiary bombs for over three hours. Townspeople are cut down as they run from the crumbling buildings. Guernica burns for three days. Sixteen hundred civilians are killed or wounded. 
By May 1st, news of the massacre at Guernica reaches Paris, where more than a million protesters flood the streets to voice their outrage in the largest May Day demonstration the city has ever seen. Eyewitness reports fill the front pages of Paris papers. Picasso is stunned by the stark black and white photographs. Appalled and enraged, Picasso rushes through the crowded streets to his studio, where he quickly sketches the first images for the mural he will call Guernica. His search for inspiration is over.
From the beginning, Picasso chooses not to represent the horror of Guernica in realist or romantic terms. Key figures - a woman with outstretched arms, a bull, an agonized horse - are refined in sketch after sketch, then transferred to the capacious canvas, which he also reworks several times. "A painting is not thought out and settled in advance," said Picasso. "While it is being done, it changes as one's thoughts change. And when it's finished, it goes on changing, according to the state of mind of whoever is looking at it." 
Three months later, Guernica is delivered to the Spanish Pavilion, where the Paris Exposition is already in progress. Located out of the way, and grouped with the pavilions of smaller countries some distance from the Eiffel Tower, the Spanish Pavilion stood in the shadow of Albert Speer's monolith to Nazi Germany. The Spanish Pavilion's main attraction, Picasso's Guernica, is a sober reminder of the tragic events in Spain. 
Initial reaction to the painting is overwhelmingly critical. The German fair guide calls Guernica "a hodgepodge of body parts that any four-year-old could have painted." It dismisses the mural as the dream of a madman. Even the Soviets, who had sided with the Spanish government against Franco, react coolly. They favor more overt imagery, believing that only more realistic art can have political or social consequence. Yet Picasso's tour de force would become one of this century's most unsettling indictments of war. 
After the Fair, Guernica tours Europe and Northern America to raise consciousness about the threat of fascism. From the beginning of World War II until 1981, Guernica is housed in its temporary home at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, though it makes frequent trips abroad to such places as Munich, Cologne, Stockholm, and even Sao Palo in Brazil. The one place it does not go is Spain. Although Picasso had always intended for the mural to be owned by the Spanish people, he refuses to allow it to travel to Spain until the country enjoys "public liberties and democratic institutions." 
Speculations as to the exact meaning of the jumble of tortured images are as numerous and varied as the people who have viewed the painting. There is no doubt that Guernica challenges our notions of warfare as heroic and exposes it as a brutal act of self-destruction. But it is a hallmark of Picasso's art that any symbol can hold many, often contradictory meanings, and the precise significance of the imagery in Guernica remains ambiguous. When asked to explain his symbolism, Picasso remarked, "It isn't up to the painter to define the symbols. Otherwise it would be better if he wrote them out in so many words! The public who look at the picture must interpret the symbols as they understand them." 
In 1973, Pablo Picasso, the most influential artist of the twentieth century, dies at the age of ninety-two. And when Franco dies in 1975, Spain moves closer to its dream of democracy. On the centenary of Picasso's birth, October 25th, 1981, Spain's new Republic carries out the best commemoration possible: the return of Guernica to Picasso's native soil in a testimony of national reconciliation. In its final journey, Picasso's apocalyptic vision has served as a banner for a nation on its path toward freedom and democracy.
Now showcased at the Reina Sofía, Spain's national museum of modern art, Guernica is acclaimed as an artistic masterpiece, taking its rightful place among the great Spanish treasures of El Greco, Goya and Velazquez. "A lot of people recognize the painting," says art historian Patricia Failing. "They may not even know that it's a Picasso, but they recognize the image. It's a kind of icon."
| the Spanish Civil
The circumstances that led to the Spanish Civil War had been developing for years. In 1923, a coup d'etat had established General Miguel Primo de Rivera as virtual dictator of Spain, though King Alfonzo XIII remained the royal figurehead. But by 1930, growing opposition to de Rivera's right-wing government led to his resignation. The following year, popular elections threw out the monarchist government and forced the abdication of King Alfonso XIII.
The Second Republic, as the new Spain was called, suffered much political turmoil, while factions fought over how much reform should be undertaken and at what pace. A coalition of leftist parties joined together to dominate the parliament, calling for sweeping social reforms. But competing conservative factions in Spain continually threatened the loose union, and over the next several years the political situation became increasingly polarized.
By the election of 1936, the Popular Front party had united members of the left and won the election. But five months later, on July 18, a rebellion broke out among army units, marking the beginning of the Spanish Civil War. The right-wing generals, led by General Francisco Franco, launched a military coup to overthrow the elected parliament.
As the civil war dragged on, Hitler and Mussolini made a pact with Franco. In return for large quantities of iron ore, copper and other raw materials - resources for their growing war machine - they would lend Franco the support necessary to take and hold the Basque port of Bilbao, a strategic gateway to the shipbuilding and heavy industry facilities of the north. With their support, Franco took control of more and more Spanish territory.
Republican forces mounted heroic opposition, but their supplies were limited, their weapons outdated and their international support was faltering. In an effort to contain the civil war, France, England and the United States had signed a controversial Non-Intervention Pact, which denied assistance to the Republic.
In spite of unlimited resources from his fascist allies, Franco was unable to break the spirited resistance in the mountainous Basque region of northern Spain. He turned again to Hitler for the loan of the Fuhrer's latest bombers and fighters. This force would be known as the "Condor Legion."
Airplanes had been in their infancy when first used in World War I. The fragile cloth-covered biplanes played only a marginal role in reconnaissance, occasional dogfights, or harassment of enemy infantry with light machine-gun fire and hand grenades. But the 1920's and 30's saw great advances in aeronautics, and along with improved technologies came disturbing new military strategies.
In 1935, German General Erich Ludendorff published Die Totale Krieg (The Total War) in which he presented the view that in war, no one is innocent; everyone is a combatant and everyone a target, soldier and civilian alike. Italian General Giulio Douhet further suggested an enemy's morale could be crushed by air-delivered terror. Such theories intrigued Nazi Germany's new Fuhrer, but they needed testing. Spain seemed to be the perfect laboratory.
The Commander of the Condor Legion was Lt. Colonel Wolfram von Richthofen, cousin of Manfred von Richthofen, the infamous Red Baron of World War I. It was Von Richthofen who earmarked Guernica for bombardment, on behalf of Franco. At precisely 3:45 PM, Monday, April 26, 1937, the first German bomber took off. Three-quarters of an hour later, the first bomb fell on Guernica - a direct hit on the plaza at the center of town, a full quarter mile from the targeted bridge.
 Picasso's commitment to the cause
Until the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936, Picasso had never shown any real interest in politics. But as was the case for many artists and intellectuals in Europe at the time, the threat of fascism fueled in Picasso a passionate opposition to the precepts and atrocities of war. His activism took the form of financial and personal support for the Republican cause, but he was reluctant to mix politics and art.
In November of 1936, Franco launched an all-out air attack on Madrid. When the Museum del Prado itself was bombarded by Franco's artillery, the museum's entire collection had to be removed from the city for safety. Infuriated by the wanton destruction, he accepted the role of Honorary Director-in-Exile of the Prado and became a spokesman of the Republican government in its efforts to publicize Franco's desecration of Spain's artistic heritage.
Picasso also made his condemnation of Franco and the Spanish situation known in a series of bitterly satirical illustrations accompanied by his own prose poem, The Dream and Lie of Franco. The eighteen panels of caricature-like etchings were designed as postcards to be sold at the Spanish Pavilion of the 1937 World Fair to raise money for the Republican cause. "This is a time in Picasso's life and career when he is not only involved in a broader way with political events," says art historian, Patricia Failing, "but also does something very unusual, which is to produce a work specifically for propagandistic and fundraising purposes."
Picasso's etchings show Franco as a monstrosity masquerading as tradition, an enemy of the arts, an oppressor of workers and peasants and of creative energy and freedom, and a murderer of Spanish women and children. Although many of the images Picasso used in Dream and Lie are reminiscent of his earlier works, the distorted figures portraying Franco as an "evil-omened polyp" were clearly meant to represent the evil faces of the fascist dictator. "There's an element of caricature, an element of obviousness. There's an element of burlesque in The Dream and Lie of Franco etchings that you don't find in his other work, and you certainly don't find any kind of direct parallel in the Guernica painting."
The last four drawings of the series most closely express what the language of his poetry describes:
...cries of children cries of women cries of birds cries of flowers cries of timbers and of stones cries of bricks cries of furniture of beds of chains of curtains of pots and of papers cries of odors which claw at one another cries of smoke pricking the shoulder of cries... bombing of Guernica
It was market day in Guernica when the church bells of Santa Maria sounded the alarm that afternoon in 1937. People from the surrounding hillsides crowded the town square. "Every Monday was a fair in Guernica," says José Monasterio, eyewitness to the bombing. "They attacked when there were a lot of people there. And they knew when their bombing would kill the most. When there are more people, more people would die."
For over three hours, twenty-five or more of Germany's best-equipped bombers, accompanied by at least twenty more Messerschmitt and Fiat Fighters, dumped one hundred thousand pounds of high-explosive and incendiary bombs on the village, slowly and systematically pounding it to rubble.
"We were hiding in the shelters and praying. I only thought of running away, I was so scared. I didn't think about my parents, mother, house, nothing. Just escape. Because during those three and one half hours, I thought I was going to die." (eyewitness Luis Aurtenetxea)
Those trying to escape were cut down by the strafing machine guns of fighter planes. "They kept just going back and forth, sometimes in a long line, sometimes in close formation. It was as if they were practicing new moves. They must have fired thousands of bullets." (eyewitness Juan Guezureya) The fires that engulfed the city burned for three days. Seventy percent of the town was destroyed. Sixteen hundred civilians - one third of the population - were killed or wounded.
News of the bombing spread like wildfire. The Nationalists immediately denied any involvement, as did the Germans. But few were fooled by Franco's protestations of innocence. In the face of international outrage at the carnage, Von Richthofen claimed publicly that the target was a bridge over the Mundaca River on the edge of town, chosen in order to cut off the fleeing Republican troops. But although the Condor Legion was made up of the best airmen and planes of Hitler's developing war machine, not a single hit was scored on the presumed target, nor on the railway station, nor on the small-arms factory nearby.
Guernica is the cultural capital of the Basque people, seat of their centuries-old independence and democratic ideals. It has no strategic value as a military target. Yet some time later, a secret report to Berlin was uncovered in which Von Richthofen stated, "...the concentrated attack on Guernica was the greatest success," making the dubious intent of the mission clear: the all-out air attack had been ordered on Franco's behalf to break the spirited Basque resistance to Nationalist forces. Guernica had served as the testing ground for a new Nazi military tactic - blanket-bombing a civilian population to demoralize the enemy. It was wanton, man-made holocaust.
Note: On May 12, 1999, the New York Times reported that, after sixty-one years, in a declaration adopted on April 24, 1999, the German Parliament formally apologized to the citizens of Guernica for the role the Condor Legion played in bombing the town. The German government also agreed to change the names of some German military barracks named after members of the Condor Legion. By contrast, no formal apology to the city has ever been offered by the Spanish government for whatever role it may have played in the bombing.
 Picasso's artistic process
The first composition for the mural — drawn the very day word of the bombing reached Picasso in Paris — introduced characters that had recurred in the artist's previous work. Picasso shaped and reshaped these figures over the next weeks in a series of preliminary sketches. He brought out the vulnerability of the bull and the agony of the horse. He drew screaming women and children, perhaps inspired by his fear that harm might come to his own baby daughter. He seemed haunted by the many faces of anguish.
"Many of the drawings are much more expressive than the final painting," says art historian Tomas Llorens. "But that is inevitable because Guernica was conceived as a very public image. And some of the meanings and emotions that you can convey on a piece of paper cannot be conveyed in a mural that is seven meters wide. For instance, in one of the drawings there is hair — perhaps the hair of Dora Maar — pasted in a kind of collage. So, you would lose that meaning in a large public mural. But in a sense the energy, the emotional energy that comes from those experiments, is not lost. Picasso was always synthesizing in each image a lot of different possibilities."
On May 11th, just fifteen days after the bombing, Picasso stretched a canvas for the mural. It stood eleven-and-a-half feet tall by almost twenty-six feet wide - so large, he had to brace it at a slant to fit under the ceiling of his studio. He then began to lay out the images in full scale - a woman wailing over her dead child... a warrior clutching a shattered sword as his horse drops in torment to its knees... a jumble of bodies lying trampled on the ground — all part of Picasso's vision of the holocaust at Guernica.
According to art historian, Patricia Failing, "Picasso was very properly trained in the grand tradition of painting, allegorical painting about universal themes: the horrors of war, the massacres of the innocents. Characters that typically appear in these paintings reappear in Picasso's paintings as well. There's usually quite clearly a suffering woman, someone who's screaming, a woman with a child who's been injured, or may even be dead. And 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, I think is really one of his great achievements in this painting."
With Picasso as he painted was his latest lover, Dora Maar, a young photographer who also became his collaborator. Dora's photographs of the work in progress documented Picasso's creative process and his struggle between political imagery and artistic merit.
As the focal point of the painting, Picasso initially drew a boldly raised arm and clenched fist, the familiar salute of the Spanish Republican forces. But the artist was dissatisfied with the obvious symbolism. Over the next several days, he created a more hopeful message of victory, the raised fist clutching stalks of grain in front of a blazing sun. Still, Picasso's artistic sensibility was in conflict with the political sentiment of the canvas. "The stand of Picasso was quite clear," says Llorens. "A work of art, in order to be really effective in political terms, has to work first of all as a work of art."
A week later, the arm was completely painted over. But the center of the painting had lost its focus. To solve the problem, Picasso moved the body of the bull near to the woman and child, lifting the head of the horse to a place of prominence and making the spear more obvious. No longer was the battle between the horse and bull of the ring. Clearly, the mortal wound was caused by an act of man.
Picasso's inventiveness took him in many directions. He added color, pattern and texture with scraps of wallpaper; he gave the weeping woman a blood-red tear. Later, Picasso removed all color. Earlier in his career, in his Blue Period, Picasso learned that using a monochromatic palette could produce powerful imagery. He suppressed color because he felt color would distract from the impact of the painting. "There was certainly a long tradition that equated line with intellect and color with emotion," adds Failing. "And so, to not bring in the whole element of color and its associations with emotion and the sensual, in a way makes it a tour-de-force on another level."
Picasso then sketched possibilities for the warrior. Not the heroic figure of patriotic fantasy — lifeless, broken, weapons shattered — the warrior in Guernica is no match for the engines of modern warfare. "It's not the clenched fist with the upright arm at the end that becomes such a moving part of the picture, but the outstretched hands with the kind of flayed fingers and the deeply crossed palm," explains Failing.
As Guernica neared completion, Picasso added a single image of twentieth century technology. According to Llorens: "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."
Shortly after, although he was not at all certain the mural was complete, Picasso delivered Guernica to the Spanish Pavilion.
 the Spanish Pavilion
Picasso and other avant-garde artists in the 1930's were concerned about their fate under the threat of growing fascism. José Luis Sert, who was the architect for the Spanish Pavilion, was a major player in gathering together Spanish intellectuals and artists for this particular cause. He was one of the people who came to visit Picasso in his studio and to talk to him about the possibility of making a major contribution to this project.
"This was a moment in which things looked pretty grim for the cause of Republican Spain. And certainly many Spanish intellectuals in Paris were very concerned about what they could do and what kind of reaction would be appropriate. The Spanish pavilion - which was the first and only national pavilion that Republican Spain ever had in a World Fair - drew together all the resources of the great artists and great Spanish luminaries who were in Paris."
"So the idea of approaching Picasso to contribute to this project seemed like a very reasonable one, since he was certainly one of the most well known Spanish artists in Paris at that particular moment. Exactly what he would do and what his contributions would be, of course got worked out in the process of looking at the space. More importantly, these ideas got worked out in connection with his own feelings about the progress of the war and the suffering of the Spanish people. And certainly when the project was initiated, no one knew that Guernica would be the outcome."
By early June of 1937, the Paris Exposition was already in progress. The German and Soviet pavilions towered above the fairgrounds, facing one another across the plaza in a monumental standoff of ideological posturing. In their shadow stood the modest Spanish Pavilion. Opening seven weeks late, it missed the wide publicity of the Fair's grand opening and received little recognition. It wasn't even shown on the official maps.
At the entrance to the pavilion, the visitor was confronted by an enormous photographic mural of Republican soldiers, accompanied by the slogan:
We are fighting for the essential unity of Spain.A poem written by Paul Eluard to accompany Guernica was displayed, along with the works of other well known artists sympathetic to the Republican cause, including Joan Miro's large canvas of an upraised arm and clenched fist, and Alexander Calder's mercury fountain and mobile, painted red to symbolize the Spanish Republic. Picasso's postcards of The Dream and Lie of Franco were on sale to raise funds for relief work. Showing almost continuously in the auditorium were documentary films about the civil war, including Madrid '36 by Luis Buñuel and Spanish Earth by Joris Ivens and Ernest Hemingway, which graphically depicted the suffering of the Spanish people.
"When you walked into the Spanish Pavilion, instead of seeing a glorification of the wonders of technology, you saw photographs of dead children. In the open-air film pavilion you saw very dramatic films about the brutality of Franco's troops and the suffering of the people in Spain. It was something that people really didn't want to be reminded of, necessarily, when they came to a World Fair," adds Failing.
The main attraction, Picasso's Guernica, was anything but a celebration of the marvels of technology. Many found it repulsive and contrary to the spirit of the Exhibition - even those who were sympathetic to the cause. "If you can't in a political painting very clearly point out the good guys and the bad guys," explains Failing, "or very clearly identify the characters in symbolic terms, this is something that's difficult for people who have expectations based on earlier concepts of political paintings."
"I paint this way because it's a result of my thought," Picasso responded. "I have worked for years to obtain this result... I can't use an ordinary manner just to have the satisfaction of being understood!"
One notable exception to the bad press was the prestigious French journal, Cahiers d'Art. Featuring Guernica in a double issue, Picasso's creation is defended and celebrated with emotional tributes and eloquent writings from many intellectuals and artists:
"These visionary forms have an evocative power greater than shapes drawn with every realistic detail. They challenge people to truly comprehend the effects of their actions." (Christian Zervos)
"Our epoch is grand, dramatic and dangerous, and Picasso, because he is equal to his circumstances, makes a picture worthy of them." Guernica is an "appalling drama of a great people abandoned to the tyrants of the Dark Ages . . .All the world can see, can understand, this immense Spanish tragedy." (Amedé Ozenfant)
The stark, disturbing vision, once dismissed as "the dream of a madman," proved prophetic when Europe was plunged into a war that engulfed the world.
 the tension between art and politics
From an interview with art historian, Patricia Failing:
"One reason Guernica is considered a treasure in terms of art history is that it seemed to provide a bridge between what were considered by some to be antithetical poles: the idea of making an effective political statement and an effective artistic statement at the same time. And this is certainly one of the achievements of the Guernica project, that it was a third space between those two antithetical poles."
"A lot of artists, who looked up to Picasso as the exemplar of Modernist practice in painting, were interested very much in being Modernists on the one hand, and still very concerned about larger political events and the larger political arena in which they could act as artists. You can find many attempts to bring these two concerns together into the same body of work, to be really expressive and exploratory in formal terms and still be able to make a very heartfelt political statement. And to find that the great master of Modernism was able to accomplish this goal somehow - the mere fact that this kind of resolution might be possible - is what had such an enormous effect on artists in the twentieth century."
"Guernica betrays the stereotype of the Modern as the incredibly new and the incredibly, let's say, divorced from tradition, from academic practice. Because it's a painting that you don't necessarily associate with Modernism, and yet it makes an extremely important and extremely evocative Modernist statement at the same time. It did something that an academic painter would have loved to do, which is to take a very traditional theme and make it modern and make it relevant to a new time and a new audience and a new sensibility. That's a pretty big accomplishment."
"When the painting was on tour around the world, there was a great deal of interest on the part of Communist Party members and Communist intellectuals about whether or not this painting would be able to communicate with anybody of the proletarian or worker class. And so you find that there was a lot of testimony collected over the years from people of the working class who saw Guernica. And they responded to it very powerfully, found that they were really just awestruck by this particular painting. It did seem to have an effect on people who you wouldn't think very likely to react in a positive way to this kind of elitist painting."
"The controversy about whether or not this particular painting could really be an effective political tool never leaves the painting. Picasso himself later on said that painting is not for decorating apartments; it has a much broader social importance. And I think partly the tour was about finding confirmation of that belief."
 Guernica in exile
When the World Fair ended, the Republicans sent Guernica on an international
tour to create awareness of the atrocities perpetrated by the Fascists.
According to art historian, Patricia Failing: "Picasso's friends and colleagues
in Paris were very impressed by the power of the painting. Because it was
a painting by Picasso, and because it was also something that connected
with a very dramatic event, the idea of sending Guernica on tour for the
cause, basically as propaganda and fund-raising, seemed to be a reasonable
sort of idea."
In September, 1939, Hitler invaded Poland, bringing to bear the experience of bombing the town of Guernica in London and Stalingrad. Fearing for the safety of the painting in Paris under Nazi occupation, Picasso made a long-term loan of the mural to New York's Museum of Modern Art, and Guernica joined the ranks of refugees. As the war engulfed the world, the Allies bombed Dresden, Berlin, and Hiroshima... and Picasso's disturbing vision became a reality.
"It's not so much that there was an enormous body of sympathy for Picasso's Communist sentiments, but certainly there was an enormous body of sympathy for the anti-Fascist sentiments that were at the heart of the Guernica project. So it did work as a reasonably effective fundraising tool, although it certainly didn't raise enough money to support the army of Republican Spain."
For the next nineteen years the canvas toured the United States and around the globe, returning to New York in 1958. In its travels, Guernica became the most talked-about painting in the world, continuing to evoke vigorous debate about its political intentions, cultural meanings and aesthetic value.
In a surprisingly ironic turn, Franco launched a campaign in 1968 for repatriation of the painting, assuring Picasso that the Spanish Government had no objection to the controversial subject matter. One can only imagine how incredulous Picasso must have been. Through his lawyers, Picasso turned the offer down flat, making it clear that Guernica would be turned over only when democracy and public liberties were restored to Spain.
"The last visit that Picasso ever made to Spain was in 1934, and he had vowed never to return until Franco died," says Failing. "Unfortunately, Franco happened to outlive him by a couple of years. So he never went back to Spain after 1934, even though his family was there and he maintained a very strong affection for Spanish life and Spanish culture. So Guernica had this really unique relationship with Picasso and his life; in a way it was his alter ego..."
In 1981, after years of elaborate negotiations involving Spain, the United States, MOMA and several contentious heirs to Picasso's estate, Guernica finally arrived on Spanish soil for the first time.
 questions of meaning
Considered a progenitor of Modern Art and an originator of Cubism, there were nonetheless several recurrent themes in Picasso's work. Instead of using traditional battle imagery as visual inspiration for Guernica, Picasso turned to the familiar arena of the Spanish bullring. Picasso was only three when his father took him to his first bullfight. The brutal choreography — fierce power and inevitable tragedy — had obsessed him since.
According to art historian, Patricia Failing: "The bull and the horse are important characters in Spanish culture. Picasso himself certainly used these characters to play many different roles over time. This has made the task of interpreting the specific meaning of the bull and the horse very tough. Their relationship is a kind of ballet that was conceived in a variety of ways throughout Picasso's career."
In his studio Picasso kept a large wicker mask of a bull, and often played out scenes from the bullring. Is the bull Picasso himself? The artist, gazing helpless and horrified at the surrounding holocaust? Do the horse and the bull represent the fight between Loyalists and Nationalists, the stalwart Spanish people and Franco's brutal regime? Or the ongoing struggle between the female and male, perhaps a reflection of the artist's personal life? Was the enemy evident in the work, or were all of the subjects victims?
"Sometimes the bull is seen as a symbol of Spain, as a symbol of the virtues and the values of Spain and Spanish culture," says Failing. "Sometimes the relationship is one of gender and a sort of masculine force and feminine force. Sometimes it's a relationship of aggressor to something more passive. Sometimes it's a relationship between darkness and light. So the bull can be the good guy, or the bull can be the bad guy, depending on which interpretation you happen to dig up in your in your survey of reactions to Guernica."
In the past, Picasso has also drawn the bull in the form of the Minotaur — a mythological creature, half beast, half human — his thinly veiled alter ego in a battle of the sexes with the women in his life. His earlier works are filled with bulls and Minotaurs charging, goring, killing, raping. But many also depict bulls as the victims of suffering. Standing enigmatically in the background, the bull in Guernica was interpreted alternately as the brutish Fascist state and the Spanish people.
Picasso never committed to a specific explanation of his symbolism: "...this bull is a bull and this horse is a horse... If you give a meaning to certain things in my paintings it may be very true, but it is not my idea to give this meaning. What ideas and conclusions you have got I obtained too, but instinctively, unconsciously. I make the painting for the painting. I paint the objects for what they are."
The central figure in Guernica is a horse run through with a javelin, wrenched in agony. Some interpreted the horse as Franco's Nationalism, with Picasso predicting its downfall. But other, opposite meanings make more sense in the overall context. The portrayal of the people as a helpless animal dying a senseless death, without the light of hope, is certainly a disturbing idea.
"Picasso made a very poignant personal statement about the horse in Guernica being connected to the idea of the suffering of the people," adds Failing. "And since it's an animal with a big lance wound through its center, certainly that's a connection many people would find quite plausible. But Picasso was maddeningly inconsistent about what he had to say about these particular characters, although he didn't like to say very much at all about them. He knew that it's better to not say something and allow the interpreters to fill in the space. That gives them something to do. It makes them think about you more."
Years after the completion of Guernica, Picasso was still questioned time and time again about the meaning of the bull and other images in the mural. In exasperation he stated emphatically: "These are animals, massacred animals. That's all as far as I'm concerned..." But he did reiterate the painting's obvious anti-war sentiment: "My whole life as an artist has been nothing more than a continuous struggle against reaction and the death of art. In the picture I am painting — which I shall call Guernica — I am expressing my horror of the military caste which is now plundering Spain into an ocean of misery and death."
Speculations as to the exact meaning of the tortured images are as numerous and varied as its viewers, and perhaps this was exactly Picasso's intention. A composition so compelling challenges our most basic notions of war as heroic, unmasking it as a brutal act of self-destruction.
|1881||October 25: Pablo Picasso born in Málaga, Spain.|
|1904||Picasso settles in Paris.|
|1907||Picasso paints Les Demoiselles d'Avignon.|
|1921||Picasso paints Musiciens aux masques.|
|1930||January: Resignation of Primo de Rivera; more moderate government in Spain.|
|1931||March: Constitution restored in Spain; general elections. Abdication of King Alfonso XIII; provisional Republic established.|
|1933||April 1: Spanish Republic declared.|
|1934||Fall: Picasso's last visit to Spain.|
|1935||March: Picasso begins work on La Minotauromachie.|
|1936||February: General elections in Spain; victory for the Popular Front.|
|July: Rebellion marks the beginning of the Spanish civil war.|
|September: Picasso named Honorary Director-in-Exile of the Prado Museum in Madrid.|
|November: Franco bombs Madrid and damages the Prado Museum. Picasso begins work on The Dream and Lie of Franco.|
|1937||January: Picasso accepts commission for a painting in the Spanish Pavilion of the Paris Exposition.|
|April 26: German bombers attack Guernica. Three days later, Franco's troops occupy the town.|
|May 1: Protesters in Paris march in the largest May Day demonstration in the city's history. Picasso sketches preliminary drawings for the mural he will call Guernica.|
|May 2-9: Picasso draws compositional studies for the mural. He continues to sketch studies throughout the process of painting the mural.|
|May 11: Picasso draws on the huge canvas for the first time. First photograph of the mural, taken by Dora Maar (State I) shows the familiar raised arm and clenched fist of the Spanish Republic.|
|around May 13: (State II) The raised fist now holds a sheaf of grain.|
|May 16-19: (State III) Picasso paints over the arm.|
|May 20-24: (State IV) Picasso shifts the bull away from the horse and closer to the woman and child. He replaces the raised fist with the head of the horse, making it the central figure, and makes the spear more prominent.|
|end of May: (State VI) Picasso experiments with color, pattern and textures. Ultimately, he removes them.|
|around June 4: (State VII) Picasso adds the bare light bulb.|
|a few days later: (State VIII) Picasso makes the sun more dramatic, the light bulb more prominent. The focal point of the mural is a large triangle that dominates the composition. Picasso delivers it himself to the Spanish Pavilion.|
|1938||Spring: After the close of the Paris Exposition in November, Guernica travels to Oslo, Stockholm and Copenhagen before returning to France.|
|1939||March: Franco triumphs in Spain.|
|May: Guernica comes to America to raise funds and support for Spanish refugees. Picasso directs that the mural be placed in the care of the Museum of Modern Art.|
|September: Outbreak of W.W.II.|
|Guernica travels throughout the United States: from New York to Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, St. Louis, Boston Cincinnati, Cleveland, New Orleans, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh, Cambridge and Columbus.|
|1940||June: Occupation of Paris by the Germans.|
|1941||December 7: United States enters the war against Nazi Germany and its allies, Italy and Japan.|
|1944||August: Allied invasion of Normandy and liberation of Paris.|
|1945||May 8: World War II ends.|
|Guernica travels to Brazil and returns to Europe - Milan, Paris, Munich, Cologne, Hamburg, Brussels, Amsterdam and Stockholm - then back to MOMA in New York for the Picasso retrospective celebrating the artist's 75th birthday.|
|Guernica travels to the Chicago Art Institute and the Museum of Art in Philadelphia. Final loan exhibition, as constant travel has weakened the canvas. The studies continue to travel.|
|1968||Franco launches an effort to bring Guernica to Spain.|
|Picasso makes additional conditions for Guernica's travel to Spain. Originally, he demanded establishment of the Republic; now he sets forth other standards, such as liberty and democracy in Spain. The issue remains unresolved.|
|1973||Picasso's death at age 92.|
|1975||Franco's death at age 82.|
|1977||June 15: First free elections since before the civil war.|
|1978||December: Democratic constitution adopted in Spain.|
|1981||September 9: Guernica finally comes home to Spain.|