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Anti-War Statement in Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica” Essay

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Updated: Sep 6th, 2021

Pablo Picasso’s Guernica is one of the painter’s most significant and famous works. It is also one of the most recognizable paintings of the twentieth century. Some people praise this painting above all, while others simply do not comprehend its hidden symbolical meaning. In order to understand the message of Guernica, it is necessary to know the historical context in which Pablo Picasso created his masterpiece. Picasso himself made his motives clear: “In the panel on which I am working which I shall call Guernica, and in all my recent works of art, I clearly express my abhorrence of the military caste which has sunk Spain into an ocean of pain and death” (qtd. in Winter 83). Judging from this quote, it is safe to conclude that Picasso’s Guernica is a powerful anti-war statement.

In 1937, the Government of the Spanish Republic commissioned Picasso to create a painting for the exhibition in Paris. However, the tragic event that took place a month before was the true reason behind the creation of Guernica. In 1937, Spain was torn by the Civil War.

The Republicans fought against the Nationalists, whose leader was General Franco. With Franco’s permission, German air forces bombed Guernica, a small town in Basque Country. As a result of the fierce bombing, around 1600 people died, and the city was destroyed almost completely. These tragic events shocked the entire world, including Pablo Picasso. He worked 10 hours a day, and after less than a month, the 11 feet tall and 25.6 feet wide mural-sized painting was presented to the public.

Despite the fact that the bombing of the town was Picasso’s major motive for creation Guernica, in the painting, there are no scenes of bombing, no explosions, and no direct images of the ravages of war. The genius of Pablo Picasso enabled him to show the horrific events from the inner perspective of those who suffered from it – the victims of the deadly raid. Guernica is painted in black, white, and grey palette, which clearly represents the manifestation of the evil of the war, its lifeless nature, and its victims.

The painting is full of violence, agony, and pain. It emanates the tragic feeling of the closeness of death. The faces of a man and a woman, which are turned to the viewer, look like a grotesque mask: their mouths are wide open in screaming, their eyes located above the foreheads, and nostrils are flared. On the right side of the painting, viewers can see people running away from the burning building. The woman falls from the window of that building. Close to the figure of a man, who is standing with his arms stretched up in the air in soundless screaming, are depicted two human faces. The look on their faces is tense and worried but at the same time is full of determination.

On the left side of the canvas, Picasso depicted a crying mother with her head thrown back as she holds the dead child in her arms. This image symbolizes the grief of all mothers who witnessed the death of their children in the horror of war. The bull stands close to the mother with the expression of indifference on its face as it tramples the fallen warrior. The warrior still holds the broken sword in his arms. The woman, whose appearance resembles an antique goddess, holds the torch with her arms stretched forward.

The women’s mouth is wide open, she is screaming, but there is no one to hear her. The wounded horse is dying in convulsions. At the top of the scene, there is an eye-shaped light bulb. Everything is collapsing. The lines have an important part in the overall perception of the paintings: sometimes they are thin and round and sometimes sharp and refracted. These lines represent the reality distorted by the war.

The painting is filled with the symbols of anger, pain, and horrors of the war. The warrior represents the physical suffering, the bull is a symbol of cruelty, the representation of the war, and the horse is a symbol of the pain of the innocents. The light bulb at the top of the scene is a symbol of the sun. To conclude, Picasso conveys his anti-war message through the means of symbolism, but he left the task of interpreting those symbols to the public: “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” (qtd. in Macmillan 137).

Picasso’s abstract style of painting benefits to the perception of Guernica, while tragic, tormented images emphasize the destructive power of war. When looking at this painting, it seems that we can hear the sound of exploding bombs and people’s cry. The haunting images of Guernica symbolize anger, pain, and the chaos of war. It is a timeless masterpiece and a warning to future generations.

The Picassos masterpiece has caused a massive public outcry. This work is full of symbols, and they are interpreted by different researches in various ways.

Melvin Becraft, in his book, has made a complete investigation concerning Picassos Guernica. He studies its color scheme, composition and the history of its creation. A special attention is given to a symbolism of the picture. Becraft scrutinizes every detail of it trying to find a hidden meaning in every image. He views the Picassos masterpiece as a puzzle with different clues for its solution (Becraft 66). However, these clues are hidden and everyone may perceive them in its own way. Becraft also points out the triadic character of the canvas and its persuasive musical theme represented by means of slightest hints.

In her article Jacqueline Brittain investigates the history of Picassos masterpiece creation. The author also emphasizes the specific composition of Guernica, which makes it unique in its own way. The huge size of the canvas makes a great impact on a person and makes impossible to ignore its antiwar character. The author suggests that the choice of color scheme has been intended to make the image similar with the newspaper article. Newspaper was the main source of information in 1930 – the period when the masterpiece was created. In such a way, Picasso has made his canvas more vivid and real. The author also investigates the composition of Guernica, paying attention to the prevailing usage of triadic patterns in it (Brittain par.14).

Brandon Wallis states that there are too many opinions concerning the interpretation of symbols in Picassos Guernica. The author also mentions the facts of criticism from the time when it has appeared (Wallis 2). Now this masterpiece is appreciated all over the world. The author also explains the Picassos chose of black, grey and white color. Apart from the similarity with the newspaper article, Picasso could not paint it in color because of the tragic events the canvas described. In the article, a special attention is also given to symbols. However, the author emphasizes the fact that Picasso, being asked concerning their meaning, has not given a distinct answer.

Works Cited

Becraft, Melvin. Picassos Guernica. Images with images. New York: Spadem,1985. Print.

Brittain, Jacqueline. Blood is Thicker in Oil. n.d. Web.

Macmillan, Josephine. She Is Everywhere! An Anthology of Writing in Womanist/Feminist Spirituality. Vol.1. Bloomington: iUniverse, 2005. Print.

Wallis, Brandon. Picassos Guernica: A Critical Analysis of Allegorical Meanings Behind a Modern Anti-War Statement. University of Lethbridge. 2009. Web.

Winter, Jay. Dreams of Peace and Freedom: Utopian moments in the Twentieth century. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008. Print.

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