Picasso's Guernica: Then and Now
Leo Segedin   |  3/9/2005   |  Print this essay

How relevant is Picasso’s “Guernica” today? Like many art objects that were originally made to serve religious and political functions, “Guernica” should have been transformed into a timeless - useless - “work of fine art” - a “Picasso” - when it was placed in the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1939. It should have lost its original function as propaganda and be contemplated primarily for its aesthetic or cultural value. After all, no one kneels in front of Michelangelo’s “Doni Madonna” in the Ufizzi to pray for miracles. People go to the Ufizzi to see a famous masterpiece by Michelangelo. Pictures of pain and suffering, allegories of death and destruction by Brueghel, Bosch, Goya, Kolwitz, Callot, Dix and Grosz may continue to disturb when seen by visitors to museums or as reproductions in books, but, as far as I know, they have not recently incited anyone to political action. Some works of art, however, even in reproduction, won’t stay ‘uninvolved’. Although some people are turned off by its cubist composition or its cartoon-like images, “Guernica” persists in reminding us about horrendous events that happen outside the museum. Rather than remaining a memorial specifically intended to recall the bombing of “Guernica” in 1937, it has become a “picture of all bombed cities.” At first, it was a powerful symbol representing the Loyalist cause during the Spanish Civil War and then the Allies during WWII, but the international Communist Party also took it up and, in the late 60’s, it was used by American artists opposing the Viet Nam War. It was an emblem of the international Peace movement, appearing, among other places, on postage stamps of the late Czechoslovakia and the United Republic of Cameroon in Africa. Basque separatists and even the survivors of the attack on the World Trade Center used it. Most recently, it has been a symbol of the anti-Iraq War movement. It has become a universal allegory about the massacre of innocents. It is archetypal and iconic.

“Guernica” continues to provoke. Hanging outside the entrance to the U.N. Security Council is a tapestry reproduction of the painting, donated in 1985 by the estate of Nelson Rockefeller to symbolize the UN’s function in preventing destructive wars. For years, the tapestry has been a background for diplomats when TV reporters interview them. Shortly before Secretary of State Collin Powell appeared at the UN on Feb 5, 2003 to argue that Iraq had not complied with UN demands to disarm and posed an immanent threat, thereby justifying the planned invasion, UN officials, reportedly under pressure from the U.S., covered the mural with a pale-blue curtain and placed UN flags in front of it. Although UN officials claim that the purpose of the cover-up was to provide a better background for TV cameras covering news conferences and speeches, it is more probable that US officials thought that the painting was an inappropriate setting for a US Secretary of State demanding a war in which untold numbers of noncombatants - women and children as in the mural - would be killed. (A short time before, on Jan 27, it had appeared as a disturbing backdrop for weapons inspector Hans Blix’s speech, which was televised worldwide, in which he said that no WMDs had been found.) This act of censorship resulted in protesters outside the UN holding copies of the painting when Powell spoke and sparked outcries from all over the world.

For some, “Guernica” brings back memories, not only of the atrocities committed during the Spanish Civil War, but also of the bombings of Coventry, Rotterdam, Dresden and Hiroshima in WWII. Now, it can even remind us of the “shock and awe” assault on Iraq in which 800 missiles were launched in the first 2 days of the invasion intended to destroy Iraq’s infrastructure – electricity and water facilities, food distribution, transportation, etc – as well as the Iraqis will to resist. Later, bombs and rockets flattened Fallujah and any civilian – man, woman and child – could be shot as a possible insurgent. Although the American military maintains that every effort was made to avoid killing non-combatants, last November, a report in the British medical journal, Lancet, estimated that over 100,000 Iraqi civilians, half of them women and children, had been killed since the invasion began. This strategy is very similar to that proposed by Nazi General Erich Ludendorff in 1935. He argued in his book, “The Total War”, that modern war encompasses all of society; thus no one was innocent and the military need not spare anyone. Added to this concept was the Panzer and Stuka “Blitzkrieg” of the Nazi military - the ‘shock and awe’ of WWII. It has become legitimate in warfare to kill non-combatants. Their destruction is now called “collateral damage”.

“Guernica” was originally designed for the Spanish Pavilion at the 1937 Paris International Exposition, a fair, by the way, that was intended as a celebration of modern technology. The pavilion stood, along with the pavilions of other smaller countries, in the shadow of the huge Soviet pavilion and an even larger, monolith-like, Nazi structure. Although the commission for the painting predated the atrocity, Picasso painted “Guernica” in response to the bombing of the Basque town of “Guernica” during the Spanish Civil War. According to South African reporter, George Steer of the London Times, in an article dated April 27, 1937:

“Guernica”, the most ancient town of the Basques and the center of their cultural tradition was completely destroyed yesterday afternoon by insurgent air raiders. The bombardment of the open town far behind the lines occupied precisely three hours and a quarter, during which a powerful fleet of aeroplanes consisting of three German types, Junkers and Heinkel bombers and Heinkel fighters, did not cease unloading on the town bombs weighing from 1000 lbs downward and it is calculated more than 3000 two-pounder aluminum incendiary projectiles. The fighters meanwhile plunged low from above the center of the town to machine-gun those of the civil population who had taken refuge in the fields. The whole town was soon in flames…

After the Exposition, “Guernica” toured Europe and North America rallying support for the ant-fascist cause. In 1939, the painting arrived in New York for a fund-raising tour in aid of Spanish war relief. From the beginning of WWII until 1981, it was housed at the MoMA in New York, though, after the war, it made frequent trips to such places as Munich, Cologne, Stockholm, and even Sao Palo, Brazil. All in all, over a period of 60 years, the painting has been exhibited in 32 cities. As long as the Fascists were in power, Picasso refused to let it be exhibited in Spain, although Franco had asked for its “return”. For a while after 1981, it was hung in a special pavilion near the Prado and is now exhibited in the Spain’s National Museum of Modern Art, Reina Sophia, in Madrid.

Initially, “Guernica” was intended to provoke people to protest the destruction of the small, defenseless town of “Guernica” by Germans and Italians supporting the Nationalist cause. It was not about Picasso, although Picasso’s fame added to its attraction. It was not made for art museums or private collections, or as a commodity for the art market, as were many of Picasso’s other works. It was about an atrocity in the real world. While touring after the fair, it was used to raise consciousness about the threat of fascism, but after the war, while exhibited at MoMA and in art museums around the world after the threats of fascism were over, it became known as one of the great masterpieces of modern art by the 20th century’s most famous artist. It became a work of fine art, contemplated, not only as a historical, political statement, but also for its formal characteristics and its symbolic content. It was interpreted in terms of Picasso’s biography and subconscious, his creative process, the history of his images, even his relations with women – the literature on these subjects is immense. Franco probably wanted it in the Prado, not because it was about the destruction of the defenseless in war and certainly not because it was about an atrocity committed by his side during the Civil War, but because it was a famous work of art by the world’s most celebrated Spanish artist.

“Guernica” would not remain simply “a Picasso” for long. Although, in 1957, Picasso had said that the painting “will do most good in America” and that “The truth of the matter is that by means of “Guernica”, I have the pleasure of making a political statement every day in the middle of New York City.”, in 1967, 400 artists responding to the Viet Nam War, signed a petition urging Picasso to take it out of the country. They wrote:

Please let the spirit of your painting be reasserted and its message once again felt, by withdrawing your painting from the United States for the duration of the war.

This was similar to what artists like Claus Oldenburg, Roy Lichtenstein and Chicago artists did during this same period by removing their work from the MCA and local art galleries as an anti-Viet Nam protest. (Apparently by removing an ant-war statement, you are making an anti-war statement.) On the other hand, the art historian, Meyer Shapiro, thought that the artists’ petition was “nonsensical political posturing” and, in a letter to the Art Workers Coalition in 1970, asked if MoMA was making a protest against the crucifixion by hanging paintings of that subject.

In 1974, Tony Shafrazi, an Iranian artist (who, at present, runs a fashionable N.Y. art gallery on 26th St. which represents establishment artists) sprayed in red paint the words “KILL LIES ALL” onto the picture, ostensibly as a protest against Nixon’s pardon of Lt. William Calley of My Lai fame. He made sure to have a photographer present to document the event. (The painting was well varnished and Shafazi used washable spray so the painting was cleaned with ease.) An anti-war artists organization called The Guerrilla Art Action Group came to Shafrazi’s defense by arguing the he was completing, not vandalizing, Picasso’s creation.

“Guernica” was returned to Spain in 1981 after Franco’s death. When Jan and I saw it in 1983, it was housed in a small building behind the Prado. It was displayed behind bulletproof glass and surrounded by soldiers armed with automatic weapons. We were searched before we were allowed to enter the building. The Spanish government was afraid that Basque separatists would attack the painting, even though the painting referred to the destruction of a defenseless Basque town. In this environment, even though there were no candles burning or prayers chanted in front of it, “Guernica” had a powerful sanctifying sense about it. In 1994, we saw it again, this time in the Reina Sophia, the Spanish National Museum of Modern Art. Although still a disturbing image, it had lost that aura; it had become another great work of art, surrounded by other, lesser, works of art. It had become what Andy Warhol would probably have called a “star”. But, in 2003, “Guernica” again returned to the real world.


One reason why “Guernica” works as an iconic image is because its images are non-specific and archetypal. It is apparent that the figures are in agony; the grieving woman on the left holds a dead child; the disemboweled horse is pierced by a spear; a woman in flames falls from a window on the right; a woman leans out a window holding a lantern while an electric light in a mandela, eye-like shape hovers over the scene. The women appear terrified, unbelieving, bewildered. A bull stands alone in the upper left corner. The forms, organized in sharp, intersecting angles, are dismembered, distorted, and even though they have a cartoonish look, they are not funny. Also, the painting is done primarily in dramatic, photogravure-like, contrasts of black and white.

But although it is obvious that a horrific event is occurring, there are no references to the town of “Guernica”, no Nazi airplanes, no bombs or explosions. There are no soldiers (unless the figure holding a broken sword at the bottom left is a dead soldier rather than a broken statue, not even male figures – only four women and a dead child, a bull, a horse, an electric light, a lantern and a bird. It is not even clear as to whether the event is occurring inside or outside.

When first exhibited, Spanish officials complained that the work did not adequately support their cause. The Basques thought that it was too personal. The German guide at the Exposition called “Guernica” “a hodgepodge of body parts that any four year old could have painted.” And, because it was not in a social-realist style, the Soviets weren’t too crazy about it either. Marxist critics have called Picasso’s art everything from the work of a great anti-fascist to decadent bourgeois formalism. One even wrote that “The images in “Guernica” are “…monstrous and pathological …” and make “an aesthetic apology for capitalism.” And even though Picasso was an atheist, in 1956, the famous theologian, Paul Tillich, wrote that “Guernica” was the best present-day Protestant religious picture. He wrote:

Now Picasso has painted this immense horror – the pieces of reality, men and animals and inorganic pieces of houses altogether – in a way in which the “piece’ character of our reality is perhaps more horribly visible than in any other of the modern pictures.

On the other hand, a psychoanalyst named Goitein found that in “Guernica” “carnage, castration, and death arise to complete the sado-necrophilic delights of the Unconscious”

Such ambiguous images, as in all significant artworks, allows for different interpretations. One critic, Marrero, quoted in Arnheim’s “Picasso’s Guernica”, interpreting the image of the bull and the horse:

Picasso, child of the century, in painting terrible, repellent bulls, expresses a truth regarding the period of history in which we all must live. In Guernica, a threatening bull with curled tail dominates the entire composition. Its snout seems to rest on the head of a desperate mother and when all is said and done, Picasso’s concept of the animal is that of the mythic figure of the bull which rapes Europe. On the contrary, there is never anything repellent or horrible in his horses. There is something indomitable about them, but there is also something innocent, a kind of purity, the kind of calmness of the horse which has nobly ridden between the perils of life and the spur. White is the preferred color for these horses.

On the other hand, the poet, Juan Larrea, a friend who occasionally visited with Picasso as he painted the picture, wrote:

The bull, which, bellowing and nearly bursting with fury, its eyes fixed in their orbits, seems about to charge at the moment least expected. The bull seems to be the symbol of the people, and the more so because this animal is almost the totem of the peninsula, and the Spaniards attend its sacrifice with passionate enthusiasm. The horses are invariably full of ignoble and depressive features and there can be little doubt that it stands in the painter’s mind for nothing more nor less than Nationalist Spain.

The British poet, art and literary critic, Herbert Read, wrote that:

The eviscerated horse, the writhing bodies of the men and women, betray the passage of the infuriated bull, who turns triumphantly in the background, tense with lust and stupid power.

But Surrealist painter, friend and biographer of Picasso, Roland Penrose wrote, “The bull looks over his shoulder in a …bewildered attitude.”

The German art critic, Wilhelm Boeck, wrote:

The bull in Guernica is not represented as the adversary of the horse; it even turns toward the bull as though seeking help.

And German Gestalt psychologist, Rudolf Arnheim, wrote:

The bull is outside the catastrophe, appealed to, but unaffected. He protects the distressed mother like a roof, but fails to react – not because he lacks feeling (his internal passion is expressed in the flaming tail) but because he is obviously absent from, though relevant, the scene.

The British poet, Stephen Spender, refers to “the groaning bull”.

Even Picasso can be contradictory. While working on the mural, in May, 1937, he said

…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 cast which has sunk Spain in an ocean of pain and death…

And later, in March of 1945, shortly after the liberation of Paris during World War II, in an interview with an American soldier:

No, the bull is not fascism, but it is brutality and darkness… the horse represents the people…The Guernica mural is symbolic…allegoric. The mural is for the definite expression and solution of a problem and that is why I use symbolism.

However, in 1947, in response to the question submitted to him by Alfred H. Barr Jr., the Director of MoMA, “Does the bull represent the triumphant Spanish people or does it represent brutality, more specifically the nationalism of the Franco government?”, he answered:

But, this bull is a bull; this horse is a horse. There is also a sort of bird, a chicken or a pigeon, I no longer remember, on the table. This chicken is a chicken. Of course, the symbols…but it is not necessary that the painter create them, these symbols, otherwise it would be better for him to write what one wants to say, instead of painting it. It is necessary that the public, the spectators, see in the horse, in the bull, symbols that they interpret, as they understand them. There are animals: these are massacred animals. That is all for me; let the public see what it wants to see.


It is not the subject matter that makes “Guernica” an effective work. Some of the worst works of art have been about universal themes - motherhood, brotherhood, labor, love - as well as the atrocities of war. And it is debatable as to whether its provocative power is due to its cubist, formal structure. It is interesting to compare Guernica with another anti-atrocity painting that Picasso did 14 years later, in 1951, during the Korean War, which never achieved the iconic status of “Guernica”. The painting was called “Massacre in Korea” and is now in the Picasso Museum in Paris. It was based on the slaughter of defenseless South Korean civilians by US forces in No Gun Ri between July 26 and 29, 1950 during the Korean War. Survivors claim that unarmed villagers and refugees were bombed by the US air force on July 26 and that subsequently U.S. troops fired on them when they fled into a tunnel to escape. Over 300 people reportedly were killed. Although South Korean and U.S. officials had denied it for almost 50 years - even mentioning it publicly in South Korea could get you arrested and even tortured by the authoritarian government during this time - Associated Press reporters, after interviewing surviving US soldiers who had participated in the event, revealed the horrible incident in 1999. The atrocity was finally confirmed by a US army investigation in January 2001, but the official report of the atrocity also claimed that “the deaths of civilians, wherever they occurred, were an unfortunate tragedy inherent in war and not a deliberate killing”.

“Massacre in Korea” was made by Picasso as a member of the French Communist Party in support of the Communist cause in Korea. Because of paintings like this and his anti-American actions, Picasso was banned from entering the US, but the painting was used by people in the streets of Warsaw to show their support for the victims of Soviet tanks at the time of the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, infuriating the French Communist party (which also objected to its non-social realist style). Reportedly, these judgments pleased Picasso, who said that he was happy that now everyone hated him. Last year, the painting was displayed as part of an “International Exhibition for Peace” held at National Museum of Contemporary Art in Soeul, South Korea.

Why didn’t “Massacre in Korea” achieve the worldwide reputation of “Guernica”, even though its message was quite similar – the massacre of innocents. One reason, of course, is that it was painted in support of an anti American, anti-UN and pro-Communist cause. But another is that it is one of the worse paintings that Picasso ever did. Its trite imagery does not lend itself to the same universality. “Massacre” is too specific and obvious. On the left are four naked, passive, female figures, and three naked children, obviously innocent victims. On the right, several naked, robot-like, male figures, wearing strange, metallic masks, aiming rifles at the figures on the left. These figures are obviously soldiers and aggressors. Behind them is an incongruous figure raising a sword. Apparently nudity and swords are supposed to convey universality, but literary, definable symbols do not make for profundity. Even its relatively realist style does not help. Goya’s, “3rd of May, 1808”, in the Prado, which is also about a particular event, is a powerful expression of the horrors of an atrocity without such obvious symbolism. Although Guernica will always be a major tourist attraction at the Reina Sophia, it will continue to provoke people to respond to atrocities, even in reproduction, whereas Massacre will probably remain in the Picasso Museum in Paris, where, in spite of its subject, it will be seen as just another Picasso

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