Picasso’s most famous work is a propaganda piece. In his own words: “It isn’t meant to decorate a room. It is an instrument of defensive and offensive war…”
Guernica by Pablo Picasso (349 x 776cm), oil on canvas. Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid (fair use low-resolution photo)
It was commissioned by the government of Spain for its pavillion at the World’s Fair of 1937. At the time, they were desperate. The military, led by General Franco, had revolted and were fast gaining control of the country.
Picasso started off sketching bulls and horses—two of his favorite subjects. In the bullfight the defenseless horse is a victim of the well-armed and aggressive bull. So the horse could be used to represent the people in a painting about a modern war, and the bull, the inhuman force of destruction.
In the bullfights of Picasso’s day, as in those of Goya, the picador’s horse had no protection.
A bullfight by Francisco de Goya (Wikipaintings file photo)
When the bull charged, the horse was gored and fell to its knees, its belly ripped open. Spectators, whose attention was fixed on the picador and his fate, ignored the horse’s suffering and followed the bull’s ravages as soon as it moved to another part of the ring. The dying horse, his neck lifting and coiling like a snake’s, lay on the ground in voiceless agony until a bullfighter, a specialist in giving the coup de grace, finished him with a dagger.
This callous use of the horse was without doubt the cruellest part of the corrida. Nowadays it is protected by a long, padded skirt that the bull’s horns can’t penetrate.
One of Picasso’s first sketches included a bull, a fallen horse, and a wounded picador;
and, for the first time, the image of a woman crying out to heaven, her dead child in her arms. A variation of the figure is exhibited in the Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid.
The Bombing of Gernika
He was working on those sketches for his commission from the Republican government when the news reached him that a Basque town called Gernika had been bombed by German and Italian planes under orders from Franco. Those planes dropped thousands of bombs on the town, apparently with no other aim than to terrorize the enemy. The casualties were all civilians.
Shocked and angry, Picasso started a huge mural and worked day and night on it until it was finished and on display in the Pavillion of the Spanish Republic just 24 days later.
The final version
His model and lover Dora Maar made photos of the work as it progressed. These show how Picasso changed and improved many of his first ideas. One of his first versions of the Guernica was this one:
The fallen horse is at the center of the composition but the foreground is now filled with the bodies of victims of the bombings. The bull stands triumphant, a kind of chariot wheel at his feet. To the center of the mural a shocked face brings a candle to light the scene and discover the horror. There are buildings in the background and a great fire on the right.
Every day Picasso made corrections and changed things until he satisfied himself with this, the last version:
The center of the mural is a triangle made up of the horse and two of the victims.
The horse, still kneeling, is transfixed by a spear. Its head is now lifted. It seems to cry out in agony, its tongue sustituted by a knife.
This painting is among the forty-five studies exhibited in the Reina Sofía Center:
To the left lies the body of a man, his arms outstretched, a broken sword in one of his hands. The bull has been moved to the side. Its ear has become a knife and a military insignia. The buildings in the background have disappeared: the scene now seems to take place in a dark cellar, lit only by a lamp with a single light bulb. Picasso retained the other light of the earlier version, now an oil lamp, held out by the shocked face. The fire on the right has become mere triangles of flame.
The distraught woman
The bewildered or suppliant woman of the other studies is now a great central figure–the other corner of the triangle.
Picasso made many drawings and paintings of distraught women for this mural and even continued with the subject after sending it off to Paris. Here are two others on display in Madrid:
The Guernica immediately became a Republican banner. It showed the horror of war and at the same time provoked indignation at the cruelty of the Fascists leaders. After the Fair was over the mural began a tour of Europe and America, where it was used to enlist support for the Spanish Republic.
Picasso kept on having ingenious ideas. For weeks he didn’t stop creating studies with the subject of war and the Guernica:
The Guernica surprised many of Picasso’s followers. Since his Cubist days he had kept emotion out of his art. His work experimented with form, not feeling. He had gotten rid of sentimentalism after the Pink and Blue paintings and for a while cultivated a cold intellectualism. But the Guernica and the paintings that followed it show a man as passionate as Goya.
Black Planes by Horacio Ferrer
Many other moving propaganda paintings were made at the time. This one by Horacio Ferrer was also chosen to be exhibited at the Spanish Republican pavillion in 1937 and it hung in one of the rooms beside the Guernica.
It is a masterpiece, full of wonderful gesture, portraits, and color. But the brilliance and fame of Picasso’s painting have relegated it to a sideroom in the Centro de Arte Reina Sofía.
All the pictures in this post, except that of the Guernica itself and the war ruins, are mine and were taken of works on exhibit at the Reina Sofía Museum of Madrid, which at least when I was there, allowed photos without flash. I did what I could with my simple camera. It wasn’t always easy: