A tour to see the inspiration for Picasso to paint "Guernica"

On Monday, April, 26th, 1937 the town of Gernika, outside of Bilbao, suffered what it is considered one of the first bombings on civil population in the world where many people, specially kids and women died. And this is nowadays an important stop in the visits outside of Bilbao.

Gernika reproduction as it can be found in a tour in Guernica

Pablo Picasso got inspired in the bombing of the Basque town of Gernika (then known in Spanish as Guernica) to make a painting, but this painting has changed the history of art and surpassed, as a symbol, the town of Gernika and the Basque Country. 

We have spoken before about the town and about this painting, which original is nowadays in Madrid. However, here I want to go in a different perspective.

In a private tour this weekend I met a very intelligent young girl, Madison Cripps, who wrote a paper for her study in Barcelona about the painting "Guernica" by Pablo Picasso and its influence on global and even present protests.

They were so kind to send the paper me and allow me to share it with you here for a better understanding of this piece of art and its present meaning. I believe it is a wonderful opportunity to review this piece of art and understand a bit more about it.

Hope that you enjoy it as I did:

WHY-con: An Analysis of Why (and How) Guernica Evolved from a Spanish Civil War Response to a Universal Icon of Political Protest

By Madison Cripps.

Picasso maintained, “A picture is not thought out and settled beforehand. While it is being done, it changes as one’s thoughts change,” and further argued that, “when [a picture] is finished, it still goes on changing according to the state of mind of whoever is looking at it,” (Cousen 52). Evidently, Picasso was a firm believer in the fluid and variable nature of a picture’s meaning, but even he may not have predicted Guernica – his 1937 masterpiece – to shift from a reaction to a distinct event during the Spanish Civil War to an iconized symbol of political protest. The Spanish Civil War – which lasted from 1936 to 1939 – was characterized by extreme violence that resulted in the deaths of 500,000 Spanish citizens, and thanks to the rise of photojournalism, images of this brutality were published each day in newspapers around the world (Guill 13). Not only did these horrific photographs attract global attention, but they also influenced artists – such as, painters, writers, filmmakers, and photographers – in their creation of a large array of political commentaries and war-related art. Despite sharing its subject matter and historical context with other works of the time, Guernica has managed to evolve into an image of universal significance, whereas the majority of Spanish Civil War art has been preserved as cultural artefacts and reminders of past struggles. Now, almost eight decades later, Guernica’s meaning still continues to shift and evolve, allowing the painting to maintain a position of cultural relevance. But what sets this piece apart from the rest of Spanish Civil War works, which remain in museums as relics of Spanish history? The answer lies within the visual nature of the work and the abstract representations of its themes and symbols, which combine to produce a work of art that not only has a significance that transcends time and cultural differences, but has become a universal political icon that – with its widespread and repeated use – has linked otherwise distinct protests to create a global narrative.

In their depictions of Spanish Civil War events, many artists alluded to the abnormally violent attacks that were occurring throughout Spain. This horrible violence was largely due to Francisco Franco’s alliances with Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini, and was exacerbated by the fact that the opposing Republican side was forced to defend itself (Attia 92). With the help of Germany and Italy, Franco gained access to technologically-advanced weapons and increased knowledge of aeronautics (Guill 14). The resulting use of new forms of violent warfare – especially aerial attacks – led to yet another armed conflict in what some historians have referred to as the “Century of Violence” (Rhodes 19). Franco’s powerful allies, strong military, and advanced weaponry gave the Fascists the ability not only to triumph over the Republicans, but also to do so with greater and more brutal force than had ever been seen before.

From its start, the Spanish Civil War was characterized by unprecedented brutality and forceful attacks. The war’s violence, however, did not reach its peak until 1937, with the attack of the small Basque city of Guernica. As Guernica was a center of resistance in Northern Spain, Franco decided, with help from the German military, to make an example of the small village by conducting the first aerial raid of a civilian population in history (Ray 168). This heinous attack came to embody what historian, Gabriel Jackson, has described as “calculated experiments in terror” (Guill 14). By referring to the attack on Guernica as a “calculated experiment,” Jackson alludes to the “calculated” and deliberate nature of the raid, and the ways in which it seemed almost like an experiment to determine how to maximize destruction. For instance, the raid occurred on a market day, which ensured that many civilians would be out of their homes during the attack (Guill 14). Other calculations were made to assure maximum structural damage – because most of Guernica’s buildings were wooden, the 100,000 pounds of bombs dropped on the village were both highly explosive and incendiary (Rhodes 20). When the meticulously planned, three-hour-long raid ceased, nearly sixteen hundred civilians had been killed or wounded and the town – now engulfed in flames – had been destroyed (Ray 169).

Just as the rest of the war had been chronicled through photographs and articles, the attack on Guernica too, was recounted in newspapers around the world. Witnesses detailed the horrific scene, recalling the “smell of burning flesh” and buildings “collapsing into the inferno” (Ray 169). When news of this monstrous attack reached Picasso, he was outraged – until then, “he had never reacted so violently to world or outside affairs” (Rhodes 21). Artists at this time commonly found inspiration in reports detailing the war and violence. For Picasso – who had been lacking the inspiration he needed to fulfil a commission to paint a mural for the Spanish government’s display at the 1937 Paris World Exposition – the atrocity of the attack on Guernica served as the “immediate impetus” for the piece he would paint (Rhodes 21). It was then that Picasso began what would become Guernica.

The concept of using art as a means of making political statements was not a novel one for Picasso, as he had used his work to express his political views and anti-war convictions in the past. Political themes can be seen within Picasso’s art in pieces as early as his 1912 Bottle of Suze, which incorporates actual pieces of newspaper on which anti-war protests are printed. When asked about his decision to include the newsprint, Picasso affirmed, “I found it in the newspaper, and it was my way of showing I was against the war” (Leighten 39). The 1937 Paris World Exhibition provided Picasso with the perfect opportunity to make a political statement – but on a much larger scale than in his previous works – as the world was following closely the progression of Spain’s increasingly violent war (Kopper 449). With viewers drawing immediate links between the painting and the highly publicized conflict, the piece was well positioned to become a symbol for the Republican side (Kopper 449).

While Guernica – at the time of the Paris World Exposition – expressed a clear opposition to the Fascists’ ruthless war tactics, the painting itself did not actually depict the events of the Guernica attack – or any other attack, for that matter (Attia 1563). In fact, Picasso received criticism from a Spanish official who feared that the work’s lack of direct references to the Spanish Civil War neither adequately nor accurately promoted the Republican cause (Kopper 453). What that official failed to realize, however, was that Picasso’s inclusion of various symbols, themes, and elements in his painting allowed viewers to draw connections to the Spanish Civil War, despite the absence of concrete images.

Some figures in the painting – like the bull and horse – are thought to represent Spain and Spanish culture. While the inclusion of these figures may depict the Spanish bullfighting tradition, symbolizing Spain’s rich and historical culture prior to the Civil War, some suggest that the animals allude to the two warring factions and are meant portray Spain during the Civil War (Attia 1566). The painting’s inclusion of flaming buildings and crumbling walls has also been interpreted as a symbolic reference to the Civil War. The flaming buildings could be a direct reference to the complete destruction of Guernica, or – on a more abstract level – they could represent the devastating nature of Civil War (Ray 169). Other elements in the work create clearer symbolic links between the painting and the Civil War. For example, the colors Picasso used in Guernica were limited to black, white, and grey  these colors set a somber mood, while also expressing pain (Ray 169). The painting’s use of shapes also aids in the expression of pain, suffering, and destruction. The jumble of people and animals imparts a sense of chaos throughout the work (Guill 16). Within the mess of shapes conveying a state of disarray, the figures that can be made out display unmistakable expressions of pain and suffering. The figures are shown as distorted and twisted victims – a soldier lies on the ground, completely dismembered; both humans and animals are pictured with severed bones and ghastly wounds; and those lacking physical injuries exhibit facial expressions characterized by sheer agony (Attia 1563). Together, the painting’s shape and color usage creates a “nightmarish” aesthetic (Guill 16). Moreover, despite the limited color palette, Picasso made use of light, dark, and shadow to illuminate the chaos and create a sense of disorientation regarding time and place (Guill 17). Working together, Guernica’s symbolic and material elements create an image that touches on both specific events and general themes of the Spanish Civil War, leaving the viewer with the notion that safety is non-existent and triggering powerful emotional responses.

Guernica’s subject matter and acceptance as a symbol of the Republican cause created an intimate and undeniable link between the painting and the Spanish Civil War. The war has long been over, and the ideals and events that Guernica protested have become a part of history, yet the painting has maintained a strong political legacy on a global scale. Many artists have borrowed Guernica’s symbols, stylistic elements, and themes in creating their own political artwork (Kopper 449). This use of Picasso’s 1937 masterpiece as a template has allowed artists to incorporate the general themes of Guernica in their own work, while adapting various other aspects to reflect the nature of their particular protests. Remarkably, Guernica’s name also has the ability to convey political messages and evoke acts of protest (Kopper 449). Many artists, including Colombian painter Fernando Botero, have very purposefully titled their works “Guernica” with the intention uniting protesters through a common understanding of a general opposition to the political situation (Kopper 550). Through their allusion to, and their direct use of Guernica’s name, themes, and symbols, artists have helped to keep the piece alive and relevant.

Although artists adjust and modify Guernica’s stylistic and symbolic elements to create new works of art, the original, unaltered image of Picasso’s 1937 masterpiece is still tremendously powerful. Guernica has itself become a symbol used by peace campaigners around the globe (London Times). Citizens of countries in Europe, North America, and Asia have turned to the image as a means of expressing political outrage and discontent (Kopper 444). In Thailand, for example, Guernica was used in protest of security force brutality (Kopper 450). More recently, protesters in Syria have made use of this image as well, although in an entirely different context than in Thailand. Here, citizens displayed Guernica in their demand for the end of the civil war and violence caused by the Assad regime. The image seemed especially appropriate to Syrian protesters in light of specific events, such as the bombardment of Aleppo, an old Syrian city at the epicenter of the political conflict and civil war (Kopper 444). Some of the most widespread use of Guernica in protests was seen in response to the War on Iraq. Protesters began opposing the prospect of war in early 2003, prior to the invasion of Iraq. In New York, San Francisco, and in numerous American cities in between, demonstrators carried images of Picasso’s Guernica through the streets (Kopper 450). The public outcry over the War on Iraq, however, was not isolated in America, and thus, these demonstrations illustrate the adaptive nature of Guernica and its meaning. Citizens of Madrid, London, Rome, and even Halifax joined Americans in their opposition of the war, and Guernica appeared in protesters’ hands and on banners across the globe (“’Guernica’ Against the War” 2003). In this context, Guernica became not only an icon of political protest, but also a universal symbol of international condemnation of former President George Bush and his plan to wage war on Iraq. The image was so synonymous with the disapproval of President Bush and the war that The New Yorker – an important American magazine, known for its culturally relevant cover illustrations – joined the opposition with its publication of the March 17, 2003 issue, which featured a powerful and meaningful image of Guernica on its cover (“’Guernica’ Against the War” 2003).

Over the past 70 years, Picasso’s Guernica has undoubtedly become an icon of political protest and unrest. The piece’s iconicity, however, would have been impossible were it not for the amalgamation of two elements – the visual nature of the work and the abstract techniques used in depicting events – which were essential in ensuring that the painting’s meanings would remain relevant, rather than fading into history. Compared to other forms of expression, visual art generally relies more heavily on symbolism than its verbal or written counterparts (Kopper 444). This is true in Guernica, as the painting was not meant to be an accurate representation of the aerial raid, but instead a symbolic protest of these events and of the Spanish Civil War (Ray 169). This use of symbolism results in more ambiguous meaning, leaving interpretation of the image largely up to the viewer. British sociologist, Anthony Giddens, makes an important point regarding the open interpretation of art. Regarding the ways in which people find meaning in art, Giddens suggests that as new traditions arise, “new meanings are continually brought into being” (Kopper 446). Giddens’ argument implies that viewers are greatly influenced by their social, cultural, and political surroundings, and – given the symbolic nature of art – these norms affect the meanings that observers draw from images. In terms of Guernica, this idea presents an explanation for how the piece has shifted from a response to the Spanish Civil War to an important work within a wider political narrative. That said, in spite of the tendency towards ambiguous meaning in visual works, there are some instances in which images relay messages more clearly than do written pieces. For instance, concepts like equality, liberty, and suffering are difficult to verbalize. Guernica – due to its visual nature – captures the essence of these ideas, presenting a powerful narrative that manages to convey society’s general abhorrence of war, pain, aggression, and suffering afflicted on the innocent (Kopper 446). Most important, however, are the differences in how people are affected by visual and written works. Verbal expression involves an unfolding process – in order to convey its message, a written piece must capture and hold the attention of its audience. Such is not the case for visual art, which is direct in its impact on viewers. This is particularly important when considering Guernica, as its subject matter is one associated with intense emotions and serious themes. The audience can easily avoid these unpleasant topics when they are presented verbally – people can turn the page of a book, turn off the TV or radio, or walk away from the situation. As an image, however, Guernica confronts its viewers with its themes and message at once, giving no chance of escape and triggering immediate, involuntary reactions (Kopper 451). Together, the elements unique to visual expression have contributed to Guernica’s lasting importance by allowing the image to directly confront viewers with universally important concepts, while still maintaining an open interpretation, subject to shifts in cultural values and norms.

The visual nature of Guernica made the piece more well suited to become an icon than a written work. Yet not many images withstand the test of time like Guernica has, and this is largely a result of the abstract techniques that Picasso used in his representation of the horrifying events of the Spanish Civil War and its related themes. It is now commonplace for newspapers and television programs to display gruesome images of war-related events and their victims. This trend can be traced back to the Spanish Civil War, when images of brutal attacks were captured by photojournalists and printed on the front pages of newspapers around the world each day. Professor and researcher, Elizabeth Dauphinée, questions the ethics behind publicizing such shocking images that focus on others’ pain and suffering (Kopper 451). Dauphinée expresses skepticism regarding the potential for these themes and ideas to be presented ethically. However, Picasso felt that he had a duty to incorporate social and ethical values within his artistic works (Leighten 41). Picasso found a balance between the portrayal of tragedy and the depiction of horrifying events by painting his piece in an abstract manner. Due to its abstraction, Guernica circumvents the ethical dilemma proposed by Dauphinée, but still depicts suffering and pain (Kopper 451). This abstract representation of the attack on Guernica makes no direct references to the Spanish Civil War (Guill 16). In addition to the exclusion of actual events, the painting also only depicts the victims through symbolic portrayals of pain and suffering, as can be seen on the screaming face highlighted in the piece (See Figure 1) (Kopper 453). The non-personified and abstract images within the painting create an “archetypical depiction of pain and suffering,” which invokes viewers’ ingrained detestation of unwarranted aggression and cruelty (Kopper 452). Additionally, the non-specified nature of the events portrayed in the work allows viewers today to decenter and uncouple Guernica from the historical events that inspired its creation (Kopper 453).

As a visual work that incorporates abstract techniques, Guernica has been able to shift its meaning in accordance to more modern protesters’ demands. Considering this, it is evident that Guernica still speaks to present viewers, and that this has kept the work alive in the political realm for over 70 years (Kopper 447). However, while the ability to maintain cultural relevance is made possible by the work’s aforementioned features, Guernica’s iconic status is a result of repeated use and reference to the image in politicized situations. By carrying posters and placards displaying Picasso’s Guernica, it is widely accepted that protesters are making a general claim against war, abuse of power, and terrorizing innocent citizens (Kopper 443). This universal interpretation of the painting came about through recurrent use of the image in highly politicized contexts. Every time Guernica appears in the hands of protesters, the image is reinforced as a political icon (Kopper 453). Moreover, each use attaches additional layers of significance to the painting (Kopper 450). Thus, the repeated display of the work not only strengthens its iconic status, but also creates links between otherwise distinct events, allowing for the creation of a global narrative and the communication of a universal claim.

Inspired by the horrific aerial raid on Guernica – and by the unprecedented violence seen during the Spanish Civil War in general – Picasso’s Guernica was created as a symbolic protest of the political situation at the time. However, the work’s widespread use and lasting relevance suggest that its meanings are not unique to the Spanish Civil War. Instead, as is exemplified by the appearance of Guernica in protests throughout the past 70 years, the piece has the ability to convey powerful emotional responses within a political context. Several of the painting’s elements, for instance, the fact that the piece is visual – rather than verbal – expression, or that the visual elements in the painting are depicted abstractly, give Guernica the ability to come to life again and again. Moreover, each time the painting is “brought to life” through its use in protests, a new layer of significance is attached to the work. Through its recurrent use in protests and its repeated layering of new meanings, Guernica is constantly reinforced as a political icon, linking distinct protests throughout history to create a meaningful global narrative and make universal claims.

By Madison Cripps


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