Travel: Studying ‘Guernica’ – Picasso’s Masterpiece

Even the greatest galleries have a star attraction — the diva who drives the show.

At the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, the centerpiece is the great Guernica by Pablo Picasso. Often described as the greatest single painting of the 20th Century, Picasso painted it in 1937 at the request of government officials battling the Fascists during the Spanish Civil War. After Nazi and Italian forces bombed the country village of Guernica, Picasso created his masterpiece as a protest — sending it around the world to call attention to the conflict.

More than 25 feet wide and 11 feet high, the oil painting on canvas is essentially an indoor mural. Its significance lived on long after Picasso, the Spanish Civil War and World War II  as the painting remains the century’s most iconic, artistic anti-war statement.

The painting stands in its own gallery chamber at the Reina Sofia, with other Civil War period and themed works surrounding it in adjoining spaces. It’s a breathtaking sight when it first comes into your vision — partly because of its global main, but primarily because of its size.

According to artist and historian Dan Madigan, Guernica is arguably Picasso’s most famous individual piece. He says, beyond its dimensions, the first thing that stands out in this piece is the chaos and confusing nature of the composition — a fragmented and frantic frieze of fear and ferocity.

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“The color palette is unique to the piece, unlike Picasso’s earlier artistic periods which utilized somber colors (the Blue Period) and cheery pinks (The Rose Period),” Madigan says. “The black and white and predominately gray colors that create this monochromatic depiction of mass murder are visually reminiscent of the newspaper headlines and photographs that chronicled the atrocities of the day.”

“Picasso, as well as most people at that time, would read about the Guernica bombing through the newspapers or see the black and white newsreels in the cinemas. Picasso’s choice of colors (and lack thereof) reflect how the general public would receive information. The entire Guernica composition has a theatrical feel to it. As the viewer’s eye wanders through the confusion, the painting takes on an overwhelming operatic feeling of pandemonium.”

Personally, this reporter is challenged by Guernica because of its intention. I generally agree that art can only be art. In other words, art cannot truly serve another purpose and remain art. Therefore, I find political art that becomes propaganda to be “hacky” and forgettable — doomed to one day be seen as cheap kitsch. Art should be timeless. Politics are, by definition, bound by period. Art should make its own statement, rather than rely on a pre-existing political philosophy for significance. Propaganda ceases to have any meaning after the cause or campaign that spawned it fades.

The entirety of Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica” at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia.


However, Guernica outlived its era and the war it protested because of its execution, scope and aesthetics. It is such a powerful piece that it takes on a larger role of decrying all human conflicts and not such the single war that spawned its title.

“For decades art critics have debated about what symbolism was intended in this piece,” Madigan says. “Picasso himself was never really forthcoming with revealing what certain imagery meant in the painting.”

The horse and bull (both representative of the Spanish culture) are present in the piece. Bullfighting was the national pastime in Spain with its people filling stadiums to watch the bloody spectacle of matadors slaughtering bulls. But, now bull, horse and spectators find themselves all thrown into the slaughterhouse.

“The blood ritual that the Spaniards would watch for sport, the Nazis and Fascists would perpetrate for conquest,” Madigan adds. “Picasso shows how high the stakes really are. The horse is screaming in agony, but the bull stands stoic and silent, symbolic of the strength of the Spanish people.”

An early concept sketch of Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica” from the archives of the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia.


“Yet the bull’s head is turned to the carnage that is happening before him. Does he turn a blind eye? Does he lend a deaf ear? Is there a greater indictment toward the Spanish people who perhaps felt the Basque were not really part of their culture? Picasso never answered those questions.”

Bodies are strewn across the canvas, torn apart and fractured. The subjects falls into two categories, the dead or the dying. Arms are thrust into the air looking for salvation. An all-seeing eye/light bulb floats above the commotion, watching but not intervening. Is Picasso using this as the representational indifference of Europe or as an accusatory statement of a negligent God? He never explained.

“This is Picasso at his most nihilistic,” Madigan concludes. “Picasso’s style is artistically annotative. He lays out before us a frenzied milieu that is reminiscent of German Expressionist Max Beckman or Mexican Muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros. He creates a tableau of hopelessness and horror, which becomes not just denunciation of governmental atrocity but a harbinger of things to come.”

Photos courtesy Museo Centro de Arte Reina Sofia


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