Artist: Pablo Picasso
Medium: oil on canvas
Date: c. 1937
One of Picasso’s best known works, Guernica is Picasso’s critique of the German bombing raid of a little Basque village in northern Spain. As Germany gears up for war, Adolph Hitler, with the approval of Generalissimo Francisco Franco, chooses the village of Guernica as a site for bombing practice. On April 27th, 1937, the unsuspecting hamlet is pounded with high-explosive and incendiary bombs for over three hours. Townspeople are cut down as they run from the crumbling buildings. Guernica burns for three days. Sixteen hundred civilians are killed or wounded.
By May 1st, news of the massacre at Guernica reaches Paris, where more than a million protesters flood the streets to voice their outrage in the largest May Day demonstration the city has ever seen. Eyewitness reports fill the front pages of Paris papers. Picasso is stunned by the stark black and white photographs. Appalled and enraged, Picasso rushes through the crowded streets to his studio, where he quickly sketches the first images for the mural he will call Guernica.
Prior to the bombing, Picasso had been commissioned to create the centerpiece for the Spanish art exhibition at the 1937 World’s Fair in Paris. Three months later, Guernica is delivered to the Spanish Pavilion at the Paris Exposition. Almost prophetically, the Spanish Pavilion stands in the shadow of Albert Speer’s monolith to Nazi Germany. The Spanish Pavilion’s main attraction, Picasso’s Guernica, is a sober indictment of the tragic events in Spain.
After the Fair, Guernica tours Europe and Northern America to raise consciousness about the threat of fascism. From the beginning of World War II until 1981, Guernica is housed in its temporary home at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, though it makes frequent trips abroad to such places as Munich, Cologne, Stockholm, and even Sao Palo in Brazil. The one place it does not go is Spain. Although Picasso had always intended for the mural to be owned by the Spanish people, he refuses to allow it to travel to Spain until the country enjoys “public liberties and democratic institutions.”
Described as modern art’s most powerful anti-war statement, Guernica is seen as an amalgamation of pastoral and epic styles. Guernica is a mural-size canvas (3.5 m (11 ft) tall x 7.8 m (25.6 ft) wide) painted in oil. The somber palate of blue, black and white intensify the drama, producing a stark, almost photographic record of the tragedy. The meaning of key figures – a woman with outstretched arms, a bull, an agonized horse – are left open to one’s interpretation. When asked for their symbolic meaning , Picasso replied “A painting is not thought out and settled in advance. While it is being done, it changes as one’s thoughts change. And when it’s finished, it goes on changing, according to the state of mind of whoever is looking at it.”