Why is this painting so shocking? - Iseult Gillespie
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Painted in 1937, this colossal work depicts the bombing of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War on a personal and panoramic scale. For more information and testimony on this tragic event, visit this page. For a deep dive into what makes Guernica such a radical painting (and for more information on Picasso’s life and work), watch this Modern Masters documentary.
In 1937, Spain was a year into civil war between the democratic Republican government and fascist forces led by General Franco with the support of Benito Mussolini and Adolph Hitler. On 27 April 1937 the German air force bombed the village of Guernica in the Basque region, in history’s first blanket bombing of a civilian population.
The event sparked a furious period of work for Picasso, a staunch anti-fascist who painted his monumental mural in only thirty-five days. For more information on his life, work and political beliefs, listen to this radio documentary. To see the great master at work in his studio in his later years, click here.
The urgency of the political situation at the time of Guernica’s composition radiates throughout the painting, which depicts a blaze of humans and animals with mangled limbs, melting bodies and shrieking mouths or pointed tongues.
These features are viscerally rendered in the geometric shapes, flattened planes and disjointed bodies that have become synonymous with Cubism. For a timeline of this revolutionary art movement, click here. Picasso developed Cubist techniques to represent multiple points on an object, which provided more than any human eye could grasp at once.
While it is unambiguously a work of protest that still has relevance today, viewers continue to debate what the individual inhabitants of the painting might symbolize. Does the white bull represent Spain, the country of matadors and a common theme in Picasso’s other work - or does it stand for the brutality of war? And is the screaming horse suggestive of the threat of military nationalism; or does the spike running through its body convey its victimhood? This debate is explored in Carla Gotleib’s article, “The Meaning of the Horse and Bull in Guernica.” And John Corbin’s article “Images of War” also outlines the Spanish cultural icons at work in the painting,
The composition is made all the more dizzying with overlapping lines, which make it difficult to perceive some hidden figures. On closer look, you might make out the skull overlapping the horses face, or the hidden outline of another bull that appears to gore the horse’s belly.
Between the horse and the bull, there is another inscrutable animal - a bird with its wings askew. This may point to the fact that the bombing occurred on market day, which meant a higher concentration of people in the center of town selling food and livestock.
As well as these traditional activities, Picasso references the modern age with the jagged lightbulb beaming over the painting. This has been thought to represent the technologies in modern warfare which the fascists developed, and frames Guernica as a casualty of this senseless innovation. This rejects any cultural assumptions that war is heroic or noble.
The only possible relief comes from the other light source in the composition - a candle held tightly by a ghostly woman who reaches out her window. Whether she is offering hope, or merely bearing witness to the chaos that will soon engulf her, is difficult to know. What we can be sure of is the rawness and urgency of Picasso’s work, which offers a blazing new way of looking at war.
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