A work of art must make a man react…it must agitate him and shake him up.
The Guernica is undoubtedly one of Pablo Picasso’s most famous works of art. It is a powerful antiwar statement and was painted in reaction to the Nazi’s casual bombing of the Basque town of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War in the late thirties. Picasso painted the enormous mural as a centerpiece for the Spanish Pavilion at the 1937 World’s Fair held in Paris. The painting, showing screaming horses, wailing mothers, and dead children graphically capture the tragedies of war and the senseless destruction of innocent lives.
To put the painting in historical context, Guernica is a small town in the Basque Country. During the Spanish Civil War, it was regarded as a stronghold for the Republican resistance movement that fought against General Francisco Franco’s Nationalist dictatorship. Franco was aligned with Hitler and hoped to return Spain to its golden days, based on a rigid system of law and order and traditional Catholic family values. But, Franco’s tactics were relentless. Upon his rise to power, he implemented policies that were responsible for the repression and deaths of as many as 400,000 political opponents and dissenters through the use of forced labor and executions in concentration camps operated by his regime.
In one such show of power and aggression, on Monday, April 26, 1937, warplanes of the German Condor Legion—Germany was one of Spain’s allies—bombed Guernica for about two hours. The Germans were using the opportunity to assist Franco in his efforts to subdue the partisans as well as test out new weapons. The attack was controversial as it involved the bombing of civilians by military force.
Through art, Picasso was able to bring attention to this violent act and open the eyes of the world to events that were taking place in his homeland. Picasso doesn’t try to describe the scene as if he were a spectator; instead, he wants to show the meaning of war, suppression, and cruelty through shapes, characters, and color—or lack thereof. The oversized mural is painted in black and gray tones. The symbolism of the painting is complicated, but the key factors that one takes away from this piece are the suffering and human pain. The picture does not glorify victory or heroism; rather it highlights the impact of war’s destructive nature.
The Guernica gained some notoriety in Paris at the World’s Fair, and for two years it was on display in Europe. In 1939 Franco’s government defeated the Republican movement and his army took control of the country and it wasn’t safe for the mural to be returned to its home country. It wasn’t safe for it to remain in Europe either and at the onset of the Second World War, it traveled to the United States where it was exhibited for decades in the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York.
Picasso firmly believed that painting belonged to the people of Spain, but it wasn’t until 1981, several years after the death of Franco that the mural was finally returned to Spain. It can now be seen at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia in Madrid.
We are fortunate to live in a world where Picasso’s painting still exists and that the forces that had tried to silence his voice, in time were silenced instead. Picasso’s picture continues to be a reminder of war’s atrocities and helps us to remember that the paintbrush, as well as the pen, can be mighty weapons to fight oppression.