Picasso Exhibits

Created for the Paris International Exposition, Pablo Picasso’s Guernica expressed the great artist’s horror at the bombing of the Basque capital Guernica during the Spanish Civil War.

Summary of Event

Spanish by birth, Pablo Picasso spent most of his working life in France, in or near Paris. His political sympathies were always on the left (he joined the Communist Party in 1944), although his art did not begin to contain explicit political themes until the beginning of the Spanish Civil War, when a group of right-wing military officers, headed by Francisco Franco, attacked the democratically elected government of Spain. Outgunned by Franco and his allies (the fascist regimes of Germany and Italy), the Spanish Republic waged a losing battle over a three-year period, gradually relinquishing territory to the rebels, who mercilessly bombed the civilian population. [kw]Picasso Exhibits Guernica (July, 1937)
[kw]Exhibits Guernica, Picasso (July, 1937)
[kw]Guernica, Picasso Exhibits (July, 1937)
Guernica (Picasso)
Spanish Civil War (1936-1939);Guernica
[g]France;July, 1937: Picasso Exhibits Guernica[09520]
[c]Arts;July, 1937: Picasso Exhibits Guernica[09520]
Picasso, Pablo
Franco, Francisco

In early 1937, Picasso had written a poem ridiculing Franco, rejecting his rebellion, treating him as a subhuman type, and evoking the violence of war: the screaming of women, children, and animals, of inanimate objects such as beds, chairs, and curtains, and of nature itself—a holocaust of screaming that could be seen and smelled because it permeated everything. Picasso’s strongest statement against the assault on the republic, however, came after the bombing on April 26, 1937, of the Basque capital Guernica, where sixteen hundred of seven thousand inhabitants were killed and 70 percent of the town was destroyed during an attack by forty-three German bombers and low-flying planes armed with machine guns. Working at a furious rate over the course of a month, the artist produced a monumental canvas (twenty-five feet by eleven feet), fulfilling a commission given to him by the Spanish Republic for the Paris International Exhibition. The painting was received not merely as a protest against a horrible act of war but as a symbol of the irrational forces of terror that had been loosed not only on Spain but also on humanity as a whole in the twentieth century.

The stark brutality of this enormous painting is emphasized by Picasso’s use of shades of black and white against a rectangular background, creating a field of violence, a killing ground. This mythic scene, expressive of the world’s cruelty and not solely the product of a particular evil act, seems timeless, universal. The scene is dominated by the fragmented figures of human beings and animals arranged both horizontally and vertically—all with mouths open, screaming: a man tumbling from a burning building, a woman lamenting the dead baby in her arms, a dead soldier, fallen from his horse, his body in pieces. Another woman, dazed by the desolation and chaos, is on one knee, her head thrust upward on a diagonal toward a light held over the soldier by another screaming woman. As in so much of Picasso’s painting, human faces and bodies are distorted (heads elongated, eyes, hands, and limbs enlarged), shown frontally and in profile at the same time, and flattened against the picture plane in order to increase the emotional impact of the setting and the conception of a people, a whole nation, suffering.

Several commentators have remarked that images of a horse and a bull are at the heart of the painting, linking it to Picasso’s earlier bullfight paintings, which employed symbolic evocations of these animals to suggest the power and mobility the artist found compelling. In Guernica, the horse is clearly under attack; the bull, however, stands apparently unharmed and impassive, perhaps as an evocation of the impersonal brutality that attracts certain human beings to the bullfight but also of the terrible force the ritual of the bullfight seeks to master. At least one critic has interpreted the bull as hovering protectively above the woman wailing over her dead child, although the bull may have more to do with presenting death as part of the ritualistic recurrence of events such as the bullfight and war. In this respect, human beings and animals suffer the same fate. By juxtaposing horse and bull, Picasso seems to acknowledge his identification with the victims while frankly confessing that violence is inherent in the makeup of the universe. It is an austere vision and highly abstract, as befits a painting purporting to encompass the core conflict in the nature of the world and the inevitability of death—so often seen in the human and animal skulls Picasso painted and sculpted before Guernica.

The lightbulb shining at the top center and the tile floor visible at the bottom of the painting suggest Picasso’s effort to render the horror of war within the confines of art. This is not a naturalistic painting, in which the artist tries to re-create the look and the feel of the actual setting and event or the perspective of an eyewitness; instead, the painting offers a highly personal and aesthetic reaction to death and destruction, a deliberate distancing of the artist from the historical facts in order to portray the human condition.

The heavy symbolic load of Guernica is balanced by the fluidity of Picasso’s line, the deftly drawn, flaring nostrils, teeth, and tongue of the horse, the almost equally wide open, concave mouths of the human victims who shout out the vitality of the life that is extinguished. This grim lyricism heightens emotional identification with the lives lost. The expressiveness of the art is at one with the expressiveness of its doomed figures. Guernica has been considered one of Picasso’s finest paintings since his cubist period because it manages to suffuse the personal symbols and figures of his work with the struggles of a whole people and the fate of twentieth century civilization.


Until Guernica, exactly where Picasso stood on the great issues of his time was not understood. It was supposed that he sympathized with leftist and democratic causes, but his art was not interpreted as having a particularly political orientation, even though many 1930’s artists, writers, and musicians had created works that were socially and politically oriented—even directly supportive of political ideologies such as communism and anarchism.

In Guernica, Picasso fused his great reputation with the aspirations not only of the Spanish Republic but also of all those politically progressive artists and activists who regarded Spain as the testing ground for the defense against fascism. The prestige he lent to the cause of saving Spain can hardly be exaggerated. He had been previously attacked by certain Communist Party ideologues for finding refuge in what they regarded as a solely personal, idiosyncratic, and decadent art that did not reflect the aspirations of the masses or dignify their struggle. Although Guernica is hardly an example of Socialist Realism, the kind of art the Communist Party saw as faithfully rendering the everyday as well as the heroic actions of the people, there is a sense of collective humanity in the painting that made it possible for Picasso to earn his place on the left (having been dismissed as a “degenerate” modern artist by the Nazis) while maintaining his standing as the foremost artist of his time. In 1939, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City gave Picasso his largest retrospective to date, calling it “Picasso: Forty Years of His Art.” The exhibition included more than three hundred works, including Guernica, which had already been shown to great acclaim in London, Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.

Picasso ensured his standing among radicals by issuing in pamphlet form a series of etchings called The Dream and Lie of Franco (1937), Dream and Lie of Franco, The (Picasso) later produced as postcards and sold to raise money for the Republican cause. The image of Picasso as an aloof artist alienated from his society gave way to the image of the artist expressing solidarity with the people, thus ratifying the social and political involvements of many of his contemporaries in art throughout the 1930’s. On December 18, 1937, Picasso sent a statement of his political commitment to the American Artists’ Congress in New York, affirming that the most important values of humanity were at stake in the attack on Spain. From that point on, he would periodically issue political statements, often drafted by his close Communist friends. Picasso would continue his involvement with the Communist Party in the postwar years, attending and designing posters for party congresses.

Guernica was only one of a series of works that Picasso and other artists created in the years immediately preceding World War II that expressed a sense of foreboding, even of apocalypse. The somber and savage quality of many of his paintings produced during the war period express a personal despair, best evoked in a series of still lifes depicting the skulls of bulls’ heads, their flesh flayed and lit by a naked candle flame, that Picasso produced during the Occupation.

Picasso’s adamant refusal to leave Paris during the Occupation and his spurning of German offers of fuel to warm his studio made the artist a symbol of resistance. In one often-told story, Picasso is said to have been visited in his studio by a German officer who spotted a photograph of Guernica and wanted to know if Picasso had done it. “No,” Picasso reportedly replied, “you did.” In fact, there is some doubt about exactly how uncompromising Picasso’s position toward the Germans actually was, but his loyalty to Paris became the stuff of legend, making him into a symbol of freedom and the unvanquished spirit and elevating him to a category all his own.

Throughout the war, the artist continued to create chilling examples of the impact of war on his consciousness. In Death’s Head (1943), Death’s Head (Picasso)[Deaths Head] he strips away most of the human features from the face, leaving only rounded, hollow eyes and jagged slits for the nose and mouth, suggesting the darkness and hollowness of war at a point when the wrenching emotions of Guernica have been spent. Similarly, The Charnel House (1945) Charnel House, The (Picasso) goes beyond Guernica in presenting war’s aftermath; in the later painting, the earth has become a mortuary, the resting place of the dead, where there is no screaming, where everything has been reduced to a ghastly silence in a world that is just discovering the atrocities of the concentration camps. Instead of the moving figures of Guernica, the bodies in The Charnel House are tumbled together as in a mass grave, with parts of bodies twisted together or gouging into one another; a frozen gasp of agony is expressed on the face of a woman upended and pressing down on the bodies below her. Humanity itself is rent and mangled in the painting.

Perhaps what is most gruesome about The Charnel House is that it is not, like Guernica, associated directly with war or with a catastrophic event, for the heap of broken corpses is shown beneath a mundane domestic scene: a white table with an empty jug and an empty saucepan. It is as if the war—not shown on the canvas—has resulted in the bankruptcy of everyday life, which rests on (or covers up) a mountain of death.

In the long term, Picasso’s Guernica contributed to a postwar questioning of the foundations of civilization. The Spanish Civil War and World War II were not seen merely as aberrations, savage interludes between periods of peace, but as the outcomes of malevolent strains within civilization itself, a much more frightening vision of the end of things than the insight that first prompted Picasso to paint Guernica. Guernica (Picasso)
Spanish Civil War (1936-1939);Guernica

Further Reading

  • Beardsley, John. First Impressions: Picasso. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1991. A lucid introductory study with a chapter on Guernica and a large foldout illustration of the painting. Describes several other works Picasso created during the Spanish Civil War and World War II and situates both paintings and sculptures in their historical context. Includes color plates and index.
  • Blunt, Anthony. Picasso’s “Guernica.” 1969. Reprint. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985. Heavily illustrated study (many of the plates are of the forty-five preliminary drawings) with photographs of the painting at various stages of realization. Discusses Guernica in the context of Picasso’s other work and in terms of European traditions that go back to antiquity. Includes large foldout of the painting and notes.
  • Gilot, Françoise. Matisse and Picasso. London: Bloomsbury, 1990. Presents incisive comments on Guernica and other works created during the Spanish Civil War and World War II in the light of Picasso’s friendship and rivalry with his great contemporary. Having lived with Picasso for several years, and as an artist herself, the author provides a unique and sensitive reading of his art and its development. Includes notes and index.
  • Hilton, Timothy. Picasso. 1975. Reprint. London: Thames and Hudson, 2002. Includes discussion of Guernica, with several illustrations and examination of preliminary drawings and the artist’s related works. Notes the impact of Surrealism on Picasso’s poetry and painting and some of the negative American responses to the style. Concludes that Guernica is a competent but not a breakthrough work.
  • Huffington, Arianna Stassinopoulos. Picasso: Creator and Destroyer. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988. Biography provides very little discussion of Picasso’s art, but summarizes reactions to it and analyzes biographical background relevant to his paintings, including Guernica. Sensationalizes some aspects of Picasso’s life but contains important information drawn from extensive interviews with his friends and associates. Includes photographs, extensive bibliography, and index.
  • Martin, Russell. Picasso’s War: The Destruction of Guernica and the Masterpiece That Changed the World. New York: E. P. Dutton, 2002. Follows the literal and figurative journey of the painting since its creation to present an examination of art’s importance to human lives.
  • Sommer, Robin Langley. Picasso. New York: Smithmark, 1988. Sumptuous reproductions of Picasso’s paintings and drawings, including a huge foldout of Guernica, enlargements of the bull and the horse, and pencil-on-paper and pencil-and-crayon-on-paper sketches for the painting. Includes a full-page illustration of The Charnel House and many other color plates, with accompanying text.
  • Walther, Ingo E. Pablo Picasso, 1881-1973. 2d ed. Translated by Hugh Beyer. Cologne, Germany: Benedikt Taschen, 2000. Introductory study includes a chapter on Picasso’s wartime experience, a two-page layout of Guernica, and several black-and-white and color plates of work done during the war, including The Charnel House. Informative text accompanied by sidebars quoting the artist on various aspects of his work and his attitudes toward art. Includes illustrated chronology of Picasso’s life and work and extensive bibliography.

Artists Find Inspiration in African Tribal Art

Salon d’Automne Rejects Braque’s Cubist Works

Apollinaire Defines Cubism

Raids on Guernica