This daring painting became one of Pablo Picasso’s most famous works

Pablo Picasso - Guernica, 1937, oil painting on canvas, 3.49x7.77m, Museo Reina Sofía, Madrid, Spain
Pablo PicassoGuernica, 1937, oil painting on canvas, 3.49×7.77m, Museo Reina Sofía, Madrid, Spain

‘Guernica’ by Pablo Picasso

Guernica is one of Pablo Picasso’s most famous works. This mural-sized oil painting on canvas was done in 1937. He used a palette of gray, white, and black colors to bring out a political statement denouncing the unnecessary sufferings brought about by Nazi bombings. The nearly 3.5 meters tall by 7.77 meters wide mural depicts people whose lives have been wrenched by the chaos and violence. Part of the mural is a burning horse and a bull that has been gored.

What inspired the work?

The inspiration to create the painting came after the town of Guernica in Basque county located in northern Spain was bombed by Italian and Nazi German warplanes1. They had been requested by the Spanish nationalists to do so.

Pablo Picasso - Guernica, 1937, oil painting on canvas, 3.49x7.77m
Pablo PicassoGuernica, 1937, oil painting on canvas, 3.49×7.77m

Symbolism and meaning of Guernica

There are several interpretations of the mural. While on one part it is clear that the mural speaks against the war, the horse and the bull, an iconic symbol of that region dating back to 200 BC2, represents other characters in the Spanish culture. The bull has been used on several occasions as the motif of destruction.

It is believed, that in the context of the mural, it could mean the onslaught of fascists. Picasso later said that the bull also meant doom and darkness, which came later in the world and Spanish history. The horse, in this case, represented the people of Guernica that were being bombed. This masterpiece is a combination of epic and pastoral styles while the color brings about increased drama and creates a reportage quality that is similar to that of a photographic record.

Installation of Guernica with 60 students at Moderna Museet i Stockholm, Sweden, 1956 © Kary Lasch/DN//TT
Installation of Guernica with 60 students at Moderna Museet i Stockholm, Sweden, 1956
Photo:Kary Lasch/DN//TT/museoreinasofia.es

First exhibited in 1937

After the completion of the painting, Picasso toured the world and got the Spanish Civil War3 to the attention of the world. In the process, he also became famous and created other masterpieces that also gained a lot of attention. Guernica was displayed at the Paris International Exposition4 at the 1937 World Fair and transported to other venues around the world. The painting is now housed in Museo Reina Sofia in the city of Madrid, Spain. This work became a standard for anti-war support and embodiment for peace.

Spanish painter Pablo Picasso in front of his painting Guernica, 1937
Spanish painter Pablo Picasso in front of his painting Guernica at its unveiling at the Spanish Pavilion of the International World Fair held six weeks after the aerial bombing of the Basque village of Guernica, 1937

Conclusion

Picasso had initially been commissioned by the Republican government of Spain to work on a mural for the Paris Exhibition. However, when he learned of the bombing in his motherland, he abandoned the original idea and began working on something that showed his displeasure for the war. This piece did not gain attention at the exhibition but became famous when people connected it to what was happening in Spain.

Museum staff packing Pablo Picasso's Guernica (1937) for shipment to Spain. Photo taken on September 8, 1981 by Mali Olatunji. Image © The Museum of Modern Art, New York

Museum staff packing Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, 1937 for shipment to Spain, September 8, 1981
Photo: Mali Olatunji/moma.org

Location of Guernica

Guernica is in the permanent exhibition of the Museo Reina Sofia, Madrid, Spain

Calle de Santa Isabel, 52, 28012 Madrid, Spain
Hours of the Museo Reina Sofia

Images of Pablo Picasso working on Guernica

Picasso standing at Guernica in his workshop at Grands-Augustins, Parigi 1937. National Museum of Art Reina Sofía, Madrid. (C) Dora Maar, VEGAP, Madrid, 2017
Pablo Picasso standing at Guernica in his workshop at Grands-Augustins, Parigi 1937. National Museum of Art Reina Sofía, Madrid
Photo: Dora Maar, VEGAP, Madrid, 2017/elpais.com

Pablo Picasso working on the painting Guernica, 1937, photo Dora Maar, Museum of Queen Sophia in Madrid
Pablo Picasso working on the painting Guernica, 1937
Photo: Dora Maar, National Museum of Art Reina Sofía, Madrid/elpais.com

Details of ‘Guernica’

Detail of Pablo Picasso – Guernica, 1937, oil painting on canvas, 3.49×7.77m, Museo Reina Sofía, Madrid, Spain
Detail of Pablo PicassoGuernica, 1937, oil painting on canvas, 3.49×7.77m, Museo Reina Sofía, Madrid, Spain

Detail of Pablo Picasso – Guernica, 1937, oil painting on canvas, 3.49×7.77m 1
Detail of Pablo PicassoGuernica, 1937, oil painting on canvas, 3.49×7.77m, Museo Reina Sofía, Madrid, Spain

Detail of Pablo Picasso – Guernica, 1937, oil painting on canvas, 3.49×7.77m 2
Detail of Pablo PicassoGuernica, 1937, oil painting on canvas, 3.49×7.77m, Museo Reina Sofía, Madrid, Spain

Study for ‘Guernica’

Pablo Picasso - Head of a Horse, Sketch for Guernica (Tête de cheval, étude pour Guernica), 1937, Oil On Canvas, 65 x 92 cm, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid
Pablo PicassoHead of a Horse, Sketch for Guernica (Tête de cheval, étude pour Guernica), 1937, oil On Canvas, 65 x 92 cm, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid

All images Sucesión Pablo Picasso, VEGAP, Madrid, 2017/museoreinasofia.es unless otherwise noted.

Videos

What inspired Pablo Picasso’s masterpiece?

2min 40sec

Jerry Saltz explains Guernica to passersby in NYC Subway station

6min 7sec

Review of Guernica

6min 16sec

Related readings

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bombing_of_Guernica
  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bulls_of_Guisando
  3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spanish_Civil_War
  4. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Exposition_Internationale_des_Arts_et_Techniques_dans_la_Vie_Moderne
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