Critical Analysis of Guernica – By Bryce Craig Spanish artist Pablo Picasso can often be collectively seen as the greatest and most influential artist of the twentieth century. In a historical sense he encompassed all that is to be a practicing modernist artist and prevailed as one of the most significant artists overall in human history.
Picasso’s most well renowned painting presents to his audience a graphic reflection of the horrors and brutality of war; Guernica (1937) depicts the Spanish town of the same name being torn apart by the explosive fury that was the German air raid on the innocent and unaware village during the Spanish Civil War. The painting is currently housed in the Museo Reina Sofia, Madrid yet also has a reputable copy in the United Nations HQ, New York City. It mirrors not only its immediate subject matter but also Picasso’s globally comparative interpretation of themes such as war, destruction and death.
Guernica, 1937 effectively appeals to the audience’s emotions through Picasso’s proficient employment of certain art making techniques, many indicative of the cubist movement but can also have connections with Picasso’s post WWI ideas of surrealism and ‘return to order’ neoclassicism. This artwork is identified as a mural painting and was created using oil based paint on a 349 x 777cm canvas. A monochromatic colour scheme with only the most subtle hint of blue throughout evokes the emotional density behind this timeless artwork.
Picasso’s use of line is thin however harshly outlines the semi-abstract and organic figures. The application of paint is layered and has contrasting tonal levels that may have metaphorical associations with what is immediately visible in the world and what humanity must look deeper for to eventually discover. Picasso’s use of shape and texture is warped and spontaneous in some instances then constructed and definitive in others; further exemplifying Picasso’s experimental and unconventional practice.
Picasso was born on the 25th of October, 1881 in the coastal Spanish city of Malaga. He was born into a middle class family and an artistic father ensured that the practice of art making was deep in his roots and this became evident with his early interest and ability in figure drawing and oil painting. Through his training he became proficient in countless fields but was predominately a painter and famously explored the Cubist movement. Cubism was an art movement developed in the early 20th century that was oncerned with the dissembling of images and their analytical or synthetic reconstruction, as well as the refinement of detail and emphasis on bold shape. Picasso found artists such as Delacroix, Cezanne and Manet extremely influential, as well as his artistic father, Jose Blasco. Through his challenging of convention to his persistent experimentation of concepts he created some of the greatest artworks of the 20th century, such as The Old Guitarist, 1903, Les Demoiselles d’ Avignon, 1907 and his most well-known piece Guernica, 1937.
The audiences of Guernica, 1937 are presented with a chilling message of the terrors of war and its traumatic impact on humanity; this is the understood function of Picasso’s iconic painting, to evoke emotional response and educate the public of the event. Picasso wished to express his anti-war message to the people, and what more of an opportunity would he have then being commissioned earlier that year to create an artwork for the 1937 World’s Fair, Paris. After the initial exhibition the work went on tour and has ending up in many different locations worldwide.
The general audience typically has a natural sympathetic reaction to the horrific scenes in the painting and can relate it to our on micro or macro experiences of war and acts of terror. The overriding fact is that Guernica is a response to the actual bombing of the small Spanish town. Post World War One Spain was in a period of great reform and shifting social practices, thus it was only predictable that conflict would arise between the revolutionary republicans and the nationalist political parties of the nation.
When the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936 both sides acquired desirable allies, the nationalists led by infamous General Franco however obtained the fortunate cooperation of the German and Italian air force and as a demonstration of their power over the republicans and any who opposed them, they made a dramatic statement which is now known as the Bombing of Guernica. Adolf Hitler and his military officers saw this as a lucrative opportunity to test their air force for the imminent World War ahead of them and thus the Spanish Civil War is often referred to as the dress rehearsal for World War Two and Guernica was the Climax.
When observing the structural orientation of Guernica significant features of composition, symbolism and metaphoric association can be found. The subject matter is diverse yet all correlates to the context of the wartime attack, from the screaming mother holding her dead child in her arms to a minotaur-bull hybrid. The images composition shares qualities of collage style works due its seemingly chaotic, merged and displaced subjects. Guernica appears to be set in a town square after the tragic bombing; distraught human figures, animals and buildings dominate most of the frame.
A spear pierced horse controls the center of the painting with its size and is usually the initial focal point for the audience; the horse could have links to Spanish culture and heroism. Issues such as the barbaric nature of war and destructive technology are explored in the image. The incandescent light atop the scene is created in the shape of an eye and represents the catastrophic impact of modern technology and is contrasted with the handheld candle flame to the right; this is a visual symbol for hope and resistance.
The plain fact that Picasso has included animals such as the bull, horse and dove in this artwork is an indication of his own ideologies of war being that wartime behavior is beastly and lacks human character. Another sign pointing to eventual hope is in the form of a flower, sprouting out of the hand of the fallen solider to the bottom of the painting; this is a symbol for life out of death and rejuvenation The classic principles of design are difficult to find in this and many of Picasso’s later works due to his ambition to crush convention, the finding of such principles are really up to the audience’s imagination and interpretation.
However, dominance can be noted with the large triangular shape towards the center and also the load nature of the entire artwork is quite domineering in a sense. Art critics and audiences alike have dissected Guernica over the last seventy or so years without the artists actual basis; a definite confirmation of Picasso’s intention and meaning has never really been identified and never will be. When asked to explain Guernica Picasso said “If you give a meaning to certain things in my paintings it may be very true, but it is not my idea to give this meaning.
What ideas and conclusions you have got I obtained too, but instinctively, unconsciously. I make the painting for the painting. I paint the objects for what they are”. The general mood of Guernica, 1937 is enraged, distressed, dark and depressed. These are exemplified in the artwork through depictions such as a woman surrounded by fire, the dismembered body of a dead solider and the screaming bird (perhaps a dove) in the background. Emotion is a mix of terror, astonishment, pain and mourning.
The mother holding her dead child to the left of the scene is a significant vessel of raw emotion in the artwork and is quite a confronting visual feature for the audience. These moods and feelings of Guernica are expected with the themes of war and death and yet Picasso delivers them with a chaotic fashion unseen until its initial exhibition at the 1937 World’s Fair in Paris. It is clear that Picasso’s emotions towards war are conveyed in the artwork and that he wishes to spread to the world. To this day the artwork is recognized by millions as a symbol of active protest and as a record of the tragic 1937 event.
Since its exhibition it has become a well-known anti-war icon and as such became the focus of numerous protests. For example, during the Vietnam War an outraged activist applied red spray paint proclaiming ‘KILL LIES ALL’ in protest of French direct action in a massacre of civilians. The paint rubbed off with ease from the varnished surface but the fact remains that the man found the painting a suitable platform for which to graphically exclaim his objection to war; this exemplifies the timeless and critically responsive nature of Guernica, 1937.
Pablo Picasso was undoubtedly an incredible practitioner of the arts and throughout his life masterfully explored the varying mediums and orientations of art, not continuing with one style, never conforming to convention and always pushing ever forward in the pursuit of achievement. His entire philosophy practically culminates in Guernica, 1937; the work reflects his emotions on universal issues of war and destruction in a contemporary context, and then transports them into the minds and actions of his audience. This glorious painting has and will forever remain an icon of art history and a graphic record of human history. Bryce Craig