Guernica Essay

This essay has a total of 1842 words and 10 pages.


In 1937, Pablo Picasso painted Guernica, oil on canvas. The Republican Spanish government
commissioned the mural for the 1937 World Fair in Paris. Guernica is a large mural,
twenty-six feet wide and eleven feet tall, and was placed at the entrance to Spain's
pavilion. Picasso did not do any work after receiving the commission until reading of the
bombing of the Basque village of Guernica, in Spain. It was that attack, perpetrated by
the German Luftwaffe, that inspired him. Guernica, however, is not a complete depiction of
that event. In Guernica, Picasso masterfully conveys the suffering of the Basque people
and the tragedy of war. He seeks not to report on every detail of the bombing, but only to
highlight the suffering by all.

On first viewing Picasso's Guernica, one initially focuses on the center of the mural.
Many lines cross or meet near the middle of the work. There are two major diagonal lines
crossing Guernica. They start at the two bottom corners and meet toward the middle-top
where the vertex is an oil lamp. These main diagonals are not explicitly defined, but are
created with overlapping, dark and light values, and the subjects themselves. For example,
towards the bottom right a there is woman picking herself up whose head, neck, and arm
point along one of the main diagonals. That diagonal is continued in the background by a
contrast between light and dark shapes. These lines frame the middle of the mural, which
is further highlighted by some of the lightest values within the work. This area contains
a large geometric shape of pure white as part of the background. This light color draws
the eye to the center. However, the eye is also drawn to this area because of contrast in
light and dark. The black, rectangular shape near the horse's neck, they gray of the
newsprint, and the white of the background all overlap in a tangled, chaotic manor that
attracts attention.

Although the initial focus is near the center of the mural, Guernica commands a larger
movement of the eye from bottom right to top left. Each subject of Picasso's work has
their head turned towards the top left corner. The floating head is looking left, the
horse twists his neck to look to the left, and the woman holding her child looks directly
upward. The strong diagonal line that moves from bottom right to top left also adds to
this movement. Focusing more specifically on the subjects of Guernica, movement from right
to left is aided by the severity and gravity of the individuals' situations. At the
extreme right, a woman is falling and has not yet hit the ground. Further left, a woman is
picking herself up after falling. The horse in the center is fatally wounded and will soon
die. To the far left, the child in his mother's arms has already died, and so has the
warrior whose head rests at the bottom of the mural. But again, the strong right to left
movement arises from the direction in which the subjects are looking.

Guernica is monochromatic to make its imagery more powerful. Lack of color keeps the
viewer focused on the subject matter at hand, as well as keeping the mural cold, which
agrees with its general theme of injustice in war. Also, Picasso's flat imagery does not
distract the viewer from concentrating on imagery. The viewer is given no other choice
than to concentrate on the subject matter of Guernica and ponder it's meaning. The flat,
grayscale images generalize the imagery and contribute to the general theme of unnecessary
suffering and tragedy.

At the extreme right of Picasso's mural, a woman is falling from a burning building.
Flames appear to be spewing from the top of that building. The flames consist triangles
with different values of gray. The same light triangles are coming from the woman's dress.
Her arms flail upwards as she falls, and it is her fall that draws the eye downward and
moves the viewer through the work. Below lies the woman picking herself up off the ground
as she flees. This woman is made up of overlapping shapes. Picasso's abstraction is also
very evident. The woman's knee is grossly enlarged, perhaps reflecting an injury. Most
importantly, strong line moving up to the horse is created by her outstretched left arm,
her leg, and her neck.

In the middle of the mural lies the horse, a significant focal point. Unlike any other
figure in the work, the horse has some texture due to the newsprint of its body. Picasso
incorporates the look of newsprint in Guernica because this is how he himself first
learned of the tragedy at Guernica. The horse is fatally wounded, as indicated by a gash
in the body directly under the head. Because of this, its head and neck are twisted as it
cries in pain. The horse is assumed to be suffering incarnate, and represents the innocent
Basque people. All suffering in this work is a direct result of the attack on Guernica,
and the horse as a victim shows that war has no digression. The suffering of the innocent,
Guernica's central theme, is emphasized.

Above the horse, there are several light sources. One is a light bulb and one is an oil
lamp. These lights do not serve as a significant light source within the work, but have a
more symbolic role. The exploding light bulb is one of the only specifically modern
elements in Guernica. Ironically, it does not serve as a light of hope or a light of life,
but it serves as a light of destruction. The light bulb symbolizes the bombs that
terrorized Guernica for hours during the attack. Llorens notes, "In Spanish, an electric
bulb is called ‘bombia,' and ‘bombia' is like the diminutive of ‘bomb.' So,
‘bomba-bombia' is a verbal poetic metaphor for the terrifying power of technology to
destroy us." Furthermore, the theme of the 1937 Paris Exposition was modern technology.
So, Picasso is commenting on the fact that technological developments can bring death and
destruction, as well as amenities. Modern mechanical development always has a darker side.
Notice that the oil lamp is not as modern, nor is it exploding. It burns a natural flame
as opposed to an electric filament. It contrasts with the electric bulb, because even
though is it not illuminating the scene, it is enlightening the world on the bombing of
Guernica. The oil lamp, held by a grossly outstretched arm, is the light of truth. The
innocence of the natural world relative to man is highlighted. Perhaps this is as close as
Picasso comes to directly protesting the Nazi attack. Picasso mainly seeks emphasize the
suffering of the subjects, but here he is educating everyone at the World Fair on the
tragedy in Spain.

Follow the central axis of Guernica down to the ground. There lays a severed arm clenching
a broken sward and a flower. Again, the sward speaks to old and new. The sward is thought
to be the "paraphernalia of pre-modernism," and represents the world in a less
technologically advanced era, an era without warplanes and bombs. This pre-modern sword is
in sharp contrast to the modern weapons of the Luftwaffe. Indeed, "the warrior in Guernica
is no match for the engines of modern warfare." Much of Guernica was burned to the ground
during the attack, and so the fact that a sole flower remains next to this sward is
significant. The flower's scale is small in comparison to most other figures in the mural,
almost unnoticeable. Picasso is saying that despite such horrific attacks, life goes on.
It's life might seem trivial is the midst of such death, but it will continue to grow and
continue the life of the town.

The dieing horse initiates the worse scenes of Guernica, and the figures to the left of it
continue in that tradition. There is mostly death from this point on. A decapitated
soldier lies at the bottom. Like all other human faces in this work, his face is almost
pure white. This makes them stand out against the background and draw the viewer's
attention. Picasso is able to emphasize the suffering of the individuals by drawing
attention to them in this way. In addition, a dead child is being held in his weeping
mother's arms. A woman and her child is this type of situation had been a common subject
of Picasso's previous works. According to Patricia Failing, " . . .to see that Picasso was
able to take that traditional academic motif and actually rework it and make it relevant
again to this particular time and this particular circumstance, . . . is really one of his
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