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Understanding Pablo Picasso “Guernica”

“This painting is not made to decorate apartments:

it is an offensive and defensive weapon against the enemy”

This was Pablo Picasso's vision of painting.

So, why did Picasso choose to paint this painting and what makes it an engaged work?

To answer this problem, we will first present the painting before giving a detailed description, an analysis and concluding.

Presentation of the work:


This is a cubist painting by Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) dating from 1937, called “Guernica”. This oil on canvas measuring 349 by 777 cm is currently kept at the Queen Sofia Museum in Madrid. This painting was commissioned from Picasso to be exhibited in the Spanish pavilion of the Universal Exhibition which took place in Paris in 1937. Subsequently, the painting remained in New York for a long time, until 1981 in fact, because Picasso refused his return to Spain as long as General Franco was alive. Picasso said that “Guernica” could return to Spain “when public freedoms were restored”

Picasso also made three reproductions during the years 1937-1938. One of them, a tapestry, is kept at the Unterlinden museum in Colmar, another in New York in the UN deliberations room.


Historical context :


From 1936 until 1939, a civil war broke out in Spain. It pits the Republican Popular Front government against a military insurrection (=uprising against established power) of Spanish nationalists led by General Franco.

On April 26, 1937, Guernica, a small town in the Basque country, was bombed by Hitler's German planes, called by Franco. This is then a test for the Nazis who are trying a new military strategy here. On this market day, the bombings killed or injured several hundred people and the city was completely destroyed by incendiary bombs. Picasso was living in France when he learned of this tragedy in the newspapers.


Description of the work:


This is a cubist work. The lines are therefore clear and the shapes geometric. This painting is very monochrome with a contrast between white and black to represent violence, austerity, sadness, as well as the press, the means by which Picasso learned of this tragedy.


The painting is composed as follows:


Unlike many paintings, this one reads from right to left (the artist decided so) in order to create confusion in the mind of the viewer.


The scene appears to take place in a closed building.

In the far right part, we can see a woman of whom we only see the upper body, a deformed body with arms raised to the sky. His tear-shaped eyes and open mouth make him look terrified. This is a representation of suffering, a call for help to which no one responds. In addition, one of the leading lines of the painting separates this part of the work and further adds to the solitude of this woman.

Triangular flames, representing incendiary bombs, above and below the character seem to burn everything, the walls as well as the character.

Just above this woman's face, there is an opening, a small square white window. This symbolizes, by its too small size, that although there is an exterior, the characters have no chance of getting out.

In the central part, which is the part highlighted by its position and the light, there is another woman with a deformed and naked body. She is on her knees on the ground (which with the line of light forms one of the leading lines of the painting), but still has her face turned towards the source of light as a sign of hope, of desire for freedom and make it out.

Above, a head seemingly coming from nowhere and with wide eyes looking appalled and stunned. The artist here sought to represent the international community.

Next to it, a hand also appearing to come from outside brings light and hope to the scene.

Then there is a horse with a deformed body, an open mouth and a pointed tongue. He has a spear stuck in his heart. It aims to represent terror and the people, an innocent victim. His coat is also reminiscent of a newspaper page. Here Picasso represents how he discovered the existence of this dramatic event.

Above, we can see a lamp in the shape of an upside-down eye. It is in fact the painter's eye, the “lamp” which sheds light on the events of Guernica.

Below, lying on the ground, is a figure, a dead soldier. His upside-down eyes, his dismembered body, his open mouth and his scars on his arms reflect suffering and violence. The lifelines of his hand are broken as well as his sword. This shows defeat, the battle lost in advance due to inequality in arms.Near his hand and his broken sword, a barely sketched flower represents non-existent hope and the fragility of life.

In the part on the left, a bull alludes to the Minotaur of mythology and symbolizes brutality and violence. Some also see it as a representation of Spanish nationalists.

Reading the painting ends with arguably the most striking and shocking image. At the foot of the Minotaur, a woman in tears, stripped from the chest, holds her dead child in her arms, uttering a surely heartbreaking cry. The child has empty eyes and a hanging head, his mother with her tongue pointed out in pain. This is the strongest representation of pain, suffering and distress. We see that no one has saved. Furthermore, this image of a destroyed maternity ward also symbolizes the destruction of Part.


Analysis of the work:


The painting “Guernica” is a committed work. Picasso seeks to denounce the atrocities that took place in Guernica in 1937 during the Spanish Civil War. It aims to call the international community to witness. It is a work of universal significance, because the painter uses symbols that everyone can understand. Certain symbols used by Picasso make us think directly of other extremely well-known works, which reinforces its universality. Also, our mind connects the mother and her child to a representation of the pietà (Mary carrying Jesus, her son dead on the cross) such as that of Michelangelo (1498-1499). The horse pierced with a spear can also be compared to a religious representation: “Christ pierced with a spear”. As for the woman with her arms in the air, we can easily see a link with the painting “Tres Del Mayo” by Francisco de Goya (1814)

Thus, thanks to these clear symbols, everyone can see in “Guernica” a scene of horror and feel suffering and pain. This is undoubtedly what makes it such a famous painting.


To conclude, this painting by Pablo Picasso is a committed work which aims to denounce and call the international community to witness. Its universal scope makes “Guernica” one of the best-known works of the 20th century.

Since 1985, a reproduction of this painting has sat at the entrance to the UN Security Council. It was placed there to remind us of the horrors of war and to ensure that we can hope that it will never happen again.

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