Guernica unravelled

Text: Claire Lessiau
Photographs: Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen

“No, painting is not made to decorate apartments. It’s an offensive and defensive weapon against the enemy” said Picasso.

And it can be such a powerful weapon that it can transcend the specific conflict to reach a universal status as a symbol of fight against barbarism. Such is the destiny of Guernica, Picasso’s most famous painting, an art and history icon showcasing strong artistic and political commitments.


The Spanish civil war broke out on the 17 July 1936 when General Francisco Franco led a military coup on the young republic and its democratically elected yet unstable popular government.

On the 26 April 1937, the Bask village of Gernika was bombed by the Nazi and fascist air forces, allied of Franco. This test for Hitler who was preparing for war is the first mass civilian bombing in history with hundreds of casualties and hardly any houses remaining standing in Gernika. Shortly after, Picasso read the reports in the press in Paris where he lived, and his reaction was almost immediate. As he was hardly inspired to execute a commissioned work for the Spanish pavilion at a Parisian international exhibit, he painted Guernica in only three weeks between May, 10th and June, 4th: a record time for such a massive painting!

As the Spanish civil war ended on 1 April 1939 on a victory of Franco, Picasso refused his painting to be recovered by the regime. It had travelled throughout Europe and the USA for years. Picasso died in 1973, Franco in 1975. It is only in 1981, under the king Juan Carlos and after democratic elections were held that the painting is rendered to Spain.

Decrypting Guernica

Despite his own political ideas as a supporter of the Popular Front movement in Spain, with Guernica, Picasso stays away from propaganda that was very common in the 1930’s: his figures are rather vague and he refuses to give a definitive interpretation to the painting to allow the spectator to form one’s own opinion. This is one of the reasons why Guernica is so powerful and universal as it is an open work.

However, here are a few commonly accepted keys to decrypt Guernica:

  • The bull represents the people and the horse the Spanish Nationalism.
  • The fallen soldier beyond being a Republican (the fair cause that is walked upon by the Nationalists) represents the casualty of all battles throughout history.
  • The electric bulb inside the bomb suggests how a beneficial invention can be transformed into a destructive force in the modern world.
  • Four women express both the physical & emotional suffering, while one of them is casting a light on this event to testify and ensure it will not remain hidden nor forgotten.

Today, Guernica can be admired at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid. Despite the turmoil as visitors rush to stand in front of the painting, its brutality and darkness can only convey the strongest emotional reactions and Guernica silences the crowd.

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Guernica unravelled

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