Can sorrow or agony be broken down into their base code to be reproduced as a single image? If they can, then Pablo Picasso’s Guernica comes as close as any representation could. The cubist mural depicts the Spanish town of Guernica in the midst of the chaos after it was viciously bombed by German and Italian forces during the Spanish Civil War. These forces attacked at the request of General Francisco Franco, leader of the Spanish nationalist faction. Guernica had once been the capital of Basque country an area of Spain deeply opposed to fascists like Franco.
Picasso is said to have been inspired to create Guernica after reading of the town’s destruction in a newspaper. Picasso, a native-born Spaniard, undoubtedly felt great sorrow for his homeland’s troubles further motivating the creation of this work. Guernica is now considered by many to be one of Picasso’s finest and most recognizable masterpieces. The mural is a visual representation of the Spanish people’s hopeless suffering as well as the senseless brutality of Francisco Franco’s political ambition.
One of the more intriguing aspects of the piece is that it is done in monochrome. For the most part, Picasso was known for his vibrant cubist paintings, so why did he choose shades of black and white? There are many theories on this aesthetic choice, but the color scheme is most likely meant to signify the dismal atmosphere after the attack. The lack of color helps emphasize the silence of the piece as if the action were frozen in time. Near the top of the mural hangs a lamp with a solar-like corona around it. This lamp is a clear reference to the sun, showing that not even its rays can bring light or warmth to the situation. The senseless carnage was beyond the reach of any glimmer of hope.
Two of the most easily recognizable figures in the piece are the bull and the horse. As with all cubist paintings, the exact nature of these beasts is often up for debate. During this period the recurring theme of a bull or the Minotaur often appeared in Picasso’s various works. Is this bull just an extension of this pattern or does it hold a deeper meaning? One way the two might be interpreted is that they represent the innocents lost as collateral in the war. Animals, who cannot speak for themselves, make a perfect metaphor for all the innocent villagers who never asked to be part of politicians’ and generals’ machinations. They went about their simple lives being content in what they had only to find themselves thrust into the forefront of the battle. The horse is wild-eyed and looks as though it were screaming while the bull looks too stunned to react, with its head at an impossible angle. Another conclusion might be that the animals represent the civil war’s disruption to the natural order, how human violence has poured over and corrupted nature itself.
Finally, the most widespread images throughout the piece are those of the writhing and prone people. At first glance, the figures might appear to be the same but upon closer inspection, it becomes clear that each represents a different facet of loss. A figure to the far left can be seen holding a small body as tears stream down her face. Such a figure likely represents all the mothers who lost their children in the attack and now cry bitter tears. On the other side is a figure dragging a deformed leg behind him. Is this leg really deformed or does the image represent some injury caused either in the attack or in the chaos afterward? Perhaps the leg represents the town itself, once proud and functioning and now mutilated. Above him is another man who appears to be drowning, perhaps in the sorrow of his ruined town.
Conversely, his proximity to a burning building could signify that he is actually trapped beneath its rubble. This could be why his lower body is not visible. To the left of this man, we see the wispy head of a woman emanating from a window. In the window, there is a gnarled object that could be a hand. Perhaps this woman died in that building and the head is a representation of her spirit drifting away.
The foundation of the mural is a battered and prone soldier. The figure’s body appears to be distorted and broken; in his hand is a shattered sword. Not only does this man represent an individual casualty of war but also all the victims of this dreadful conflict. His fall is the fall of his entire cause and the loss of all remaining hope to defeat Franco. Guernica represents a protest of the horrible cost of Spain’s civil conflict.
This is not the only possible analysis. For example, a person with little knowledge of the artist’s motives might say that Guernica could be a warning or threat. The flaw in this analysis is what we know of the artist Picasso. Picasso was a man of great passion who greatly opposed Franco and his government. It was his horror after learning what had happened in Guernica which prompted him to create the mural. Picasso would have never painted propaganda for the fascist cause. The mural Guernica by Picasso has an incredible amount of action for a still image. It seeks to be a protest against Franco’s ruthlessness and succeeds in every way. No one can look at the mangled landscape and not feel that what happened there was wrong. Decades later, these images would still give anyone pause as they imagine the sounds the mural emits, even in its silence.
Guernica was not of great strategic importance, but it was very symbolic. It came to represent the arrogant political ambition of Francisco Franco and his fascist party. Franco wanted his enemies to feel that his power was absolute and that no one was beyond his reach. Picasso however turned this event into something else with his mural. He did not paint Guernica so that others would despair and agonize over what was lost. His intent was to inspire his people to never give up the fight and make sure the lessons of Guernica are never forgotten.