What makes Picasso's Guernica so influential?

Guernica is arguably Pablo Picasso’s best-known painting, with its historical context and highly emotive composition making it one of the most famous artworks in the world. So, what is the story behind Guernica and why has it had such an immense impact?

Guernica is arguably Pablo Picasso’s best-known painting, with its historical context and highly emotive composition making it one of the most famous artworks in the world.

Although it wasn’t universally admired when it debuted, it has gone on to become one of the most recognizable anti-war paintings in history and has been featured in numerous protests across the world over the years. A tapestry of Guernica created by Jacqueline de la Baume Dürrbach also hangs at the headquarters of the United Nations in New York City.

So, what is the story behind Guernica and why has it had such an immense impact?

When was Guernica painted?

Picasso worked on Guernica for 35 days and finished it on 4 June 1937 — less than six weeks after the bombing of the Basque town of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War between the Republicans and  General Francisco Franco's Nationalists.

The attack was carried out by Franco’s Nazi and Fascist Italian allies and it took place on a Monday, which was a market day meaning that most civilians would be present. There were at least 10,000 people in the town when Guernica was destroyed by the bombings, and the death toll is still unknown (pro-Franco accounts suggest that the number was below 200 but the Basque government estimated that 1,645 people were killed and 889 were injured).

Why did Picasso paint Guernica?

Prior to the Guernica bombing, the Spanish Republican government commissioned Picasso to create a piece for the 1937 International Exposition in Paris to help raise awareness of the Spanish Civil War and raise money. Initially, the artist planned to create a composition based on an artist’s studio, but he changed course after reading an account of the attacks in his native country in a newspaper.

Picasso had previously avoided creating explicitly political art, but while he worked on the piece at his home in Paris, he had this to say:

“The Spanish struggle is the fight of reaction against the people, against freedom. My whole life as an artist has been nothing more than a continuous struggle against reaction and the death of art. How could anybody think for a moment that I could be in agreement with reaction and death? ... In the panel on which I am working, which I shall call Guernica, and in all my recent works of art, I clearly express my abhorrence of the military caste which has sunk Spain in an ocean of pain and death.”

What does Guernica represent?

Guernica devastatingly captures the horror, pain and devastation of war. Picasso’s work is typically vibrant and full of color but for this piece, he used a monochrome black, white and grey palette to create a somber mood and perhaps make the scene feel more like a photograph.

The most notable human figures are a screaming woman holding a dead baby and a screaming woman surrounded by flames, reflecting the fact that defenseless women and children mostly populated the town at the time of the attack as most men were away at war.

The painting also includes a dismembered soldier, a screaming horse that has been stabbed, and a bull, as well as various objects including a flower in the soldier’s hand, an oil lamp, and a lightbulb. The tongues have also been replaced by daggers.

There have been many debates about what some of the symbols may be. For example, some believe the bull is supposed to represent Franco whereas others think it represents Spain or even the artist himself. However, Picasso said:

“It isn't up to the painter to define the symbols. Otherwise, it would be better if he wrote them out in so many words. The public who look at the picture must interpret the symbols as they understand them.”

Arguably, this is the very reason Guernica is such an influential work. Although the painting was created in response to a specific event, there is nothing in it to obviously set it in a specific time or place. This gives it a universal timelessness which is why it continues to be such a powerful anti-war symbol.

How did Picasso paint Guernica?

Picasso rarely allowed strangers into his studio to watch him work but he made an exception for Guernica, hoping the publicity would help the antifascist cause. The process was documented by photographer Dora Maar.

He started with a series of preliminary sketches that he continuously reshaped before stretching a huge canvas (11.5 × 25.5 feet), making the piece more like a mural than a traditional painting. He also experimented with texture by adding pieces of wallpaper, and color. At one point he gave one of the women a red tear, and some art historians believe that Maar’s photographs are what inspired Picasso to finally make the painting black and white. He painted it using a special matte paint designed to have as little gloss as possible.

Where is the Guernica painting?

Guernica is exhibited in the Museo Reina Sofía in Madrid but it took a long time to get to Spain.

After Picasso exhibited it at the Spanish display at the 1937 International Exposition in Paris, it embarked on a European tour, and after Franco’s victory in Spain, Guernica was sent to the United States to raise funds and support for Spanish refugees. Picasso entrusted the safekeeping of the painting to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York and stipulated that Guernica should not go to Spain until liberty and democracy had been established.

It stayed at MoMA until 1981 when it was transported to Spain, which by that point had become a democratic constitutional monarchy following the death of Franco. It was first displayed at the Casón del Buen Retiro in Madrid, an annex of the Museo del Prado, and has been at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía since 1992. Basque nationalists have argued that Guernica should be homed in the Basque Country but officials at the Reina Sofía say the canvas is too fragile to move.