Understanding Guernica: Insight into the Suffering Associated with Spanish Civil War

by Jo_Murphy

To understand the monochromatic abstraction of the famous mural Guernica, it is necessary to read about the history of the Spanish Civil War.

How can an artist capture the senselessness of war? How can a painter represent the tragedy of the loss of life, dignity and those valuable things that make living worthwhile? Guernica was an innovative illustration of the effect war had on innocent Spanish civilians. The painting became an icon and has persisted in the memory of a multicultural conglomeration of people, in particular those who have grown up in Europe.
Is it possible to forget the tragic nature of war? This is what the twisted agonized Cubist representation asks people the world over. It is an anti-war symbol, that forces us to think about what it would be like to live in a world struggling to attain peace rather than supremacy.
In this article, I will explain a little about Franco and the Spanish Civil War before unpacking the message of Guernica. It is interesting to note that the painting became so popular as an anti-war statement that when it finally made its way to Spain after a long journey from Paris, and around the world, it was visited by one million people in its first year of display.

Franco and the Spanish Civil War

How could such tragedy happen?

General Franco once said that to save Spain from marxism he was prepared to shoot half the country. (Youtube)   Franco was a highly decorated soldier who was rapidly promoted within the Spanish army.   During the 1920s, he was a commander in the Spanish Legion and was sufficiently recognised that he became the youngest general in Europe.  Franco first came to real prominence with the electoral victory of the conservatives in 1933.  He then went on to become Chief of Staff of the military.  He was a key figure in the suppression of the anarchist uprising of 1934.  When Franco and a group of Spanish military leaders attempted to overthrow the Popular Front it led to a civil war.  The way was now open for Franco to emerge as the leader of the Nationalists.  He looked to Italy and Germany and with their support combined rebel factions; forming them into the semi-fascist Movimiento Nacional.  Franco won the civil war and used his position to dissolve the Spanish Parliament, thus establishing a dictatorship, which would become the nominally restored Kingdom of Spain. He installed himself as Head of State and Head of Government.   Franco was able to maintain power in Spain for nearly forty years. 

During this time Franco systematically suppressed dissidence via methods of censorship and coercion.  He imprisoned ideological enemies in concentration camps, sentencing them to forced labour and utilised the death penalty and heavy prison sentences as a deterrence to opposition.

It was against this backdrop of violence and oppression that the painting Guernica was executed. 

A Cubist Masterpiece

Capturing the Senselessness of War

When Pablo Picasso painted Guernica for the Spanish Pavilion at the International Exposition in Paris in 1937, he had seen photographs of the bombing of Guernica in various periodicals.  He had read the French newspaper L'Humanité, but rather than paint a realistic scene of the crime, Picasso chose to create a stark and direct to the point, poetic response capturing the ineffable nature of the tragic situation. 

The artist chose to limit his palate to monochrome, perhaps alluding to the harsh images portrayed by black and white photographs, the smoky aftermath of the debris and the dour and dark atmosphere of barbarity and terror that the new mechanics of war had now produced.  The painting can be read like a giant poster, describing the nature of the atrocity as it had occurred.   Picasso was prophetic as he forewarned of the nature of the terrible war to come.  He statically displayed distinct symbols that scream out from the canvas, while utilising the power of distortion that Cubist technique lends. Screams sound out the agony of twisted torsos.

There is a bull, with a wounded horse accompanied by a winged bird which formulate a poetic triangle of tension between power and powerlessness.  The triad converses with feelings that scream from the canvas as angst erupts from women who are clustered nearby a dead soldier.  It is a collage of action snapshots of war.  A women holds a lamp as she leans through a window.  A mother cries in anguish while holding her dead child. It is a monument chastising the world for creating methods of destruction via newly invented weapons of war and the victims cry to the heavens, flailing helplessly as buildings burn and chaos reigns. 

It is the starkness of cubist technique that provides the energy and emotion emanating from this huge overpowering mural, rendering it capable of catalyzing authentic emotion.  It is a horrified reaction that acts as a mirror.  The opaque surface reflects back to us the same pain we feel when we witness senseless violence at the hand of both terrorists, and governments who react to them with all the more violence.   We see the trap within which we swirl as we flounder about in the midst of our modern day confusion.  Today, in exactly the same way that Picasso did then, we ask "Why have we created weapons of mass destruction?"  What good has this futile blood bath achieved?  

Portraying the Indescribable

Expressing the Ineffable
Guernica, 1937
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Where is the mural Guernica now?

The long road home

Picasso painted Guernica when he was living in Paris, and he insisted emphatically that his painting not be returned to Spain until until liberty and democracy had been re-established.  The mural was therefore housed for exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) after being displayed in Paris.  

The painting made it back to Spain, in September 1981, and it was first displayed behind bomb-and bullet-proof glass screens for its protection.   Originally the mural was on display at the Casón del Buen Retiro in Madrid.   The artistic statement has proved to be incredibly popular as it stands as an iconic testimony to the pride and courage of the people it commemorates.  Museo Reina Sofía




The Guernica now attracts crowds who journey to a purpose-built gallery at the Museo Reina Sofía.

Iconic Presence Emanates from a Timeless Portent

Picasso Predicts the Future - weapons that are beyond human control

Across Europe at the time of painting, artists everywhere were reacting to the possibilities new modes of bombing had provided.  Mass destruction, and systematic genocide became possible in ways that no-one had hitherto imagined.  By the time Hiroshima eventuated, the world was recoiling in shock and horror.  And ever since, other nightmares have continued to be invented such as Agent Orange and Germ Warfare. 

Cubism was one reaction to this idiotic lunacy, as was Surrealism and later German Abstract Expressionism.  Cubism at its core was a poetic expression, Surrealism drilled into the dreamlike, nightmarish aspect of the continuation of events, whilst German Abstract Expressionism almost sank into the abyss of despair.

Today, across the world, we see monuments that have been erected to the "new modes of genocidal violence" that were invented at the time.  We seem to have no answer in response to the lunacy these inventions represent. 

To understand Guernica, it is necessary to remember that it is a snapshot in time.  Look closely and you will see the abstract composition constructed from newspaper print. It was a reaction to the news - caught in a way similar to the brevity but targeted accuracy of Haiku.  Bare, raw emotion was stripped of superfluous representation so that all that remained was one lonely, stark scream.




Dali's work was prophetic. Scientists still struggle to explain the concepts of time that the talented artist valiantly portrayed.
Paul Signac had a propensity to systematize everything within his arts based practice. That is why he was the ideal artist to be at the forefront of the Pointillist movement.
Updated: 02/27/2014, Jo_Murphy
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Jo_Murphy on 05/29/2015

Thank you. I just set up to follow your articles, Jo

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