Guernica is a town in the province of Biscay in the Basque Country. On 26 April 1937, the town became known around the world for one event.
The town was bombed for two hours straight by warplanes of the German Condor Legion at the behest of Spanish Nationalists led by General Franco.
Spain was in the midst of a civil war between the forces of Franco and the ruling Republic. The war, which had begun in 1936, was a brutal battle of attrition set amongst the height of totalitarianism sweeping across Europe during the 1930s.
Guernica was being used as a communications centre behind the frontline. The bombing of the city opened the way for Franco to capture Bilbao and complete his victory in Northern Spain.
What was significant about Guernica was the loss of life that occurred. To this day, there are disputes about how many people perished during the bombings. The Basque government stated that 1,654 people died, local historians claimed 153 deaths, while Soviet archives report 800 deaths.
The attack on Guernica was unique at the time because it involved the bombing of civilians by the military. This was a practice that was new at the time and had not been used on such a scale before. It would set the template for the mass bombings that were used by both sides during the Second World War.
Franco’s bombing of Guernica was more than just a military exercise, it was a sign of intimidation. It was an explicit demonstration of the power he wielded.
The Basque Country was an area of vehement opposition to the Nationalists. Franco wanted to crush this opposition, the bombing was one way of asserting his dominance. No factories or buildings were targeted, civilians were the only targets.
The bombing shocked many people around the world, including one man, the world-renowned artist Pablo Picasso. The atrocity affected him so much that he decided to create a mural in response to the bombing.
Picasso had been commissioned by the Spanish Republic to create a large mural which was to be displayed at the International Exposition of Art and Technology in Modern Life at the 1937 World’s Fair. Picasso had created a few initial sketches for his piece but had not settled on any one sketch by the time of the bombing.
Picasso was visited by the poet Juan Larrea immediately after the bombing who implored him to make the bombing the subject of his mural. After reading an eyewitness account of the bombing, Picasso abandoned his initial ideas and threw himself into creating a mural based on the attack.
Working in his studio on Rue des Grands Augustins, Picasso sketched a number of preliminary drawings before creating the mural. He was aided by the photographer Dora Maar, who documented the creation of the mural from start to finish.
Her black and white photos were the inspiration for Picasso choosing to “eschew colour and give the work the black-and-white immediacy of a photograph” according to the art historian John Richardson.
Picasso decided to paint the mural on a canvas measuring 349.3 cm × 776.6 cm (137.4 in × 305.5 in). He used a specially formulated matte paint to give the painting the least possible gloss.
Despite the giant size of the canvas, it took Picasso five weeks to complete the painting. His frenetic pace was in response to the horror he felt about the bombing. While working on the mural, Picasso stated the following:
“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.”
The mural depicts a room in the midst of the bombing. On the left, there is a wide-eyed bull standing over a grieving woman who holds her dead child in her arms. In the centre of the image, a horse falls in anguish with a gaping hole in its side. A dismembered soldier lies beneath the horse.
The soldier’s severed right arm grasps a shattered sword, from which a flower grows. The soldier’s open left hand contains a stigmata, which is a symbol of martyrdom.
To the right of the horse, a frightened woman appears to have floated into the room, witnessing the scene. On the far right, a woman is entrapped by fire, raising her arms in terror. Her right hand is raised in the shape of an aeroplane, a dark wall with an open door defines the right-hand side of the image.
There are many interpretations of the mural, but Picasso never subscribed to any of them. When he was pressed to explain the elements in the picture, he had this to say,
…this bull is a bull and this horse is a horse… If you give a meaning to certain things in my paintings it may be very true, but it is not my idea to give this meaning. What ideas and conclusions you have got I obtained too, but instinctively, unconsciously. I make the painting for the painting. I paint the objects for what they are.
With no official interpretation of the mural, it is left to speculation to determine what the central figures, the bull and the horse, represent. One theory is that the bull represents Nationalism, while the horse is the Spanish Republic and its followers succumbing to their wounds and dying a senseless death.
The opposite interpretation is also possible. The bull, standing enigmatically in the background, represents the virtues of the Spanish people, while the horse depicts Franco and the Nationalists. The spear running through the horse predicting their downfall.
Maybe the lack of clarification from Picasso about the significance in the mural is the point. The viewer is left to ponder what the various characters represent and interpret the events in their own way.
The Significance of Guernica
To this day, the painting still holds significance in Spain. The country is still coming to terms with the civil war, even though it ended in 1939. when Franco died in 1975, parties on both sides of the political spectrum decided against looking into the past.
This has led to wounds to fester instead of healing. An estimated 30,000 people were killed during the civil war, many of whom still lie in mass graves to this day. The lack of closure surrounding the war and its events exemplify why Guernica remains an important painting.
Picasso was adamant that the painting should not return to Spain until the country was released from the grip of Franco’s dictatorship. This was despite Franco’s best efforts to bring the painting to the country.
The painting finally returned to Spain in 1981, six years after Franco’s death, obeying Picasso’s wish that it should return to Spain when it was a democracy once again.
Guernica is a symbolic painting and one that is more important than ever. With nationalism and populism on the rise, the mural reminds us of the horrors that come from absolute thinking and the damage they can reap.
Picasso was compelled to produce the painting based on the horrors that occurred during three short hours in Guernica on 26 April 1937. Let it stand as a reminder that war only begets more war and that we should not be beholden to narrow-minded and dogmatic views, lest we suffer the consequences.