By Angie Holliday
On April 26, 1937, the already emotionally wrought sentiment towards the Spanish Civil War changed dramatically. This was the day tragedy struck, terror reigned, and a historical town was thoroughly and irrevocably destroyed. This was a day that will live in people’s memories until the day they die. This was the day that Guernica was bombed.
Guernica is the oldest region in the Basque land, and the Basque are the oldest known people in Europe. At the time of the bombing, it was a town of approximately 5000-7000 people (reports vary) and was rich in culture, history, and tradition (Oppler, 158). Because Guernica was a civilian town, bombing it had little military advantage. In fact, the only thing that could be advantageous to the adversary, the Nationalists, was to destroy a small bridge that was the only access to Guernica, and which they may have thought the Socialist party would cross. Because, as already stated, there was little advantage in bombing the town, it has remained extremely controversial and, for many, highly condemned, even going so far that some people deny the entire event. It was no coincidence that the bombing took place on a Monday, which was Guernica’s market day. This meant that the town was crowded, because people living on farms came to the market, and all of Guernica’s citizens were also at the market (Bombing). The bombing of the defenseless city continued for over three hours, and in the end, nearly the entire town, 70 percent, lay in ruins. Peasant who tired to escape were either shot from airplane machine guns, or they were blown up with explosives. Hiding was out of the question because every possible hiding place was soon destroyed. After the massacre, entire herds of horses, sheep, and cattle were found slaughtered. Over 700 buildings were eliminated and all of their historical value gone with these buildings. For three days after the slaughter, fires were burning. Yet, the only possible military advantage, the access bridge, remained intact (Bombing).
News of the bombing spread rapidly to other parts of Europe and to the rest of the world. People were outraged and infuriated because of the senseless destruction of an unsuspecting, defenseless city. For people who were already involved in the Spanish Civil War, it was a testament to strengthen what they already believed about the underhanded way that the war was going to be fought. To people whom were not already involved in the war, this was the first event which truly made them aware of the civil war that was raging in Spain. The mayor of Guernica at the time, Jose Labauria, stated, "It is impossible to give an adequate picture of the indescribable tragedy," and many people felt exactly the same way (Thomas, prologue).
Pablo Picasso was one of the many people to feel the emotional impact of the bombing. Picasso was born in Spain, but at the time of the bombing, he was in France. He had previously made a contract to construct a mural for the Spanish Pavilion which would be displayed at the World Fair in Paris the next year (Barr, 201). Until the bombing, Picasso was unsure of what to paint in order to really make an impact on people. Once he heard of the Guernica destruction, however, he knew that he had the perfect subject and he began to paint his mural almost immediately. Picasso had always been politically aware of the situation in Spain. He was a strong Republican and, because of that, he was quite against Francisco Franco and his regime. In fact, even before the bombing of Guernica, Picasso had made a "public protest" of Franco when he painted The Dream and Lie of Franco. Obviously, Picasso was not only anti-Franco, but he wasn’t afraid to show how he really felt about the situation (Guernica).
It is said by many that the Spanish Civil War was a propagandist war above all else. Because over fifty percent of Spain was illiterate at the time of this war, posters with few words were often used to try to recruit soldiers. Both sides, the Nationalists and the Republicans, fought to win the hearts and minds of the people of Spain and of the world. Also, because this war was highly idealized and emotional for many people, it was found that posters depicting strong images of Republican people, or weak images of the "enemy," were valuable recruiting tools (Esenwein, 243). Such was the case with Picasso’s painting. Guernica had such an effect, in fact, that one Spaniard soldier is quoted as saying, "the bombing of Guernica had a world-wide impact more because of the famous painting of Picasso’s than for the destructive effect of the bomb," (Oppler, 159). And, it seems as though this is a true statement to many people. People today say that Guernica would have been entirely forgotten had it not been for Picasso’s near immortalization of the massacre. Why, then, was Picasso’s painting so influential? What was is about this painting that made people all over the world sit up and take note of the event, even though other scenes similar to the Guernica slaughter can be found in nearly any war? Why is Picasso’s painting hailed as one of "the most significant paintings of the twentieth century?" (Kishlansky, 904). Patricia Failing stated in an interview that "one reason Guernica is considered a treasure in terms of art history is that it seemed to provide a bridge between what were considered by some to be antithetical poles; the idea of making an effective political statement and an effective artistic statement at the same time," (Guernica). While this is certainly true, there are other reasons that this painting is so special, and they are the reasons that need further exploring.
In order to truly understand the impact that this painting has on people,
and why that impact is so strong, a person must analyze the content of
the painting. But, a complete breakdown of Guernica, including such
things as structure, format, style, and even brushstroke, could take an
entire novel. So, for the purpose of this paper, the analysis will only
entail a few of the larger portions of the painting, and will not be as
in-depth as it could be. Please refer to Figure 1, which is a reprint
of the painting, throughout this short analysis.
First, it must be understood that, because of different perspectives, insights, and ideas, countless interpretations have been formed about this painting, many of which are contradictory. Also, we can never truly know what Picasso himself was trying to convey as he painted the scene. We do know that, from the very beginning, Picasso did not intend to represent the horror of the bombing in realistic terms. He set out to make a point, and the point was definitely made (Guernica). Before the painting, Picasso was accused of being pro-Franco, but since the painting, probably the one thing that has not been disputed is that he is unquestionably anti-Franco (Esenwein, 216). For that reason, and for the purpose of this paper, I will base the analysis on my understanding of the Spanish Civil War and of Picasso’s view of Franco and fascism. Much of the analysis will be my own observation, and I will also use other sources to back up my arguments.
Part of the reason that Guernica is such a powerful painting, and perhaps the most obvious reason, is its sheer size. People who see it in person are always amazed at how immense it is. Because it is usually only seen as a small reproduction of the real thing, the effect of the painting is greatly reduced. In reality, the painting is over 11 feet tall and 25 feet long (Barr, 200). As people walk up to the painting, they tend to feel dwarfed by it, and soon begin to feel like they are actually within the image. This would clearly make it more emotional for the viewer if they feel that they can relate to the painting in this way.
Another reason for the strong response to the painting is that a person seems to be able to hear it. Open mouths shriek in pain and terror. Even though there are actually few bodies, dead and dying people seem to lie around everywhere in the chaos, with their eyes open in horror and their mouths crying in suffering. Even the animals, who strike the viewer as being especially defenseless and pinned in against the attack, seem to be crying out with their eyes rolling in terror (Kishlansky, 903). The painting is done merely in black, white, and grays, which, at first, would seem to detract from the overall effect of the work (Barr, 201). However it is this somewhat flat effect of the colors that help to accentuate the painting. This is because attention is drawn to the actual figures in the painting rather than to the colors of it. Also, the flat, brooding colors seem to emphasize the horror and hopelessness of the day as it must have seemed from the citizens point of view (Kishlansky, 903).
Next, the focus is drawn to the actual figures within the painting. There are about ten distinct areas that must be discussed in order to grasp the overall meaning of the painting. First, the horse. The center of the painting is dominated by the horse, which is contorted into a painful, tortured state of near collapse. The horse has obvious gashing wounds, and, by the screaming mouth, the prostrate position, and the twisted neck, it is clear that this horse is in agony (Fisch, 28). Picasso admitted to the public that the horse represents "the people" of Guernica, and even of Spain, who were victimized by "incomprehensible cruelty," (Kishlanksy, 904).
The other main animal in the painting is the bull. The bull is standing over the mother in a watchful, almost protective stance. The bull is perhaps the most controversial object of analysis within the painting. Some people say that the bull stands for fascism, others say it is a simple depiction of a farm animal, since Guernica is a well-known farming community. Still others say the bull is merely another depiction of the horror of the Guernica bombing (Oppler, 94). He, like the horse, has a twisted neck, and, because of the close proximity of the bull to the grieving mother, it seems as though he is sympathizing with her pain. His flared nostrils, wide eyes, and again, the open, crying mouth, seem to indicate that the bull is shocked by the horror that he is witnessing. Perhaps, though, since the bull seems to be in good condition, with no wounds and all limbs intact, he is merely an outsider, who is watching the horror unfold, but is unable to help the victims of Guernica. Perhaps he, like Picasso who was in France at the time of the bombing, can feel the emotional pain but not the physical pain.
Next, we must move on to the "people" in the painting. On the very left side is the woman who is grieving over the loss of her infant. It is apparent that the child is dead, due to the unnatural twist of his neck, his eyes, which seem to be rolled back in his head, and his closed mouth. The mother is feeling tremendous anguish (Fisch, 26). Her head is bent back, seeming to be screaming at the bull to do something, or, perhaps, asking him why he does nothing but watch her grieve. Her breasts are bared as if she were in the intimate, cherished act of nursing her child when tragedy struck. She seems not to mind that she is bared, possibly, in part, because her grief is so strong, and also because, in the chaos of the bombing, no one would probably notice anyway. Or, maybe, she is hoping to attract the attention of the warplanes, so that they might bomb her too and put an end to her life along with her child’s.
Next, the painting goes to the dead body of the man. This man is in visible pain. His eyes are huge and his mouth is screaming. His left arm reaches out ahead of him with his fingers in a claw-like position. His hands and arms are scratched and scarred, seeming to indicate that he was a manual laborer or farmer, not a soldier. His opposite arm lay beside him, severed at about the elbow. His fingers are still desperately gripping the ruined sword, and, at the same time, he is grasping small flowers. The flowers, which give the impression of peace and beauty, seem to be out of place in this painting. Perhaps these flowers are a sign of the idealism that this war was all about. It seems as if those flowers represent the last hope of the man, the last beautiful thing he will see, and, by holding on to them in death, they seem to tell people that, even to the end, this man believed in the war he was fighting.
To the right of the severed man is a woman who is limping in pain. She obviously has a knee wound from the bomb, judging by her swollen, misshapen leg. Her neck is stretched upward, and it seems that, since she clearly is having trouble walking and needs to use her arm to pull her knee forward, she is desperate to move. But, the question is, why is she so frantic to move? Is she, perhaps, searching for a hiding place, searching for a loved one, or simply trying to keep watch on the planes to see if she will be bombed again? This question may never be answered, but due to her desperation, a person can only hope that she finds whatever is that she may be looking for.
The next person is the woman at the very right of the painting. At first glance, this woman may be hard to interpret. However, on closer inspection, her meaning is rather easy to understand. Her head, like many others in the painting, is flung backwards in agony and her hair is twisting in the air. Her arms are flung high and wide, and her lower body, wrapped in a stripped cloak, is flung to the right of her upper body. She is clearly either floating, hovering, or falling, with the latter seeming to be the most likely. It seems unmistakable that she has either jumped out of the window, which is depicted above her, or an exploding bomb has blown her from somewhere. Which of these interpretations a person makes is not all that important, since, in either scenario, it is clear that the woman is frightened, hurt, and in danger. However, the situation where she is getting blown away by an exploding bomb seems more accurate if you notice the light-colored spikes on her legs, which seem to indicate that she is on fire (Fisch, 29).
One of the most dominant images in the painting is that of the light-bearer. This woman, like the bull, has been very controversial. She has been represented as the bomb itself, an angel, evil, Franco, and salvation. Clearly, it is hard to analyze her meaning in the painting, when scholars everywhere cannot even agree if she is on the Nationalists or the Republicans side. However, on close inspection, the answer seems obvious. The only body parts of the woman that are visible are the head and arm. Both the head and arm seem to be excessively long and large. Because of the flowing motion of her hair, and the way the head is elongated and shrinking, it seems that the light-bearer is moving rapidly, almost swooping down on the scene. However, she does not seem afraid or in pain. Because of contraction of her eyebrows, she simply seems determined. Because of the way the horse seems to be wrenching away from the light-bearer, it seems that she is what the horse is trying to get away from. However, the candle, while clearly an immediate threat to the area, sheds little light on the scene, and is, in fact, shrouded in darkness and gloom (Oppler, 126). Perhaps, then, the candle represents the bombs and the light-bearer represents the warplanes and Franco’s regime. If that is the case, then it would seem that Picasso thinks that, in the end, the Spanish Republic will win this idealistic war.
This sentiment is again reflected in the final image of analysis for this paper, the ceiling light. This symbol is at the highest point in the painting, seeming, even in the horror of the event, to be triumphant and guiding. The light is shaped like an eye, as if it were constantly watching over the events of the war. Light, however, suggest good, and, since we know that Picasso was a Republican, it therefore must be assumed that the light represents those on the Republican side. The rays of light are sharp and jagged, perhaps in protest of, or perhaps in sympathy for, the raging chaos below. Still, because the ceiling light’s rays are stronger, brighter, and more powerful than those rays of the nearby candle, it signifies that the "good" Republicans are going to win the war.
While the overall analysis of the painting may be confusing, a person does not need to do an in-depth analysis to get the basic ideas of tragedy, terror, pain, and, surprisingly, hope that this painting represents. As Thomas Hess stated, "even if Guernica was sneered at, it stuck in the back of the mind…the image of those big, torn black shapes must have lived in every artist’s subconscious," (Oppler, 215). That, clearly, is part of the reason why this painting was, and still is, so influential. Another reason for the impact, however, is simply because of the propagandist nature of the entire war. This war was highly idealized and only people who were outside of Spain at the time thought that it was merely about democracy versus fascism. Those who lived and fought in Spain knew otherwise. They knew that this war was about freedom, liberty, equal rights, and mostly, about living the life they wanted, and deserved, to live. Because of the emotional toll involved in this war, both sides wanted to recruit as many people as possible, even more so than what it would be in a different war. In order to recruit, each side used propaganda that was extremely powerful. Two examples of this powerful propaganda can be seen below, in Figures 2 and 3. The propaganda was aimed at everyone, farmers, workers,
Figure 2 Figure 3.
"This is fascism! Misery, destruction, "Today more than ever, VICTORY!!"
persecution, and death!"
women, youth, and even internationalists. It is indisputable that the Republicans won the war of propaganda in the Spanish Civil War. "The [Republican] propaganda campaign was far more successful at both the national and international levels…It was apparent that their considerable propaganda efforts were paying off…[Everywhere] people were rallying support for the Popular Front government, and, in the end, these campaigns swayed public opinion [towards the Republicans]," (Esenwein, 251-252). Unfortunately, though the Republicans may have won the
Propaganda War, they did not emerge the victors of the Spanish Civil War.
While everyone who fought on the Republican side during the Spanish
Civil War strongly believed in their reasons for fighting, no amount of
hope, propagandist techniques or desire to win could overcome their scarcity
of weapons, machinery, and men. There is no doubt, however, that men and
women from all parts of the world came together for a few short years to
fight for the belief that they were willing to die for. There is no doubt
that the war not only encompassed fascism versus democracy, but it was
also about dreams, equality, and basic rights that every human being should
be allowed. There is no doubt that this was an emotional war, and that
Pablo Picasso left his mark in the world, and especially in Spain, when
he choose to depict Guernica in what was to become one of his most famous
paintings ever. And, finally, there is no doubt that, without Picasso’s
rendition of Guernica, the bombing of the town would have been all but
forgotten. As Picasso said of Guernica, "it is not ‘political’ but
my private insistence that a terrible death happened that should not be
forgot." Of all the points of controversy about this war, the one thing
that remains certain is that, thanks to Pablo Picasso, Guernica will never
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"Burn" Groundwork Resource Center. http://burn.ucsd.edu/Welcome.html>. 6 April, 2001.
Esenwein, George and Adrian Shubert. Spain at War: The Spanish Civil War in Context, 1931- 1939. Harlow, England: Pearson Education Limited, 1995.
Fisch, Eberhard. Guernica by Picasso. Trans. James Hotchkiss. Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 1988.
"Guernica: Testimony to War." PBS Newsroom. http://www.pbs.org/treasuresoftheworld /guernica/glevel_1/1_bombing.html. 6 April, 2001.
Kishlansky, Mark, et al. Societies and Cultures in World History: Volume II; 1500 to Present. New York: HarperCollins College Publisher, 1995.
Oppler, Ellen, ed. Picasso’s Guernica. New York: WW Norton Company, 1988.
Thomas, Gordon and Max Morgan Witts. Guernica: The Crucible of World War II. New York: Stein and Day Publishing, 1975.