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Artistic Response to War Essay – Guernica, 1937 by Pablo Picasso

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(Photo Courtesy of: Wikipedia)

Pablo Picasso’s Guernica is a true masterpiece of modern day art. Guernica could certainly be considered Picasso’s most famous piece for a variety of reasons, however, it has most importantly garnered such attention worldwide for being one of the most polarizing anti-war symbols created in recent history.

Picasso painted Guernica as a swift response to the aerial bombings by German and Italian forces in the actual town of Guernica, Spain during the Spanish Civil War in 1937. The scene takes place in a dark and open space; most likely the town square surrounded by buildings on fire. The various components of the work identify and symbolize several situations about war:

Starting on the left appears to be a weeping woman holding a dead child as a bull looms behind them. Picasso has described the bull to represent humanity’s irrational side, a face of the Fascism from the time, as it inflicts harm upon one another.

Towards the middle of the painting depicts a horse that’s been pierced by some sort of spear or lance. Most interpret this as the suffrage humanity can inflict upon the world as the soul of the horse’s leaves its body. The horse itself also produces two obscured visuals, first being a human skull that overlaps the horse by looking carefully. Secondly, it appears that a bull is goring the horse right below it’s stomach. The head of the same bull shows itself after carefully studying the front leg of the horse.

Further underneath the horse lies a completely mutilated soldier, his severed arm still holding tight to a broken sword, from which a flower springs up. Although this strongly represents the civilian defeat among their invaders, the flower also represents regeneration. In the words of the Iron Islands folk from the popular series “Game of Thrones”, I believe that flower is supposed to similarly symbolize their famous quote, “What is dead may never die.”  In the other open palm of the grotesque soldier is a stigmata, which represents the sacrifices of Jesus Christ. Picasso does an absolutely magnificent job inserting sneaky interpretations of hope throughout this painting.

Looking above the horse one can see a light bulb illuminating outward like it was straight out of a Lord of the Rings movie (also eerily reminiscent to the back of our own $1 dollar bill!) Some interpret the light symbolizing “the light of reason”, overcoming the darkness and keeping the bull at bay, while others view it with a more negative approach, interpreting the Spanish word for light bulb being “bombilla”, therefore vaguely referencing “bomb” and depicting the pernicious effects our modern technology can have on humanity.

As you glare in the direction upper right of the horse, a female appears to have become distraught after taking all the destruction in that lays amidst her. She seems to have recently made acquaintance with Peter Pan as she is floating through a window while holding a flaming lamp in her hand. The lamp can very well symbolize hope and liberty as Picasso once again doesn’t want to leave the viewer completely pessimistic.

Below this female figure is another woman, who seems significantly horrified, staring up into either the light bulb or the lamp. I’d like to say she is either completely shell shocked and stoic from the oblivion, or she is grasping on to her one last hope (the lamp).

Other small details in Guernica include the tongues of the grieving woman, the bull, and the horse all shaped like daggers. Most suggest this implies screaming. There’s also a a very vague bird, most likely a dove, in the background. This could symbolize peace in the distant future. Picasso also explicitly used shades of black, white, and grey throughout Guernica, which needless to say, adds to it’s grief and utter desolation.

I believe Picasso clearly wants observers of Guernica to feel the chaos and anguish that war brings with it as it is inflicted upon the buildings, animals, and innocent civilians spread throughout the painting. However through various subtle hints, he also wants to leave the observer with a feeling of perseverance, that even in the darkest of times there will always be hope.

Written by Kenneth Blake

September 27th, 2013 at 8:35 pm

Posted in Uncategorized