Almas Moosa - Picasso's 'Guernica'
"Instead of being content with a harmless narrative painting, Picasso touched our innermost being"--Jean-Louis Ferrier
Guernica is an extraordinarily complex picture. It can be examined systematically, artistically, politically, or literally. Guernica has an unusually wide horizontal format. It is completely painted in black, white, and gray. Several human figures and a few animals, often very closely grouped, are spread over the canvas. Considering the size of the picture (11x26) the observer cannot fail to notice that all the figures are presented as superhumanly big. It is as high as a basketball hoop and spans nearly the width of a basketball court. There are 6 humans, 3 animals, 1 plant, and one ceiling light/sun.
"On April 26th 1937, a massive air raid by the German Luftwaffe on the
Basque town of Guernica in Northern Spain shocked the world.
Hundreds of civilians were killed in the raid that became a major incident of the Spanish Civil War" (Harris, 2).
This bombing that occurred prompted Picasso to begin painting his greatest masterpiece, which was called Guernica.
This painting, due to the timely and significant vision of the Second World War, is now recognized as an international icon for peace.
Picasso had an interest his whole life, but for some
reason he refused to explain Guernica's imagery. Guernica has been the
subject of more books than any other work in modern art and it is often
"Four years research into an unauthenticated Picasso
drawing of a crucifixion, dated 12 May 1934, has provided a wealth of
new information about Picasso's use of symbolism" (Harris,
Guernica's "Secret" Harlequins
"Experts," now agree that Picasso practiced a form of
art-magic, linked to this was Picasso's Harlequin.
Cleverly hidden behind the surface imagery is the largest Harlequin.
The outline of the face can be seen in the lines and
the background tones of the composition, the eyes and the tuft of hair
to the right of the face should be clearly visible.
Variety of motifs and actions are juxtaposed:
The mother crouches on the ground
The bull just stands there
The warrior is lying on the ground
The horse collapses
Woman on the right picks herself up
Woman in midair falls
The oversized female being swoops
The ceiling light emits rays
Notice the direction of movement.
Child's head lifelessly hangs there
Mother's head is twisted upward
Bull's head is turned abruptly back
Bird stretches vertically upward
Warrior's head severed from body
Horse's head vehemently torn back
Woman on the ground out stretched
Woman in midair almost snapped off
Oversized female isolated from her breasts
The open mouths indicate cries, groans, or similar sounds.
FIGURE ATTITUDES SENTIMENTS
Bull upright, leftward, forward courage and pride
Mother upright, upward lament
Child downward death
Warrior horizontal, upward collapse
Bird upward lament?ascent?
Light bearer leftward concern,quest
Fugitive diagonal anxiety,quest
Falling woman downward panic
"The bull does not see the terrible events, but he hears the tortured creatures with his oversized ear" (Harris, 2). Also notice that the fists create a vertical axis. The swollen knee on the left balances with the child's head on the right. Likewise, the woman on the right clutches up to a void. The mother on the left balances her as she grasps her dead child."
Some more detailed symbolism includes:
The direction moves from brief to long-term. The flying woman is an instantaneous event. She has a hurt knee and she is gradually raising herself. The horse's body-wound is fatal, but does not lead to sudden death. The agony could last for several hours or even days. The dismembered corpse of the warrior is a situation that transcends periods of time. The mother will mourn her child for years. There is an escalation of dramatic tension in the triangle relationship of seriousness of injuries. The woman on ground slightly wounded; horse is fatally wounded; warrior is completely destroyed.
All the mental processes by which things we do not understand (for instance pictures) are translated into our own understanding and primarily into our language. This involves conveying the original message in the new medium as completely as possible. Thus we are interpreting its message (Symbols, allegorical ideas).
The bull forms a massive, static block. He is agitated; his nostrils are flared and his tail is whipped in furry. In an interview Picasso stated that the bull stood for "brutality and darkness." Picasso often used the bull to explore the symbolic meaning of bullfights.
The central figure is the horse, which represents incarnation of suffering. A human can exercise his will, alleviate his pain; an animal is helplessly at mercy. Picasso spoke of the horse as representing the people.
I believe this is continually being interpreted. The lightbearer has been analyzed as symbolizing many things: "Truth, the Republic, the universal mother, history, civilization, freedom, vengeance, power, justice, life, enlightenment, the public, goddess of victory, Picasso himself said," The oil lamp does not bring light; it is surrounded by darkness.
Going back to Picasso's childhood, he was only three when his father took him to his first bullfight. The brutal choreography, fierce power and inevitable tragedy had obsessed him since.
According to art historian, Patricia Failing, "The bull and the horse are important characters in Spanish culture. Picasso himself certainly used these characters to play many different roles over time. This has made the task of interpreting the specific meaning of the bull and the horse very tough. Their relationship is a kind of ballet that was conceived in a variety of ways throughout Picasso's career" (Martin, 33). "Sometimes the bull is seen as a symbol of Spain, as a symbol of the virtues and the values of Spain and Spanish culture," says Failing. "Sometimes the relationship is one of gender and a sort of masculine force and feminine force. Sometimes it's a relationship of aggressor to something more passive. Sometimes it's a relationship between darkness and light. So the bull can be the good guy, or the bull can be the bad guy, depending on which interpretation you happen to dig up in your in your survey of reactions to Guernica."
Picasso never committed to a specific explanation of his symbolism: "...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."
Years after the completion of Guernica, Picasso was still questioned time and time again about the meaning of the bull and other images in the mural. In exasperation he stated emphatically: "These are animals, massacred animals. That's all as far as I'm concerned..." But he did reiterate the painting's obvious anti-war sentiment: "My whole life as an artist has been nothing more than a continuous struggle against reaction and the death of art. In the picture I am painting, which I shall call Guernica, I am expressing my horror of the military caste which is now plundering Spain into an ocean of misery and death."
A composition so compelling challenges our most basic notions of war
as heroic, unmasking it as a brutal act of self-destruction. I have
heard and know about Picasso's accomplishments throughout his life.
The symbolism in his art is amazing. Speculations as to the exact meaning
of the tortured images are as numerous and varied as its viewers, and
perhaps this was exactly Picasso's intention.
Martin, Russel (2000) Picasso's War: The Destruction of Guernica and the
Masterpiece that Changed the World.
Harris, Mark (1996) Picasso's Guernica. http://www.tamu.edu//mocl/picasso.conp/sercet_guernica.htm
Kleinfelder, L. Karen (1993) Picasso's Pursuit of the Model. Mayfield Publishing Co.
General Lecture Notes from Reading and Class Slides