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 described as...
"the most important work of art of the twentieth century", yet its meanings have to this day eluded some of the most renowned scholars" (Martin, 34).

"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, 3).
This study led to many discoveries about Guernica and below are listed a few.


Guernica's "Secret" Harlequins

"Experts," now agree that Picasso practiced a form of art-magic, linked to this was Picasso's Harlequin.
In 1932, C. G. Jung recognized Picasso's Harlequin as "an underworld character, a master of disguise associated with the occult" (Kleinfelder).
Picasso identified with Harlequin whom he also associated with Christ due to the character's mystical power over death.
In Picasso's "secret" Guernica, he has invoked a number of unseen Harlequins to overcome the forces of death represented in the painting.

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.
It is believed that the Harlequin appears to be crying a diamond tear for the victims of the bombing. "The diamond is one of the Harlequin's symbols and in Picasso's work it is a personal signature" (Harris, 2).

The next Harlequin should be recognizable. The painting is rotated 90 degrees to the right.
When you look at this, Harlequin's hat becomes obvious as the figure appears to look upwards at the sky "as if in reference to the bombing" (Martin, 23)


This is another Harlequin, seen by rotating the painting 90 degrees to the left.
The outline of the face and traditional hat and mask make him identifiable.
It is said that Picasso hid many magical images in his work by incorporating them sideways or upside down, as seen above.
Sometimes he paints other images over the top as a camouflage.

"This fourth Harlequin has been concealed by inversion, which is a common technique of encryption in Hermetic magic".
Harlequin shown here is identifiable by his triangular hat and serrated collar. He is constructed from components of Punch and Judy Theater.
The hat is peaked with a crocodile's jaw and his square mouth and face. When viewed the right way up takes on the form of a traditional puppeteer's theater.
The next Harlequin image is again inverted and can be seen to the right of the previous Harlequin


He is identifiable from his patchwork costume and triangular hat and appears to be kneeling on the ground as if watching the puppet show taking place opposite.
The theme of Guernica is of course death; reinforcing this, in the center of the painting is a hidden skull, in which it dominates the viewer's subliminal impressions.

The skull that is shown sideways, which has been overlaid onto the body of the horse, is a death symbol.
"The skull's mechanical appearance seems appropriate to the modern weaponry used in the 1937 bombing" (Kleinfelder, 31).
Picasso tended to hide one or more related symbols within a particular image as seen here.

Below the dying horse in the center of the painting is a concealed bull's head contained in the outline of the horse's buckled front leg.
Its location infers that it is plunging its horns into the horse's belly from below.
The goring of the horse in the bullfight was a favorite subject for Picasso and has strong sexual overtones.

Along with all these descriptions there are many individual symbols involved as well:

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.
They all look to the left or are turned to the left.


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.


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:

Time Sequence

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

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 Horse

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.

The Lightbearer

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.
Kleinfelder, L. Karen (1993) Picasso's Pursuit of the Model. Mayfield Publishing Co.
General Lecture Notes from Reading and Class Slides

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