Picasso’s Guernica

Picasso’s most famous work is a propaganda piece. In his own words: “It isn’t meant to decorate a room. It is an instrument of defensive and offensive war…”

Guernica by Pablo Picasso  (349 x 776cm), oil on canvas.  Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid (fair use low-resolution photo)

It was commissioned by the government of Spain for its pavillion at the World’s Fair of 1937. At the time, they were desperate. The military, led by General Franco, had revolted and were fast gaining control of the country.

generalissimo poster

Propaganda poster from the Spanish Civil War

Picasso started off sketching bulls and horses—two of his favorite subjects. In the bullfight the defenseless horse is a victim of the well-armed and aggressive bull. So the horse could be used to represent the people in a painting about a modern war, and the bull, the inhuman force of destruction.

In the bullfights of Picasso’s day, as in those of Goya, the picador’s horse had no protection.

A bullfight by Francisco de Goya (Wikipaintings file photo)

When the bull charged, the horse was gored and fell to its knees, its belly ripped open. Spectators, whose attention was fixed on the picador and his fate, ignored the horse’s suffering and  followed the bull’s ravages as soon as it moved to another part of the ring. The dying horse, his neck lifting and coiling like a snake’s, lay on the ground in voiceless agony until a bullfighter, a specialist in giving the coup de grace, finished him with a dagger.

Dying horse by Pablo Picasso (c) GD

This callous use of the horse was without doubt the cruellest part of the corrida. Nowadays it is protected by a long, padded skirt that the bull’s horns can’t penetrate.

First ideas

One of Picasso’s first sketches included a bull, a fallen horse, and a wounded picador;

Sketch 1 for Guernica (c) GD

and, for the first time, the image of a woman crying out to heaven, her dead child in her arms. A variation of the figure is exhibited in the Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid.

guernica study 3

Woman with dead child. Picasso (c) GD

The Bombing of Gernika

He was working on those sketches for his commission from the Republican government when the news reached him that a Basque town called Gernika had been bombed by German and Italian planes under orders from Franco. Those planes dropped thousands of bombs on the town, apparently with no other aim than to terrorize the enemy. The casualties were all civilians.

Guernica, Ruinen

Ruins of Gernika (foto CC BY-SA 3.0)

Shocked and angry, Picasso started a huge mural and worked day and night on it until it was finished and on display in the Pavillion of the Spanish Republic just 24 days later.

The final version

His model and lover Dora Maar made photos of the work as it progressed. These show how Picasso changed and improved many of his first ideas.  One of his first versions of the Guernica was this one:

guernica study 1

Guernica study 2 (c) GD

The fallen horse is at the center of the composition but the  foreground is now filled with the bodies of victims of the bombings.  The bull stands triumphant, a kind of chariot wheel at his feet. To the center of the mural a shocked face brings a candle to light the scene and discover the horror. There are buildings in the background and a great fire on the right.

Every day Picasso made corrections and changed things until he satisfied himself with this, the last version:

The center of the mural is a  triangle made up of the horse and two of the victims.

The horse, still kneeling, is transfixed by a spear.  Its head is now lifted.   It seems to cry out in agony, its tongue sustituted by a knife.

This painting is among the forty-five studies exhibited in the Reina Sofía Center:

guernica horse

Agonizing horse. Picasso (c) GD

To the left lies the body of a man, his arms outstretched, a broken sword in one of his  hands.  The bull has been moved to the side. Its ear has become a knife and a military insignia.  The buildings in the background have disappeared: the scene now seems to take place in a dark cellar, lit only by a lamp with a single light bulb. Picasso retained the other light of the earlier version, now an oil lamp, held out by the shocked face. The fire on the right has become mere triangles of flame.

 The distraught woman

The bewildered or suppliant woman of the other studies is now a great central figure–the other corner of the triangle.
Picasso made many drawings and paintings of distraught women for this mural and even continued with the subject after sending it off to Paris.  Here are two others on display in Madrid:

Distraught woma by Picasso (c) GD

wounded woman 1

Wounded woman by Picasso (c) GD

Republican banner

The Guernica immediately became a Republican banner. It showed  the horror of war and at the same time provoked indignation at the cruelty of the Fascists leaders. After the Fair was over the mural began a tour of Europe and America, where it was used to enlist support for the Spanish Republic.

help spain poster

Poster soliciting help for the Spanish Repúblic

Picasso kept on having ingenious ideas. For weeks he didn’t stop creating studies with the subject of war and the Guernica:

guernica ideas rectified 2

Grabado or drawing by Picasso with themes from Guernica, 1937 (c) GD

Picasso’s surprise

The Guernica surprised many of Picasso’s followers.  Since his Cubist days he had kept emotion out of his art.  His work experimented with form, not feeling.  He had gotten rid of sentimentalism after the  Pink and Blue paintings and for a while cultivated a cold intellectualism. But the Guernica and the paintings that followed it show a man as passionate as Goya.


Estragos de la guerra by Francisco de Goya Wikipedia public domain file

Black Planes by Horacio Ferrer

Many other moving propaganda paintings were made at the time. This one by Horacio Ferrer was also chosen to be exhibited at the Spanish Republican pavillion in 1937  and it hung in one of the rooms beside the Guernica.

Madrid 1937: Black Airplanes by Horacio Ferrer

It is a masterpiece, full of wonderful gesture, portraits, and color.  But the brilliance and fame of Picasso’s painting have relegated it to a sideroom in the Centro de Arte Reina Sofía.

All the pictures in this post, except that of the Guernica itself and the war ruins, are  mine and were taken of works on exhibit at the Reina Sofía Museum of Madrid, which at least when I was there, allowed photos without flash. I did what I could with my simple camera.  It wasn’t  always easy:

One of the articles on the Guernica recently published in the Spanish newspaper El País (Oct. 17, 2011)  includes this interesting comparison with a painting by Rubens, and more preliminary sketches.

Picasso painting Guernica, photographed by Dora Maar Photo from the Spanish newspaper El País.


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41 Responses to Picasso’s Guernica

  1. Ken Januski says:

    Eloquently written Swallows. After having been totally enamored of Picasso for a good 10-20 years I’ve not paid much attention to him in the last 10 or 20, remembering more his public persona than his art.

    But Guernica and your telling of its story reminds me of just how creative Picasso was an artist. And not just creative or intellectual but passionate as you say. My first reaction in looking at it again was that Picasso was really the first Abstract Expressionist. That’s probably not true and is not worth pursuing I think. But surely this does show how artistic and abstract liberties can add to the emotional power of art.

    Really a pleasure to see and read. I did see Guernica in person at MOMA at least once but that was many years ago. It’s nice to be reminded of its power and of the real-life history behind it.

    • 100swallows says:

      Thanks, Ken. “…surely this does show how artistic and abstract liberties can add to the emotional power of art.” Rather than abstract, Picasso’s suff is more like expressionistic distortion of figures, don’t you think? But I agree that they are more powerful than realistic representation. I suppose some would call them cartoons.

      Once years ago I knew a kid, a Spaniard, whose father had been a pilot for the Nationalists and the boy came as close as he could to saying that his dad and other Spanish pilots, not Germans, had flown those German planes that bombed Guernica. He didn’t want me to tell anyone because such a fact would hardly make a hero of his dad. I saw the Guernica at the MOMA the first time too but it didn’t mean much then–it was just a big Picasso.

  2. erikatakacs says:

    It was really interesting to see the evolution of the painting through the sketches. Where did you even dig them up, Swallows? Great post.

    • 100swallows says:

      Erika: I didn’t have to dig them up–they were all on display in the Guernica room (and side-rooms) of the Centro de Arte Reina Sofía of Madrid. I’d have put a few more in the post but some are protected with glass and the reflection made good photos impossible. Picasso improved the mural so much by working on it that I started to wonder whether he’d have improved many others with a bit more thought and effort.

  3. Oh, it is so nice to see again after a while the Picasso early painting :) I completely forgot about them and you reminded me :) fantastic post !

    • 100swallows says:

      Thanks, Frank. Strange that you call these “early” Picassos. Art history books often mention him for his invention of cubism way back in the century and then drop him and go on to talk about other artists, as though his subsequent work was unimportant manneristic doodling. Some of it was, of course.

  4. cantueso says:

    It is also nice that there is no colour. I cannot think of any great painting except Goya’s done all in black and grey tones without looking depressing as Rothko’s black paintings do.

    Picasso must have thought of Goya when he decided to do without colour. In fact, there ought to be a reference to Goya’s pinturas negras in this post about the Guernica.

  5. It is very power full imagination

  6. Guernica-Gernikara says:

    Next April 26 they are fulfilled 74 years of Gernika’s bombardment. Paul R. Picasso formed this bombardment in throughout the world known picture “Guernica”, which a today has turned into symbol of the Peace and of the Human rights.

    We ask for your adhesion to which we believe legitimate claim of moving definitively the picture, ” Guernica-Gernikara “.


  7. Rich says:

    I had just been thinking about Picasso’s Guernica as an item of loan to the city of Benghazi.
    (And the recent German’s abstention from voting at the UN assembly)

  8. fertilaid says:

    Sorry I am confused. Are those sketches really by Pablo Picasso? Or are they modern art artist renditions of what they thought the master might have sketched? Because I cant seem to find these images elsewhere. Also I have seen some authentic Picasso Guernica sketches and they are much much much messier than these ones.

    • 100swallows says:

      Fertilaid: They are original Picasso sketches on display at the Reina Sofía Museum in Madrid, under glass showcases. I couldn’t get a better photo of them because of the reflections. Picasso seems to have made many sketches, some messy and some more refined.

  9. Rich says:

    You are right, Swallows: “Black Airplanes” by Horacio Ferrer IS a very competent painting.
    It looks timeless to me, be it the civilian population on Gernika, Homs or Srebrenica, I find them all expressed to a fine degree here.
    Of course I never tire of revisiting, looking at Picasso’s memorial as well.

    By the way; I think there are lots of competent and underrated Spanish painters like Horacio F.
    I once visited a small museum in the city of Tarragona and was very much impressed by the quality of all those unknown artists exhibited; unknown to me at least, zumindest…

    • 100swallows says:

      Sali, Rich! Thanks for coming back. It’s true there are a lot of good painters not even the Spaniards remember any more. I once saw an exhibition of finalists in a painting contest in Florence in about the 1880’s. The painters were given a theme–one was “an anarchist saying goodbye to his family before his execution” (or something similar); another was “the sailor’s family awaiting news about him” (he was lost at sea). There were half a dozen paintings and all of them perfect in their way–well-conceived, great as to gesture and color. I had never heard of any of the artists. There was a lot of good illustration of historical events done then. Do you know the big “Surrender of Granada” by Francisco Pradilla y Ortiz or “Queen Juana la Loca Standing Before the Casket of Her Husband Philip the Fair” by Federico Rodríguez or “Cardinal Cisneros Visits the Construction of the Hospital of the Charity” by Alejandro Ferrant?
      I want to make it to Tarragona just to see the Roman ruins.

  10. Rich says:

    Guess you would be delighted, Swallows, to see all those remnants of the Roman Empire in Tarragona. All the more so with all you know about the subject. Just the broad avenue there, called “Rambla Nova”, is worth a visit, as it ascends in a straight line towards the balustraded cliff offering a grand panoramic sight of the Mediterrean. A Jupiter temple is supposed to have been erected there. Do not know according to what standards the Romans chose their temple-sites (geomancy?) but the place seems a perfect fit for a Jove sanctuary.

    I did a search for Francisco, Federico and Alejandro – the Spanish painters you suggested – and had a fine time studying all those works, with lots of historical events illustrated. All the countless clues they have crammed into the pictures – a whole novel in a single illustration! Stirred up memories of reading, when one used to pause from time to time, flipping back to a well illustrated cover and looking for hints.

    • 100swallows says:

      Hi Rich! I just found this page with some of the paintings I remembered about the anarchist on the day of his execution.
      Maybe you found it too. The one I liked best was by Manuel Benedito but the Chicharro and the Sotomayor are also really well-conceived, don’t you think?.
      I haven’t been able to locate any on “the lost sailor’s family awaiting news”.
      That’s good about referring back to the illustration all the time while you read. I did that too. Weren’t we quick to see when the illustrator hadn’t read very closely the passage he was illustrating?

  11. alfonso says:

    Sorry, I am here only to find out whether WordPress still does or does not permit anonymous comments which personally I find so useful when visiting new blogs, where nobody goes., and write a few things with invented e-mails.
    As to Picasso, I am not sure he was passionate. There are many people who can maintain a very high level of involvement without being passionate. There are also many different reasons making such an involvement necessary or interesting.

  12. olga says:


  13. Terrence Riggins says:


    I came upon your blog while researching Picasso’s Guernica works and am quite curious about the second Guernica study drawing which you reference. Where did you find the image of that piece if I may ask? In what collection might I find it?

    Kind regards

    • 100swallows says:

      Terrence Riggins: All the study drawings were on display in a long glass case at the Reina Sofía Museum, maybe (I don’t remember) in the very room where the Guernica is exhibited. There were at least two more very interesting ones but the reflection of the glass made a photograph impossible. The last time I was there, the rules had changed and no photos were allowed, or I would have tried again. The Reina Sofía sells several books on the Guernica and presumably they include photos or at least a list of the studies. Here’s another group of sketches I photographed there: https://100swallows.files.wordpress.com/2014/08/reina-sofc3ada-2-033.jpg

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  18. Anonymous says:

    Hard to believe anything in this article as Guernica is misspelled. I don’t think Picasso maent it to be “propaganda” either when he said what he said about it.

    • 100swallows says:

      Anonymous: Gernika is the name of the town, the way the Basques write it. Most of the world has adopted the Spanish rendering (“Guernica”) and use that to refer to the painting. Remember that there is no “w” sound–not Gwernica but Gairnica, with the accent on the “i” (pronounced like a double “e” in English): GairNEEca.

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