Guernica by Pablo Picasso
The 1937 Paris World Exposition was full of conflicting ideologies. The German and Soviet pavilions glared at each other across the fairgrounds, directly contradicting the fair’s goal of encouraging peaceful cooperation among nations. And while the fair celebrated the technological advancements of the time, the Spanish Pavilion’s centerpiece, Guernica, by Pablo Picasso, was a testimony to the violent potential of those technologies (PBS). The bombing of the Spanish town of Guernica was depicted in this black and white mural, which communicates anguish through its deformed figures and cubist style. Guernica was a monumental artwork both in terms of the political climate of the time and in terms of Picasso’s own artistic progression.
On the left side of the painting a woman clutches a dead child in her hands, raising her head in an expression of complete agony. A bull stands over her, staring impassively into the viewer’s eyes. A triangular construction of figures claims the center of the canvas, holding the composition together. This construction is made up of a wounded horse, flinging its head backwards in pain, and a dismembered body lying underneath the horse. Inside a burning building on the right side of the painting, a woman throws up her arms as she is engulfed in flames. Two figures struggle to escape the building, creating a flow of motion towards the center of the painting. The first figure is running near the ground, weighed down by her disproportionately large leg. The second figure, of whom the viewer is shown only a face and an elongated arm, is pouring out of the top of the doorway. A light bulb is suspended above the figures, illuminating the scene.
The symbolic meaning of these figures is a topic of much discussion and controversy. One reason for this is that Picasso normally refrained from commenting on his use of symbolism, saying, “It isn’t up to the painter to define the symbols. Otherwise it would be better if he wrote them out in so many words! The public who looks at the picture must interpret the symbols as they understand them.” However, it is known that Picasso was well trained in allegorical painting, and this fact makes it easier to understand a few of the more conventional symbols in the mural. The suffering woman and dead child, clearly evocative of Michelangelo’s Pieta, appeared in many of allegorical pieces studied by Picasso during his artistic training (PBS).
Other figures have a much wider range of interpretations. There is speculation on the meanings of the bull and horse. These two animals are likely meant to represent bullfighting, a sport that is deeply set in Spanish culture. Picasso portrayed this subject in many of his paintings, and the animals came to symbolize a number of different topics throughout his career. Some of Picasso’s works depicted Minotaurs, mythological creatures who are half human, half bull. The Minotaur became known as a kind of self-portrait, and the paintings in which it is depicted are generally recognized as a representation of Picasso’s personal struggle with the women in his life. Therefore, the bull in Guernica could possibly represent a masculine force, and the horse a feminine force. Alternatively, the bull could represent Picasso, and the horse one of Picasso’s lovers. Another possibility was highlighted by Picasso himself. In one of his only explanations of Guernica’s symbolism, he said, “The bull is not fascism, but it is brutality and darkness…the horse represents the people” (Strickland 137). Of course, there have been many more speculations on the significance of the two animals. Throughout the years, the bull and horse have taken on many different meanings, from the very concrete and political, to the very abstract and personal.
Part I: Guernica in History
To learn more about Guernica’s symbolic meaning, it is necessary to explore the changes made to the painting as it was created. Picasso couldn’t decide on a subject for three months after he was commissioned to paint the Spanish centerpiece at the Paris Exposition. Then, on April 27th, 1937, the Spanish town of Guernica was bombed. Inspired by this tragic event, Picasso made the first preliminary sketch for Guernica the day the news of the bombings reached his home in Paris (PBS). On May 11th, after a total of forty-five sketches and studies were completed, Picasso’s canvas was stretched (Cossio). The canvas, eleven and a half feet tall by twenty six feet wide, was so big it had to be braced at a slant because the ceiling in Picasso’s studio was too low (PBS).
The next and final stage in the painting’s creation was documented by a young photographer named Dora Maar, who was Picasso’s mistress at the time. Her work is on display along with Guernica in the Museo Reina Sophia, in Madrid. A few years earlier, in an interview with a writer for the journal Cahiers d'art, Picasso reportedly said, "It would be very interesting to preserve photographically, not the stages but the metamorphoses of a picture. Possibly one might then discover the path followed by the brain in materializing a dream" (The Age). This is exactly what Dora Maar did with Guernica, and her work clearly illustrates Picasso’s artistic process in the creation of the painting.
One of the first photographs in the set shows an early stage of the painting in which the bull is fighting with the horse at the center of the canvas, making a clear reference to the Spanish sport of bullfighting. The bull was later moved to the top left corner of the painting, a change that balanced out the composition and made the bullfighting reference less deliberate. Dora Maar’s work also documents changes in the emphasis of the painting’s political message, which was at first made very clear through the composition’s focal point, a raised arm and clenched fist, the known salute for the forces of the Spanish government, commonly known as the Spanish Republic, during the country’s civil war. But Picasso soon changed the salute into a hand clutching stalks of grain in front of the sun. This made the painting’s message somewhat more optimistic. However, still unsatisfied with the symbol, Picasso ended up removing the raised arm altogether and settling on the horse as the painting’s focal point.
After he had worked out most of the painting’s composition, Picasso worked with color and texture. Dora Maar’s photographs show that Picasso experimented with many different colors and media, even gluing wallpaper to the canvas. But ultimately, Picasso abandoned both color and texture and painted the canvas in blacks, whites, and greys. This decision was most likely founded on the generally accepted theory of the time, which associated color with emotion and line with intellect, and therefore, color and texture could have distracted the viewer from the painting’s more intellectual message. As the painting neared completion, the light bulb was added in the top left corner. As with the bull and horse, the reasons for the light bulb’s presence are disputed, but most believe that it is a reference to the disastrous potential of certain modern technologies. This theory is backed by the fact that in Spanish, Picasso’s native language, the words for light bulb and bomb are very similar, which creates an ominous sort of artistic word play.
Throughout the painting’s creation, Picasso struggled with the problem of making an effective political statement while simultaneously making an effective artistic statement. And although many of Picasso’s contemporaries were concerned about the political climate of the time, those who involved themselves in political art found it very difficult to explore some of the emerging artistic styles through their more political pieces. This was largely due to the fact that the artistic trend of that period leaned more towards abstract styles, such as cubism or surrealism (PBS). Therefore, when Picasso attempted to paint Guernica’s strong statement in a cubist style, he had to find a balance between painting a very clear, political artwork and a very abstract, cubist artwork. The first photograph in Dora Maar’s photographic-documentary depicts Guernica as a canvas that contained many commonly known political symbols, and consequently, a very solid political message. But as the photographs progress, the symbols become less easy to recognize and the messages less clear, ending with a collection of abstract figures and symbols that left a lot of room for viewer interpretation, but provided less clarity of message.
This lack of clarity was the subject of much criticism at the Spanish Pavilion of the 1937 Paris World Fair, where the painting debuted. A German fair guide reportedly called the painting “a hodgepodge of body parts that any four year-old could have painted.” But the criticism did not only come from the enemies of the Spanish Republic. In fact, many of those who criticized the painting were sympathizers of the Republic. Some of these sympathizers felt that the painting’s cubist style and unclear symbols did not make a strong enough statement, and only purely realistic art could have any political or social consequence. Other sympathizers feared that the painting would not be accessible to the working class. However, in hindsight, it is easy to see that both of these fears had no foundation. Throughout the years, the painting has inspired powerful reactions in people of all social classes and backgrounds (PBS).
However, Picasso’s Guernica wasn’t the only subject of criticism at the 1937 Paris World’s Fair. Many Fair goers found the Spanish Pavilion’s tough political statement and graphic artworks inappropriate for the Fair’s environment. Indeed, the Spanish Exposition was not the average fair pavilion. Instead of celebrating Spain’s heritage, culture, and the wonders of modern technology, the Pavilion was a political statement drawing attention to the brutal tactics being used during the Spanish Civil War and affirming the legitimacy of the Spanish Republic. As the viewer entered the pavilion, she was immediately confronted with a large photographic mural of the Republican soldiers, along with a pro-Republican slogan, and further inside, more detailed photographs depicting many of the horrors of war. Documentaries were shown in the auditorium, including the very graphic Spanish Earth by Joris Ivens and Ernest Hemingway. In addition to Picasso’s Guernica, his postcards of The Dream and Lie of Franco were also present, on sale to raise funds for relief work. Notable as well were Juan Miro’s painting of the Spanish Republican salute and Alexander Calders’ fountain and mobile, red to represent the Republic (PBS). These artistic contributions, from both Spanish natives and Republic sympathizers of other nationalities, are what made the Spanish Pavilion’s message so powerful and shocking.
By the time the Spanish Pavilion opened, the Civil War had been raging for close to a year, beginning with a military uprising on July 18th, 1936. But the situation that led to the Civil War had been developing for a much longer period of time. In 1923, a previous military coup had overthrown the ruling monarchs of the time, and installed King Alfonso XIII in the throne, as figurehead for General Miguel Primo de Rivera’s dictatorial government. But soon after, in 1930, Rivera was forced to leave office due to growing opposition, and in 1931, democratic elections resulted in the elimination of the Spanish Monarchy and the abdication of King Alfonso XIII. Spain’s new government, known as the Second Republic, ushered in much political tension between its conservative and progressive factions during the six years following the elections. The leftist parties formed a coalition called the People’s Front, in order to achieve more reform, but their efforts were hindered by the more conservative parties. And although the People’s Front legitimately won the 1936 elections, the state of political climate continued to become increasingly fragile (PBS). The situation finally erupted in violence, five months after the elections, when Francisco Franco led a coup d’état, subsequently starting a brutal Civil War that would claim six hundred thousand lives (Steves 357)
The military had planned for a quick takeover, not unlike the coup that had overthrown the Spanish monarchs in 1923. But the determination of the forces of the People’s Front, now more commonly known as the forces of the Republic, hadn’t been accounted for. In mid-July, the first battles broke out between the rebels, who had begun to call themselves the Nationalists, and the Republican forces, resulting in a stalemate over the Guadarrama Mountains north of Madrid. The Nationalist forces, by this time under command of General Francisco Franco, then started to organize an attack on Madrid from the southwest. But the plans were discovered on November seventh, and the city’s defenders were able to apprehend the attack (Nelson). The next March brought another failed attack on the capital with the battle of Guadalajara, to the northeast of Madrid. This was the end of the attempts to secure Madrid for the Nationalists, and it became the last city in Spain to remain independent of Fascist rule.
At the start of the war, a problem arose concerning the transportation of The Nationalist forces’ best troops, the Army of Africa, which was stationed in Morocco. While the military rebelled, the Navy had remained loyal to the Republic, meaning that the troops could not be shipped from Morocco to Spain. So the Nationalist forces asked the existing fascist regimes of the time, namely those of Germany and Italy, to lift the troops out of Morocco using the newest types of German and Italian airplanes. The countries agreed to do so, in exchange for copper, iron ore, and other Spanish exports. The Republic, on the other hand, did not receive much assistance at all from its international allies. This was due, in part, to an international non-intervention agreement, signed by France, England and the United States, that prohibited all foreign aid to Spain. The countries’ reasons for signing the agreement, other than to contain the Civil War, were mainly of a political nature. Although all three countries’ governments leaned strongly toward the side of the Republic, none wanted to alienate their more right-leaning factions, or risk a second world war (Nelson). However, the Republic did receive assistance from nearly forty thousand volunteers from fifty two countries, who went to Spain to fight in the International Brigades (ALBA). But although these volunteers did risk their lives in the fight against fascism, they could in no way fill the gap in resources presented by the non-intervention agreement.
Despite this, the spirit of the Republican forces was unwavering, especially in the mountainous Basque region, the heart of the loyalist resistance. Basque culture had traditionally been very distinct from Spanish culture, with a separate language, and even at times in history, a separate government. But the rebel forces were characterized by a strong nationalism, and they would no doubt condemn the Basque culture if they won the war. So support for the Republican forces was especially strong among the Basques, as they were not only fighting for the preservation of the existing Spanish government, but also for the preservation of their linguistic and cultural identities. The Republican forces responded to this spirited resistance by once again asking Germany for assistance, this time in the bombing of Guernica, an ancient Basque town far behind Nationalist lines (The Sunday Times).
The bombing of Guernica, on April 26th, 1937, mutually benefited the Nationalist Forces and Germany’s Fascist regime in a few different ways. First, it shocked much of the Basque resistance into submission, thereby helping the Nationalist cause. Secondly, the bombings presented to Germany an opportunity to test out its emerging military technology and strategy, which if proven successful, would be used in World War II. In his book, Die Totale Krieg, or The Total War, the German General Erich Ludendorff discussed the idea that no one is innocent in war. Under this ideology, all people are soldiers, targets, and civilians at once, thereby eliminating any previously existing moral code for those fighting in a war. The Italian General Giulio Douhet further suggested that it may be possible to demoralize an enemy through bombing its civilian population by air (PBS). This military strategy, which later became known as carpet bombing, was a foreign concept in the 1930’s, but by 1944, it would be put to use all across Europe (Rick Steve’s 356). The Germans also wished to use Guernica as the test site for their recent technological advancements in aeronautics. Airplanes had not been used much in World War I, as they were only just invented. But by the 1930’s, airplanes had evolved into a serious weapon. Countries began to incorporate airplanes into their militaries, as was the case with the Luftwaffe, the German air force. By the years preceding World War II, the technology of airplanes had improved tremendously, and with those improvements came the very disastrous potential exhibited at Guernica (PBS).
Although more than twenty five of the Luftwaffe’s best bombers and twenty of its best fighter planes were used in the bombing of Guernica, the German government at first denied any association with the incident. Lt. Colonel Wolfram von Richtofen, chief of staff for the unit of German air force and military personnel stationed in Spain, publicly claimed that the target of the Guernica bombings was actually a bridge on the nearby Mundaca River, bombed in order to isolate fleeing Republican troops. However, when this claim was followed up, the bridge was found fully intact. Then, sometime after the bombings, a report from Von Richtofen to Berlin was discovered, stating that “the concentrated attack on Guernica was the greatest success” (PBS). The report made clear the fact that Guernica was not bombed for any military importance, but instead, to demoralize the civilian population and destroy the capital of Basque culture. The nature of the bombings, described through eyewitness reports, confirms this fact.
In the year 1937, April 26th was a Monday, the traditional market day for the Basque region. At approximately four thirty, the church bell sounded, warning the town about oncoming airplanes. Under the instruction of a Catholic priest, civilians quickly gathered in nearby bomb shelters, which were designated for the purpose, following the smaller scale bombing of the historical town of Durango. Minutes later, a single German bomber appeared, and dropped six bombs on the town, each weighing up to one thousand pounds. Five minutes after the first bomber left, another appeared and dropped the same number of bombs. The bombings started out in this sporadic fashion, but quickly grew in intensity until they became continuous. Throughout the three and a half hours of the bombings, the airplanes are said to have employed a strategy that was created to cause the highest number of civilian casualties possible. First, the bombers would drop grenades and heavy bombs over the town, moving from area to area in an orderly fashion. Next, fighter planes flew low to the ground and machine-gunned those who were fleeing the explosions. This drove the population underground, where the bombers once again utilized heavy bombs to collapse the city’s houses on top of the victims. The same strategies were used on all of the villages and farmhouses within a five mile radius of the town center (The Sunday Times). Eyewitness Juan Guezureya commented on the airplanes, saying “They kept just going back and forth, sometimes in a long line, sometimes in close formation. It was as if they were practicing new moves" (PBS).
Guernica burned for three days, destroying seventy percent of the town. The only historical building that escaped the fires was the Casa de Jontas, where the ancient Basque parliament had sat centuries before. The renowned six hundred year old “oak of Guernica” was also left unburned. It was under this tree that the medieval Spanish kings took an oath to protect the democratic rights of the Basque people, who never submitted to fiefdom. But the bombings turned the proud people of Guernica into refugees, fleeing the conflagration in oxen pulled-carts or government trucks. Still more people, however, were forced to remain on the outskirts of their beloved town, searching for lost relatives while rescue work was conducted by fire brigades and the Basque motorized police. The casualties were reported by the newspapers of the neighboring city of Bilbao to be “fortunately small,” but it is speculated that this was only said so as not to alarm Bilbao’s refugee population (The Sunday Times). It was later found out that approximately one third of Guernica’s seven thousand citizens were killed or wounded as a result of the bombings (PBS).
The world was outraged at the news of the bombings. The largest May Day demonstration to occur in Paris was the May First protest against the Guernica bombings. Nonetheless, the Spanish civil war raged on, oblivious and unresponsive to the protesters’ concerns. In the summer after the bombings, an offensive campaign called the battle of Brunete was launched by the Republic in the west of Spain, in order to take pressure off the north. But the ineffectiveness of the campaign had become apparent by late summer, after the two major northern cities of Bilbao and Santander had been taken by the Nationalists. Another series of victories in northern Spain soon followed in the fall of 1937 and into 1938. On March 9, 1938, Francisco Franco launched a major offensive attack aimed at Catalonia and Levante in the east of Spain. Involving one hundred thousand troops and six hundred German and Italian airplanes, the attack was the first in a series of Republican defeats, now recognized as the Great Retreats. On April 15th, the Nationalists forces had reached the Mediterranean, subsequently cutting the Republican territory down the middle. By the end of the month, Franco’s forces had gained fifty miles of coast. The Republic then figured that it had enough supplies for one more big campaign, until its allies repealed the non-intervention agreement. So in July of 1938, the Republic initiated an attack to regain territory lost in the previous March and April. It was successful at first, but by the end of the summer, the Republic was already low on supplies and gradually retreating once again. The intentions of the Republic’s allies were made clear in the Munich Accord, in which France, England, and Italy agreed to let Germany take over a part of Czechoslovakia to avoid starting a war with Germany. By signing the accord, the western democracies told the world that they were still unwilling to engage in a fight against fascism. So the Republic fought through the last months of the war alone, without new supplies of weapons or soldiers. Meanwhile, in November, Germany resupplied the Nationalists, which prompted the last campaign of the Civil War. Barcelona was taken in January of 1939, and Madrid was taken at the end of March. The Civil War ended with a Nationalist victory on April 1st, 1939. The fascist Nationalist party then assumed control of Spain’s government, and Francisco Franco remained in power until his death on November 20th, 1975 (Nelson).
Part II: Guernica in Picasso’s Artistic Career
The horrors of the Spanish Civil War and specifically, the bombing of Guernica were masterfully illustrated in Picasso’s Guernica. The reason that this renowned artwork is only one in a number of the artist’s masterpieces is that throughout his artistic career, Picasso mastered a range of different styles. His influence in many of these styles ended up changing the course of art history.
Picasso was born as Pablo Ruiz y Picasso on October 25th, 1881. His father, Jose Ruiz Blasco, was an art teacher from a wealthy family of the Leon province in Spain. His mother, Maria Picasso y Lopez, was from the area of Andalusia, in Southern Spain. Picasso spent most of his childhood in the Spanish town of Malaga, with his two younger sisters, Dolores, who was born in 1884, and Concepcion, who was born in 1887 and tragically died at the age of four. Picasso started to take drawing lessons at his school in Malaga when he was five. He was taught a rigid and systematic approach to drawing, in which one was instructed to start the drawing with geometric shapes and elaborate details to create an accurate representation of the model. Although this method may not have been particularly creative, it could have helped to develop Picasso’s superb composition. When Picasso first started painting at the age of eight, he was taught by his father, who specialized in painting animals and portraits. Although he moved on to other art teachers in a few years, his father would continue to oversee Picasso’s artistic education for the remainder of his childhood. In 1891, Picasso’s father got a new teaching job at the Institutio da Guarda, an art school in La Coruna, Spain. Picasso also attended this school as a student and received a classical art education. After living in La Coruna for four years, the family moved again in 1895 when Picasso was fourteen, this time to Barcelona. Picasso’s father was hired to work at an art academy named La Lonja, where Picasso joined him again. Soon after the move to Barcelona, Picasso’ family rented him a studio, where he painted his two first major paintings. The first of these paintings, titled The First Communion, was in an 1896 exhibition in Barcelona that celebrated Catalan art. The second, Science and Charity, received an honorable mention in the 1897 Madrid Fine Arts Exhibitions. Although both places in the exhibitions were secured by his father’s connections in the art world, these achievements nonetheless illustrated the young Picasso’s amazing artistic talent.
With financial help from his uncles, Picasso took that talent to Madrid to study at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts of San Fernando at the end of 1897. But Picasso’s university education was put on hold when he was quarantined with scarlet fever in the spring of 1898. After forty days of quarantine, Picasso continued to recuperate in the Catalan village of Horta de Ebro, where he spent time with his friend, Manuel Pallares. By the end of the year, Picasso had decided to stop attending the Madrid Fine Arts Academy. So he went back to Barcelona in 1899, and got involved with the avant-garde movement. He often visited the Els Quatre Gats, a café frequented by a number of Catalonian artists. It was in this café that Picasso had his first show in 1900, which included portraits of the numerous Catalan artists and writers he had met through the café. That same year, he and Carlos Casagemas, a friend he met at the café, moved to Paris and set up a studio together. By that time, his once very traditional style had gone through a radical change, as it was influenced by the urban environments and emerging artistic styles of first Barcelona, then Paris. Picasso’s art of this time utilizes a wide range of color, as illustrated in Le Moulin de la Galette, one of the best examples of Toulouse Lautrec’s influence on Picasso’s works of that time. The Parisian night life also had an impact on Picasso’s works, and was depicted many times in the blurry-lined style typical of that stage in Picasso’s career (Paintings). But more than anything else, Picasso was influenced by Romanticism. This theory was formed in the late 1800s as a reaction to the Enlightenment philosophy, which favors reason and rationality, and appears in art as a style that represents nature very realistically. Romanticism, on the other hand, valued emotions and aesthetics over rationality. Therefore, romantic artists represented nature in a much freer style, choosing to illustrate their own interpretations of the subject, instead of just the subject itself. This theory would eventually lead to abstract art, a style which Picasso would inadvertently play a large role in developing (McCully).
In 1901, Picasso and Casagemas moved back to Spain, after Casagemas experienced a failed love affair. Picasso then went on to Madrid alone, where he illustrated an art magazine called Arte Joven, which stopped being published after five editions. Meanwhile, Casagemas went back to Paris again, and, distraught over his love affair, attempted to shoot his lover, and then killed himself. Casagemas’ suicide affected Picasso very deeply, as is seen in the dramatic change in his artwork in the years following the incident (Paintings). Picasso’s Blue Period, as art historians have come to call it, lasted from 1901 to 1904, and was incredibly dissimilar to the colorful Romantic style he had begun to employ in the recent years. As the name suggests, blue was the dominant color in these artworks, which depicted a cast of social rejects, including circus clowns, beggars and prisoners (Strickland 136). The elongated limbs and ochre skin color of these figures recall El Greco’s figures from centuries earlier. The influence of Van Gogh’ s work can also be seen in Picasso’s Blue Period, especially in the deep contours and color contrasts seen in The Death of Casagemas, painted in 1901. This imitation of other artists would continue throughout Picasso’s life (Paintings).
Picasso was living in Paris for the duration of the Blue Period, having moved there for the second time after the Arte Joven magazine failed in Madrid. Picasso would experience a very dire financial situation during this stay in Paris, due to the fact that the sorrowful moods portrayed in Picasso’s works generally deterred prospective buyers. Quite a few of the paintings of this period are lost to the art world, because Picasso was forced to paint over them or burn them for fuel. This lifestyle, added to Picasso’s already existing depression caused by Casagemas’ death, was probably the root of the melancholy feelings reflected in Picasso’s Blue Period (Paintings).
1904 was a year of transition from the Blue Period to the Rose Period, during which time Picasso decided to live permanently in France. The theme of circus clowns, represented with a similar degree of melancholy, was continued into the Rose period, and this was probably the reason why many of Picasso’s contemporaries saw the blue and Rose Periods as one single period. However, the majority of current day art historians have found a difference between the two stages of Picasso’s career. Although the Rose Period still remained monochromatic, it dealt with a warmer range of colors than the Blue Period did, hence the name. The paintings of this period are also defined by their romantic and elegantly Parisian style, recalling Picasso’s paintings from before Casagemas’ death. Some historians also find that a slightly more optimistic world view is portrayed throughout the Rose Period, and therefore conclude that Picasso had started to emerge from the his previous state of depression. He certainly had emerged from his financial depression, due the higher commercial success of the Rose Period (Paintings).
Picasso changed styles again in 1906, when he transferred from the Rose Period to the Black Period. His work in the ensuing year focused on the structural and technical side of art, and was based largely in the styles of traditional African art. This genre interested him mainly because of its lack of Western-European influence (Paintings).
The influence of African art is apparent in the Black Period’s culminating project, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, painted in the beginning of 1907. The painting depicts a brothel in Barcelona, and the faces of the two nudes on the right were modeled after African masks, while the three images of the nudes on the left depicted Iberian sculptures acquired by Picasso in 1906 (painting.name). The painting’s style defied the laws of perspective, displaying a profiled nose while the rest of the face is shown in a frontal view. This method of painting was not unlike Cezanne’s’ geometric patterns in that it broke the canvas’ space into jagged lines and geometric shapes, thereby distorting the nudes’ bodies (Strickland 137).
Much of the art viewing public was appalled by the crude violence with which Picasso treated these figures, not recalling any former conventional image of female beauty. Picasso’s contemporaries were also repelled by the shattered perspective used to depict the controversial scene. Georges Braque, a French painter who later helped to create the Cubist style, commented that the painting was “like drinking kerosene in order to spit fire.” Additionally, Henri Matisse thought the painting was “a hoax” and another critic compared it to a field of broken glass. However, the work was defended by Gertrude Stein, Picasso’s friend and patron, in saying, “Every masterpiece has come into the world with a dose of ugliness in it. This ugliness is a sign of the creator’s struggle to say something new.” Picasso himself responded to the criticism of his painting by saying, “I paint what I know, not what I see.” This outlook on art, strongly founded in Romanticism, created a painting that changed the course of art history, catapulting the world into Cubism and abstract art. With the painting of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, a work that did not depict a real world image, but instead became an image of its own, 20th century artists were called upon to create truly new and unique images that held no bearing in reality, therefore shifting the paradigms of the world concerning the definition of art (Strickland 137).
The artistic concept of Cubism was initiated in 1907, with the painting of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, and reached its height of popularity at around the year of 1915. Although the creation of Cubism was originally attributed only to Picasso, Georges Braque actually co-founded the movement (Paintings). Cubism was created roughly the same time that Einstein was developing his theory of relativity, in which he states that space is bound to time and time to space. In a way, Picasso and Braque attempted to represent this theory artistically, through melding different perspectives of the same subject. To attain multiple views of the model, the artist must move through space, therefore also moving through time. A new image was then created which did not represent the original subject, but instead represented the space and time as one entity.
By 1909, Picasso and Braque had begun to work very closely to create the first subset of Cubism, called Analytical Cubism (Paintings). True to its name, Analytical Cubism fractured objects, space, color and light all analytically, retaining only the essence of the original form. This approach produced very geometric and abstract paintings in which the subject usually cannot be clearly identified. A monochromatic use of color appeared again in this style, which employed mostly greys, browns and ochers (McCully).
Picasso and Braque gradually stopped work on Analytical Cubism in 1912, and moved on to the development of Synthetic Cubism. The Synthetic Cubist paintings tend to be less fragmented than those of its predecessor, making their subjects more discernable. Another characteristic that defines Synthetic Cubism is collage, a new media that stemmed off one of cubism’s main theories, stating that a piece of artwork can become an object of its own, totally unrelated to its original subject. With the arrival of this new media came the introduction of color to Cubism, and then Picasso’s use of lines with dual representations, so that a single curved line can be both a guitar and an ear. By 1915, Picasso and Braque’s new Cubist movement was already well established in the art world, and Modern Art had begun to head quickly towards the abstract (McCully).
Cubism would be a part of Picasso’s art for the rest of his career, even as he experimented with many other styles. But he would never be a truly Cubist artist again for, as he said, “To copy others is necessary, but to copy oneself is pathetic.” So Picasso would move on to different artistic styles, even experimenting in a few different artistic media. During World War I, Picasso traveled to Italy, where, although he was still using Cubism to a large extent, he reverted back to some more realistic representations, as well as experimenting with sculpture and becoming one of the first to use found objects as a medium for sculpture. The reason for his trip to Italy was to begin creating a dance performance titled Parade, for which Picasso was set and costume designer. His paintings of the early 1930s were filled with flowing forms and intense color, supposedly inspired by his mistress, Marie-Therese Walter. However, in 1934, Picasso began to write poetry, and by 1936, he stopped painting for a year so as to concentrate on his poetry. But after 1936, Picasso started painting again, continuing to explore Surrealism, as he had in the 1920s and early 1930s. Many Surrealists of that time were dealing with the theme of metamorphosis, a subject Picasso hinted at when he began to paint himself as a Minotaur. Picasso further involved himself in Surrealism by writing the 1941 surrealist play, Desire Caught by the Tail (McCully).
After the painting of Guernica, Picasso’s art became increasingly political, especially during World War II. But fearful of the reactions of the French government or general public, he waited to publicize his wartime art. These works were displayed in a celebratory exhibition in 1945. But instead of the positive response expected from the organizers, the exhibition actually received a lot of fierce negative criticism from some politically right-leaning Parisian youths, protesting Picasso’s recent affiliation with the Communist Party. But Picasso’s art remained very political through the late 1940s and early 1950s. His later work portrayed a playful, even liberated feeling, using many bright colors and a modern style. And although he explored ceramics, he continued to paint, making variations on both his own works from earlier years in his life, as well as renowned works from different eras in art history. In the last thirteen years of Picasso’s life, he moved to a kind of mythical status, untouchable for most art critics.
Since the first day it was displayed in the 1937 Spanish Pavilion, Guernica has received very powerful reactions from a very diverse range of viewers. This is because its theme of human suffering is universal. Although it was created in protest of one tragic crime against humanity during Spain’s brutal Civil War, it soon evolved into an artwork voicing the pain of all those who have ever been witness to the horrors of war. The reason it holds such significance is that Picasso was able to find an effective balance between the painting’s artistic statement and its political statement, so that it was relevant to both the specific cause of the Spanish Pavilion, and the universal cause of pacifism. Because of its importance in history, Guernica has also become a crucial artwork in Picasso’s life. It highlighted the previous accomplishments of his career, in particular, the creation of Cubism, while at the same time, predicting future developments in his career, such as the use of art for political protest. Throughout the decades, Guernica has remained relevant to both world history and Picasso’s career, making it a truly monumental artwork.
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