El Guernica


No time today for a comment from me, but this came up today on the BBC news… It is my favourite painting.

Pablo Picasso’s monochrome painting of the 1937 bombing of the town of Guernica remains one of his more famous works. The tapestry version just unveiled at London’s Whitechapel Gallery usually sits at the UN, acting as a powerful visual statement against the horrors of war. But there is much meaning beneath this famous work, writes Picasso expert Gijs van Hensbergen.


It is the horse that takes centre stage in this apocalyptic knacker’s yard where nothing seems to make any sense. Are we in a bull ring, a village square or a plywood theatre set?

The horse’s screaming dagger-shaped tongue and its death-head nostrils focus our attention directly on the terrible pain and suffering that pulls us repeatedly back to witness the horror. If this is a bullfight it has gone horribly wrong, defying all logic of the corrida.

Operation Rugen took place on 26 April 1937 during Spanish Civil War
German and Italian bombers allied with nationalists pounded town in Basque country held by Republicans
Deaths estimated between 200 and over 1,000
Much of town flattened
Bombing brought to international attention by Times journalist George Steer

No horse is ever run straight through with a spear in a plaza de toros, as the horse of Guernica has been. In an early version, hidden under layers of paint, Picasso had bent the horse’s head down to the ground in submissive defeat.

Here, in the final version, even in its dying moments the horse remains defiant. It may be the last gasp but down to the right of its crooked knee a plant sprouts a few anaemic leaves as the only symbol of hope. Did the horse represent the Spanish people, Picasso was asked? He refused to answer.

Throughout the history of painting the horse has become the universal symbol of man’s companion in war, understood by every culture. Guernica was a horrific example of saturation bombing – not the first, nor the last. From Coventry to Dresden, from Hiroshima to Baghdad, people have forged a powerful empathy with this fatally wounded horse.


The Bull, of all the protagonists in the painting is the only one that remains calm and dispassionate. Picasso was quizzed if the bull represented the Spanish dictator Franco but the truth appears far more complex. With its statuesque head, and lozenge eyes it watches the drama unfold.

In many depictions of artists in their studios, most notably Velazquez’s Las Meninas and Goya’s Family of Charles IV, both in the Prado, and known to Picasso from his early youth, the artist anchors the left border of the masterpiece.

Normally hangs at UN
At Whitechapel Gallery to mark reopening
Donated to UN by Nelson Rockefeller in 1985
In lead-up to Iraq war, tapestry was covered by blue cloth for US media conference
Although denied, critics said this was because of anti-war message
More variations in colour compared with painting

Throughout the 1930s Picasso had increasingly depicted himself in the guise of the bull and the minotaur, half-man, half-bull. In his Vollard Suite of etchings, again and again the potent minotaur violates, rapes, caresses and treats with tenderness his beautiful, voluptuous, female victim.

Picasso loved in-jokes, secrecy and the rituals of ancient Mediterranean cultures. Fascinated by the Roman cult of Mithraism and the ritual slaughter of the bull by the Sun God Mithras, Picasso places the bull’s head between a jagged naked light bulb, a crowing cock and a screaming mother – the Virgin Dolorosa (paraded through every Spanish street during Holy Week).

What are we to make of Guernica’s confusing compendium of images weighted so heavily with religious content? The Bull watches the sacrifice. If it is Picasso is it a mere impotent witness? Or, is it the cause of this tragedy?


Early on, in the first few days of painting Guernica, Picasso placed his own self-portrait – recognisable by his characteristic swept-over hairstyle – in the position of this decapitated bust. Turned over, with his gaping mouth to the sky, the final version becomes a kind of “everyman”.

Some see in the smashed bust, severed arm and broken sword, which frame the base of the painting, distant echoes and memories of the horrific earthquake that rocked Malaga destroying 10,000 houses in Picasso’s early childhood. It is possible. Picasso had an extraordinary memory and throughout his life kept all the gates to his deep and fertile subconscious wide open.

Picasso in 1930
Born 1881 in Malaga, Spain
Studied in Madrid
First visiting in 1900, Picasso spent much time in Paris
Helped create Cubism but worked in several styles
Died in 1973, aged 91

At his father’s knee, in Malaga’s Cafe de Chinitas, he would have heard the story of the Arab fakir Ibrahim al-Jarbi, sent to kill the Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella in the final desperate days of the Christian reconquest of Spain, after 750 years of rule by the Muslims. Al-Jarbi was caught, chopped into pieces and catapulted over the walls of Malaga’s Arab fort.

It was an epic legend that was repeated in Malaga like a mantra and would have fired the imagination of any impressionable young boy. But the source is perhaps closer to hand.

Just months before painting Guernica, Picasso had been asked to create a series of prints to raise funds for the Republic. The Dream and Lie of Franco is a savage attack by Picasso on Franco’s regime. Portrayed as a swollen monster, Franco proceeds through a series of scenes to desecrate and destroy all in his path, including a classical bust.

As director of Madrid’s Prado gallery, in exile, Picasso felt a deep loathing for the military machine that was prepared to visit indiscriminate violence upon his people and bomb the Prado, while also peddling propaganda about the Republic’s alleged war on culture.


The mother screams and screams, but nothing will bring her child back. No god and no amount of divine intervention can breathe life back into the limp rag doll. Her dress has fallen off her shoulder, the swaddling clothes of her child open up to reveal a range of stubby little toes.

Everywhere we look across the painting we see gesture – fingers like sausages, hands carved with lines and an array of clasping, grasping fists. Her grief has depersonalised her. Her eyes are tears. Her tongue a dagger pointing up to the Bull’s steaming nostrils.

For Guernica, Picasso produced almost 70 preparatory works that included sketches and paintings, many in black and white but some in dramatic colour. An early sketch for Mother and Child – which travels the entire history of the image including Michelangelo’s Pieta – showed the mother and child descending down a ladder.

Picasso, as the Prado’s director in-exile, knew the collection inside out. No artist, or anyone with sensibility, could fail to be drawn to the museum’s extraordinarily poignant Descent from the Cross by Rogier van der Weyden – arguably, the greatest Christian image ever created.

Picasso, as was his will, cannibalised it and gave us this pathetic timeless image of an inconsolable woman that we see repeated today in the newsreels transmitted from Gaza, Rwanda, Bosnia and Sudan.


Picasso’s life while painting Guernica represented the worst period in his life. His mother and sister still lived in Barcelona and it was impossible to know where Franco might bomb next.

Picasso’s personal life in Paris had become immensely complicated. His wife Olga Khokhlova, a Russian ballet dancer, had become increasingly unhinged as she discovered the artist’s infidelities, and wished to sue him for half his estate. This included his works of art – some unfinished, others his working archive.

His suppliant mistress, Marie-Therese Walter, a Grecian beauty less than half his age, had given birth to their daughter Maya and was farmed out to the country for weekends away. Into the empty space came Dora Maar – a dramatic dark-haired beauty, who was as exotic and erotic as an artist could ever ask for.

He first met her on the terrace of the Deux Magots cafe in Paris staring deep into his eyes as she stabbed her fingers through her gloves playing dare with a knife.

In many ways Dora was his intellectual equal. She took photographs of Guernica in progress and also, as it happened, painted many of the markings on the flank of the dying horse.

One day, unexpectedly, Marie-Therese came up from the country to see Picasso in his Paris studio. He was up the ladder painting and Dora was in the room. The fight between the two women was left to run its course by Picasso, who transferred it and distilled it into the image we see today.

Three women at war, three graces, three fates, three women mourning at the cross, all readings are viable. But we must also remember that the woman holding the torch we have seen before – she is Liberty leading the people and, of course, Bartholdi’s Statue of Liberty – a copy of which Picasso passed every morning in Paris while walking the dog.

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