[Skip to Navigation]
Sign In
Art and Images in Psychiatry
September 6, 2010

Picasso's Guernica

Author Affiliations


Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2010;67(9):878. doi:10.1001/archgenpsychiatry.2010.108

What do you think an artist is? An imbecile who has only eyes, if he is a painter. . . . Far, far from it: at the same time, he is also a political being, constantly aware of the heartbreaking, passionate, or delightful things that happen in the world, shaping himself completely in their image. . . . No, painting is not done to decorate apartments. It is an instrument of war for attack and defense against the enemy.

–Pablo Picasso to Simone Téry, 19451(p152-153)

Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) was uncertain when approached to paint a mural for the Spanish pavilion for the 1937 Paris International Exposition, a World's Fair, intended to be a celebration of modern technology.2 He found his subject in late April 1937. German (Condor Legion) and Italian pilots had bombed and burned to the ground Guernica, the legendary capital of the Basque people, at the behest of the fascist rebel leader General Francisco Franco (1892-1975). Although Guernica, a defenseless small civilian farm community of 7000 residents in northern Spain, lacked military importance, it was the cradle of the Basque civilization and symbol of its freedom. That freedom was embodied in an ancient oak tree under which Spanish kings swore firm oaths that acknowledged Biscayan autonomy. Thus, the aim of the attack, the first on European soil that deliberately targeted and indiscriminately slaughtered civilians, was to demoralize and humiliate.

Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), Spanish. Guernica, 1937. Oil on canvas, 349 × 776 cm (137.4 × 305.5 in). Reina Sofía National Museum, Madrid, Spain. © 2010 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, New York.

Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), Spanish. Guernica, 1937. Oil on canvas, 349 × 776 cm (137.4 × 305.5 in). Reina Sofía National Museum, Madrid, Spain. © 2010 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, New York.

It introduced Europe to future total war ! German Luftwaffe chief Hermann Goering later acknowledged at the Nuremberg war crimes trials in 1945 and 1946 that Guernica was a designated practice site for the Nazi air force to hone their strategy and skills.

South African reporter George Speer arrived at the burning city from Bilbao, Spain, at 2 AM on April 27, 1937, several hours after the attack. He described the deliberate 3-phrase attack in the next morning's London Times and New York Times.3(p14) First, explosive (percussive) bombs weighing as much as 1000 pounds were dropped, followed by machine-gun attack on residents as they sought to flee. Finally, smaller incendiary bombs were dropped to ensure that the city would be burned to the ground, totally annihilated! Those who escaped could see the goggles on the faces of the pilots as they flew low to gun them down. Bombs fell for 3 hours, first directed to specific targets, then dropped randomly when smoke obscured the pilots' view. Guernica burned for 3 days; early reports found 1645 civilians dead and 889 wounded. All of the commercial structures were destroyed along with 70% of the residential buildings.

Despite the worldwide publicity and reliable eyewitness accounts, Franco's fascist rebels, the Nationalists, immediately denied responsibility and blamed the Basques for burning Guernica.2(p83) Remarkably many believed these lies; it seemed unimaginable that civilians could be so targeted and so tortured. But Picasso was not deceived. Infuriated after reading newspaper accounts, he immediately began to outline the mural that became emblematic of the horror of war. Years later a tapestry, an exact replica of Guernica, was prepared and purchased by Nelson Rockefeller and placed at the entrance to the Security Council Chamber at the United Nations as a perpetual reminder of the critical need for world peace.

On May 11, 15 days after the bombing, Picasso stretched a canvas 11½ feet tall and nearly 26 feet wide. Laying out the images in full scale, he said, “I clearly express my loathing for the military caste that has plunged Spain into a sea of suffering and death.”2(p3) Picasso refused a specific explanation of the imagery but acknowledged that the bull represented brutality and darkness and the horse, the people,3(p148) leaving allegorical interpretation to the individual viewer.

Except for the bull, all depicted cry out in despair with mouths open, reminiscent of the classic Greek tragic mask. A woman holds out a lantern illuminating the chaos, an archetypal light bearer. The central image is the noble horse shown with a spear piercing its heart with a gaping wound adjacent to the spear. The horse seems indomitable in dying. Not so in an earlier version, where the horse's head is bowed in submission. Psychologically perhaps Picasso had to embrace the indignity of utter defeat before finding his resolve. The impassive bull seems indifferent to the surrounding suffering. A decapitated and dismembered hollow warrior, holding a broken sword in his right hand, is no match for modern warfare. His left hand is open and in its lines some see the stigmata of Christ's wounds.4 A wounded bird attempts flight. The woman on the right throws up her arms in despair as she falls in a burning house signified by jagged flames. Another seeks to escape. A lightbulb, the pupil of a disembodied “eye,” brings harsh modern illumination to the tragic scene. The electric bulb, bombia in Spanish, may serve as an ironic metaphor on the fair's theme. A woman, reminiscent of images of a Christian Pieta, holds a limp dead child, a continuing meditation on innocent sacrifice. Earlier, Picasso gave her a single blood-red tear, but in the end all color is removed from the painting.

The enduring symbolic importance of Picasso's painting was apparent February 5, 2003, when a blue curtain covered the Rockefeller Guernica tapestry while Colin Powell and John Negroponte gave press conferences at the United Nations justifying why the US must go to war with Iraq. The public outcry over it being covered demonstrated once again its power to represent the horrors of war.2

Remarkably, miraculously to many, the legendary Guernica oak (Quercus robur) and the adjacent assembly hall survived the bombing unharmed. Perhaps in recognition of the symbolic oak's survival, Picasso placed a flower beside the dying warrior's hand. On April 26, 1997, the German people formally apologized to the citizens of the restored city of Guernica. The city thrives today and views itself as an international symbol of resilience and hope; it is the site of a museum devoted to world peace. As for Picasso's Guernica, it remains the most powerful antiwar statement in modern art.5

Oppler  EC ed  Picasso's Guernica.  New York, NY: WW Norton; 1988
Martin  R Picasso's War.  London, UK: Simon & Schuster; 2002
Southworth  HR Guernica! Guernica!  Berkeley: University of California Press; 1977
Russell  FD Picasso's Guernica.  Montclair, NJ: Allanheld & Schram; 1980
Patterson  I Guernica and Total War.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; 2007