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Picasso and Guernica: Early Protest Art with an Enduring Message

Art is a lie that makes us realize truth, Pablo Picasso once said. It is a manufactured, exaggerated medium, created in the hopes that its audience will take away a deeper meaning, one perhaps they wouldn’t be receptive to in other settings, under different circumstances. Art allows us to glorify the beautiful and condemn that which isn’t with a measure of distance, distance that permits objectivity and, if the artist is skilled enough, empathy.

Picasso’s Guernica is a foremost example of anti-war art. Completed in 1937, this larger-than-life painting is currently on display in the Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid, Spain. The piece that began as a commission for the Paris World Fair would become a powerful political statement, inspired by an event that, at the time, was tearing his native country apart.

The Spanish Civil War had started the year prior (1936), fought among factions known as the Republicans and the Nationalists. The Republicans, loyal to the Spanish government, were in opposition to the Nationalists, led by a military group under General Francisco Franco. Ultimately the Nationalists prevailed, but the bombing of Guernica proved to be a critical point in the conflict. As the devastation killed mostly civilians and left the closest product factory remained untouched, the world branded the event a terror bombing.

Most of the victims of the bombing were women and children, as the city’s men were away and on the front lines for the Republicans. This is a fact not lost in the chaos of Guernica, as most of the painting’s subjects are women. The victims, though, aren’t the first thing a viewer’s eyes are drawn to when viewing the piece. The painting is done in a greyscale palate, an homage to the newspaper stories that first familiarized Picasso with the bombing. Next to the muted color palate, the first thing viewers notice about Guernica is it sheer size. Roughly 11 ½ feet by 25 ½ feet (349.3 cm × 776.6 cm for the non-Americans), Guernica is one of the largest works that Picasso completed.

Picasso was not a political artist. He didn’t need to be — the mastermind behind Cubism was a legend in his own right by the time he was commissioned for Guernica. In fact, the subject of the commission had started with a completely different idea, one that mirrored more of Picasso’s traditional “artist in his studio” works. But after reading George Steer’s account of the bombing, and the suggestion of Juan Larrea, Picasso’s vision changed. Guernica was also one of the few times that Picasso allowed people to watch him work; he hoped opening his doors would draw attention to the anti-fascist cause and generate the publicity he felt his countrymen and women needed.

With its grand scale and lack of color, it can be tricky for the eye to find a spot to focus on. Guernica is done in Picasso’s signature Cubist style, and its grey scale color palate allows its viewers a certain amount of distance between themselves and the devastation taking place. Everywhere on the canvas there are broken or melting figures, trapped by the bombs raining down on them and the devastation surrounding them. The violence in the streets spills indoors, underlining how no one escapes the effects of war. The light bulb at the top of the painting not only signifies the technological advancement that allowed the bombing to take place as it did, but literally shines a light on the events taking place. And the woman holding the lantern implies that despite the chaos and destruction, there was still a place for hope.

Picasso refused to allow Guernica inside Spain while it was under the control of fascism. His refusal meant he would never see the work return to his homeland but his commitment was unwavering. Guernica finally made its way home in 1981, after the death of the leader that had inspired the work to begin with.

Guernica might be a “lie”, a replication and interpretation of events, but it has become a symbol of peace that long outlived its creator and the conflict it memorializes. Guernica highlights the ugly side of humanity, the terrible cost of war, and the flickering light of hope that keeps us going when it feels like all is lost.

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