Picasso - Guernica



The expression of mortal anguish in the Guernica horse must under no circumstances be confused with the repulsive features of that fantastic head. Accordingly, the relation of the horse to the fallen warrior is not one of hostility; this warrior is, rather, represented as a closely related fellow sufferer, like the female matador in Minotauromachy. That he has fallen for the cause of justice is attested by the broken sword, which, for instance in a drawing of May 9, 1936, serves to destroy the Minotaur, who is conceived as the embodiment of evil. Likewise, the woman holding the lamp over the dying horse is not hostile to it. On the contrary, she gazes at its agony with horror and compassion; and the woman below her seems to be stumbling in the direction of the horse in order to come to its aid. All this suggests that the horse is meant as the symbol of innocent suffering, with no specific political or national connotations.
By way of exception, the bull in Guernica is not represented as the adversary of the horse: the horse even turns toward the bull as though seeking help. In this respect, Guernica differs, for instance, from a masterful ink drawing of 1934. The woman in this drawing is the precursor of the woman holding the lamp in Guernica, but whereas the figure in the drawing seems to shrink back in horror, the woman in Guernica is actively interested in the events. She shares with the bull the circumstance that neither is personally affected by the catastrophe. Consequently we may interpret her as a spiritual symbol, a universal Mother perhaps, or, as Brandi suggests, as personifying "civilization" or "history." This time the bull too is a sacred symbol, not a representative of "darkness and brutality," as Picasso himself characterized the bull in his still life with a bull's head, of 1938. Thus we may agree with Larrea that the bull symbolizes the continuity of the Spanish nation, and hence is shown protecting the lamenting mother, whose child Larrea, no doubt correctly, regards as alive. The bird to the right of the bull may also be a symbol of hope, particularly because it seems to be the successor to the little winged horse emerging from the wound of the larger horse in an earlier drawing.
All in all, Guernica is a fearful indictment of violence whose ultima ratio is destruction. By formally combining complex symbols with a portrayal of the terrible effects of impersonal modern warfare, Picasso achieves a convincing objectivity of statement, which may claim universal validity. He has not portrayed an individual battlefield, but has painted the horrors of technological warfare. We must not, however, overlook the motifs pointing to a higher world in this supposedly nihilistic picture. Destruction rains from the sky, but all the victims of the disaster raise their eyes toward heaven, even though they may do so in malediction rather than in hope. There is an unmistakable transcendental upward movement, indicated by the large lamp at the top of the picture, directly above the most atrocious scene. This triumphant light does not signify the victory of violence over innocence, but, quite otherwise—the victory of compassion over cruelty. Compassion is one of the strongest motivations of Picasso the artist: this can be seen in many of his early bullfight scenes. In Guernica, compassion expressed in the divine features of the woman holding the light dominates the portrayal of cruelty, just as the light coming from above dominates the darkness. In support of this interpretation we may quote the opinion of Edvard Munch, certainly a competent critic, who in 1937 was strongly impressed by the picture (and especially by its restrained color): "This painting is not cruel at all—imagine how Goya would have done it— and yet it represents war. It's good that pictures running with blood are no longer painted."
In June 1937, as soon as it was completed, the painting was moved to the Spanish Pavilion at the Paris World's Fair and exhibited in a vast hall, with a large mural by Joan Miró and a mercury fountain by the American, Alexander Calder. Without doubt Picasso had intended this work as a protest against modern warfare, and used it for political purposes. Since then he has eloquently championed the view that the artist, like any other man, must participate in the life of society and help to shape it by his art. His statement made in 1937, "My whole life as an artist has been nothing more than a continuous struggle against reaction and the death of art," expresses not so much a political as an artistic, more accurately, an artistic-political credo. The attempt to combine art with politics confronted Picasso, as it did many other great artists of our century, with a difficult problem, and occasionally exposed him to conflicts. Larrea tells us that late in 1937 "certain Spanish politico-social authorities" demanded that Guernica be removed from the pavilion, "as an anti-social and ridiculous picture, wholly inadequate for the wholesome mentality of the proletariat." This step was finally prevented by propagandistic considerations of Picasso's international fame. The public condemnation of Picasso's portrait of Stalin on the occasion of the Russian dictator's death in March 1953 provides us with another example of the misunderstanding of his art on the part of political authorities.
Even after completing Guernica, Picasso treated some of its motifs in a number of smaller drawings and lithographs. Among these studies is a series showing the head of a weeping woman done in the fall of 1937, in which physiognomic forms combined with elementary schematic lines, ending in heavy dots to indicate tears, produce a violent Expressionistic effect. The last of this series is a little masterpiece, the head of the Weeping Woman of the Penrose Collection in London. Here physiognomic elements, lines, and colors achieve a perfect synthesis. Picasso's lyrical force is overwhelmingly revealed in this picture which expresses profound emotion in severely disciplined form. The woman's eyes are obviously intended as a metaphor of polished diamonds; we are reminded of Braque's remark that if a poet is permitted to liken the ascending movement of a bird to a dagger, a painter should be permitted to portray a dagger as a bird.
We find some of the broader implications of Guernica treated in a number of other works. One of these, of 1937, is the painting Birdcage. The desperate longing of the captive creature represented here symbolizes the sufferings of man as a prisoner of fate. The cruelty of the laws governing nature is expressed in the Cat and Bird of 1939. Another work related in spirit to Guernica is the Nude Dressing Her Hair dated Royan, March 6, 1940. (The motif is further elaborated in a sketchy drawing of June 19, 1940.) In this woman, whose demonic ugliness is stressed by her essentially graceful action, the deformations characteristic of the Guernica figures have become almost physically  
oppressive. The effect is not ridiculous but grandiose, like that of a Sphinx—the Sphinx of World War II. Finally, we are reminded of Guernica by the Charnel House of 1944-48, which is painted in the same subdued colors as the older work, and which is intended as a moving, realistic rather than allegorical, requiem for the silent victims of a degenerate brutality.


Mail Us