Created as an anti-war protest piece in response to the 1937 aerial bombing of a small town in northern Spain, Guernica quickly became one of Pablo Picasso’s most-recognized Cubist paintings—and for very good reason. Its monochromatic color palette, intense contrast, and large, violent images are visceral, compelling, and unforgettable even today. . . for those who saw it in 1937, with international tensions running high and World War II looming on the horizon, Guernica struck home like a bolt of lightning.
At the time, Picasso was in his mid-50’s and living in France rather than Spain, the land of his birth. As his fame grew, Picasso explored a variety of artistic styles, drawing often from Cubism (which he created with Georges Braque) and the Surrealist movement epitomized by Salvador Dali and his famous “melting clocks” painting.
The genius of Guernica is that it successfully combines dreamlike (some might say nightmarish) elements of Surrealism with the multiple-perspectives of Cubism. It was a shocking painting, both for its modern, Cubist style and for its haunting subject matter. After being displayed at the 1937 World’s Fair in Paris, Guernica went on a two-year “world tour” to encourage anti-fascist sentiment and raise funds for the troops of the Spanish Republic.
When World War II began in 1939, Guernica left Europe and was sent to New York’s Museum of Modern Art for safekeeping. MoMA continued to display the massive painting in various US cities and around the world for almost two decades—helping to turn Picasso and Cubism into household names.
It’s hard to say whether the bombing of Guernica would have gained such international attention without Picasso’s painting drawing attention to it. Certainly the bombing was an atrocious act of violence—Guernica was a civilian town, deliberately targeted by the Nazi Luftwaffe on behalf of their ally, General Francisco Franco, who was leading the rebellion against the Spanish Republic.
Yet this type of warfare soon became commonplace—proving that, in its own way, Guernica was nothing short of prophetic: a painting that perfectly encapsulates the inhumanity and horror of modern war, and stands as a timeless warning of what mankind is capable of.
A quick overview of Cubism
To really understand Guernica, it’s important to understand how Cubism differs from other art movements. While classical and neoclassical artists might to replicate the world exactly as it appears in real life (or some perfected version of it) Cubists like Picasso were open to depicting the world in more abstract ways that offered new, impossible visions of reality.
At its core, Cubism is a method of painting a person, scene, or object from multiple angles. Picasso and Georges Braque developed this technique and used it to simplify and distill any three-dimensional subject into a multi-faceted, “cubist” shape. Picasso was also greatly influenced by the carved, angular shapes of African masks, an inspiration that can be seen in many of his paintings.
These kinds of Cubist artworks—called Analytic Cubism, to differentiate it from a different, collage-style artwork known as Synthetic Cubism—are typically broken up into geometric segments, occasionally separated by angular lines to form divisions between the various perspectives being shown. While less “geometric” than some of Picasso’s earlier Cubist pieces, Guernica’s flattened, shifting perspectives and simplified color palette are clear earmarks of the Cubist style.
Ultimately, Picasso—and Guernica—were both incredibly influential in shifting the art world towards modernism and what we now call “abstract art.”
Analysis of Guernica
Guernica’s primary visual impact comes from its collection of maimed and dying figures, rendered in a stark black, white, and gray on a huge canvas. We already know about the event that led Picasso to create this painting (the bombing of Guernica) but he mixed in a lot of symbolism as well, conveying deeper meaning for both himself and the Spanish people.
For our in-depth analysis of Guernica, let’s break the painting down into three parts: color and style, symbols, and human figures.
Color and style
Picasso didn’t want to distract from his message by including color, so he eventually made it all stark white, black, and gray. Originally, he’d painted a red tear on the woman’s face, but ultimately decided not to keep it. It makes sense why he did that. . . with no color, there’s no relief from what you’re seeing, and there’s also no unintended (or intended) focal point that way either.
When viewed in person, the entire mural-sized painting hits you all at once, with too many visuals to process. The closer you get to it, the more it engulfs you in the monstrosities of war.
The center of the painting especially is a jumble of angular shapes, cutting across each other with violent energy. Guernica’s composition is that of a central triangle of conflict, flanked on the left and right side by more personal horrors.
The detail above shows a mother weeping for her dead child on the left. On the right, a figure is engulfed in the flames of a burning building (even more chilling for its dispassionate white and black hues).
I find the buildings themselves to be absolutely fascinating too—you might miss them at first glance, since they fade into the background behind the screaming figures but the longer you look at Guernica, the more of the stage you’ll see.
In one spot, a peaked roof is turned on its side. There a building burns. And all around, empty doorways and windows gape like missing teeth and empty eye socket in the burned out skull of a city.
While the figures and symbols are a commentary on war in general, and the setting of this painting perfectly represents the town of Guernica, blasted into rubble by the bombs of the Luftwaffe.
Placed centrally in the painting, Picasso painted a rearing horse with rolling eyes and distended teeth—its face is so anguished, you can almost hear it scream and you even might miss the spear piercing it from back to front. On the left, a bull seems to guard the mother and child, or perhaps looms over them like the shadow of the war, while in the distant background, barely visible, a bird shrieks at the sky.
While the bull may indeed symbolize war (or perhaps bullfighting, referencing both Spain in particular and the human desire for dominance in general) I believe the suffering horse is a metaphor for the undeserved death that war often brings to the innocent.
Even more telling is the electric bulb casting a harsh light from above, in sharp contrast to the hand-held oil lamp. Picasso placed those two elements right next to each other for a reason:
In a nutshell, he’s showing the harsh reality of progress—for all the good that it brings (electricity, automobiles. . . planes) it also brings death and destruction.
The human element
Like the dying horse, the death of the child in its mother’s arms symbolizes the suffering of the innocent. And everywhere else in this painting we simply see the atrocities of war. Limbs are huge, swollen and wounded. Mouths gape in soundless screams, eyes are wide in terror, brows are furrowed in anguish.
A single warrior lies broken and dismembered at the base of the painting, trampled by the death throes of the horse above him. His arm clutches a broken sword, separated from his body. In Guernica we find no solace in humanity—all is death and destruction.
Picasso painted Guernica over the course of just 35 days, a stunning achievement for such a large work, especially one that has made such a mark in history.
Picasso’s painting techniques & materials
While Picasso is best-known for his modern, abstract paintings, he still learned to draw and paint realistically at a very young age. His own style of painting only began to emerge when he was 19 and living in Paris. It began with his “Blue Period” (quickly followed by his “Rose Period”) which were named because of the predominantly blue and pink hues used throughout his paintings at that time.
As Picasso began to experiment more with Cubism, he switched to a limited range of oil paints in muted earth tones. Today’s version of Picasso’s Cubist color palette would include colors like Burnt Umber and Burnt Sienna, Yellow Ochre, Titanium White, French Ultramarine Blue, and Ivory Black. The artist himself was said to use the Sennelier brand of paints (which had a stiff texture prized by the Impressionists for its ability to make thick daubs on the canvas) and was readily available in Paris at the end of the 19th century.
Picasso was also known for finding less “artistic” paints (like those used in industrial applications) and adding them to his palette as well. Other non-art objects were pressed into service too: in Guernica, for example, he added pieces of wallpaper for texture, and at other times he mixed sand into his paint, or bits of newspaper.
A typical Cubist painting by Picasso might start out with a Burnt Sienna background and simple painted outline of his subject. By moving around his subject as he painted, Picasso was able to layer multiple angles and perspectives into a single image.
Picasso famously referenced his constantly-changing style of painting by saying, “It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.”
How much is Guernica worth today?
Guernica has never been sold at auction, so it’s value is hard to determine—given its historical ties to Spain, and the world-wide fame of Picasso, it’s unlikely that Guernica will ever be sold.
That said, several other paintings by Picasso have sold in recent decades for well over 100 million dollars, so it’s easy enough to hypothesize Guernica’s value. Given the large size of Guernica (compared to Picasso’s other paintings) as well as its historical and cultural significance, its value would probably exceed 200 million dollars if it went up for auction.
Picasso intended for the painting to be a gift to the people of Spain, but its ownership has at times been the subject of disagreement. The main reason for this is because in 1937 the Spanish Republic gave Picasso 150,000 French francs to help pay for some of his expenses in creating Guernica (roughly $7,500 or in today’s dollars, $135,000).
It’s unclear whether Picasso considered Guernica “sold” to the Spanish government, although sources close to the artist say he did NOT consider it a sale. The Spanish government on the other hand, says that they either acquired it, or commissioned it in 1937.
Whoever the owner was at the time, Picasso himself chose to display Guernica at the World’s Fair in Paris in 1937, as well as various exhibits around the world before entrusting it to the Museum of Modern Art from 1939 until 1981 (he asked that MoMA keep the painting until Spain was a stable democracy). Accordingly, in 1981 Guernica returned to Spain through an agreement with Picasso’s heirs, MoMA, and the Spanish government.
Where is Guernica located?
If you’re in Spain, you can see Guernica in person at the Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid. Guernica takes up an entire wall in room 206.06, on the 2nd floor of the Sabatini Building. Admission to the museum costs 10 € and is open weekdays (except Tuesdays) from 10am to 9pm. The museum also offers reduced hours on Sundays and holidays.
You can also get free admission to Museo Reina Sofia from 7-9pm on weekdays (except Tuesdays) and on Sundays from 1:30 to 7pm.