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War on canvas: Guernica – history repeating itself

On the 5th February 2003, when the US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, took to the stage at the UN headquarters in New York to present America’s case for war against Iraq, one thing was missing, or at least appeared to be missing from the much-photographed press area outside the Security Council chamber. For concealed beneath a baby-blue banner containing the UN logo erected for the occasion was a tapestry reproduction which had hung proudly in its place for almost 20 years. Appropriate? Maybe, as the masterpiece carefully concealed is easily the most striking, anti-war demonstration ever created, a work which art historian Herbert Read described as “a cry of outrage and horror amplified by a great genius” and by the ‘genius’ himself as “an instrument of war against brutality and darkness”. The artist? Picasso. The masterpiece: Guernica.

Between 4:30 a.m. and 7:45 a.m. on the 26th April 1937, in the midst of Spain’s vicious Civil War, the Basque village of Guernica was brutally attacked by an unprovoked raid of German bombs and gunfire on the orders of the Nationalist leader, General Franco. One third of the population of the village, some 2300 people, were either killed or severely injured, and the old town was utterly destroyed. At 7:39 am on the 11th March 2004, the first of 10 bombs exploded in a train packed with Madrid’s early morning commuters. Almost 200 people were killed in this horrendous massacre, innocent lives destroyed, families ripped apart and Spain, targeted in this ‘second Guernica’ by an unprovoked attack of terrorist means. The similarities are striking. Both the fascist regime of Franco along with his Nazi and Italian fascist support and the terrorist organisation of Al Qaeda sought to intimidate and terrorise and take whatever innocent lives were necessary in pursuance of their iniquitous objectives, while both attacks have rendered Spain the victim of unspeakable horror and its attackers the subject of international abhorrence and outrage. So while Colin Powell and the advocates of the Iraqi war may have felt more comfortable in covering up this phenomenal anti-war masterpiece when they promoted a new war in which similar scenes of horrific slaughter would be an inevitable result, there can be no doubts of the unquestionable relevance which the painting has in today’s violent and nonsensical world.

Guernika – the basque town in ruins after the bombing

Memorial to victims of Madrid 3/11

In this post, I will begin by exploring Picasso’s use of intrinsically nationalistic themes in Guernica, which present such a powerful portrayal of the suffering not just in Guernica, but for the nation of Spain as a whole. Secondly I will go on to illustrate the continuing relevance of these nationalistic sentiments, highlighted most powerfully by the events of the 11th March in Madrid, which inspired my own interpretation of Picasso’s work, ‘Segunda Guernica’ .


Picasso’s Guernica (1937) Courtesy of the Museo Reina Sofia, Madrid

#000000;”>Guernica: An Analysis
Measuring some 25 feet wide, Guernica was painted on commission from the Republican Spanish Government for their Pavilion at the 1937 Paris World’s Fair. In demonstrating, quite contrary to the Fair’s pleasure-seeking emphasis on modern technology as popular entertainment, the suffering of the Spaniards during this time of violent Civil War, the Spanish Government, in constructing their pavilion, looked on Picasso fundamentally to support the Republican cause. He did not disappoint. Leaving the project until a month before the opening of the Fair, Picasso presumably awaited the kind of inspiration which he needed to create a work suitable for the downcast offerings of the pavilion, and was provided with inspiration in excess by the atrocities of the Guernica attacks which were to shock the civilised world. Horrified by the black and white photographs of the bombing’s devastation, Picasso began to make sketches in quick succession developing the ideas and symbols which together, resulted in an exceptionally powerful, tightly composed and bleak illustration of the fascist massacre. The political strength of the painting was self-evident, and with the Nationalist victory over Spain, it remained indefinitely in New York’s Museum of Modern Art, only to return, at Picasso’s personal instruction, at the fall of Franco and, in his own words, “when public liberties are re-established in Spain”. For such was the strength of the painting that it did not merely illustrate a single attack on a single city. Rather, through complex symbology and carefully included iconography, Guernica became an undisputed symbol of national Spanish pride in the face of terror and fascist brutality, and against the party who, ironically, labelled themselves the ‘Nationalists’. Only on their demise could Guernica once again return to Spain, and be embraced as the national symbol which it continues to be to this day.

A Symbol of Spain: The Bullfight
There can be little doubt that horses and bulls were not central to the media coverage of the Guernica massacre. Nevertheless, they play an undeniably central role in Picasso’s illustration of the event, as the bull stands as a neutral bystander on the left, and the horse’s anguished cry and raised body stands at the very centre of the scene, neither small nor inconspicuous enough to simply blend into the background. Rather, it is clear that their prevalent inclusion turns to Spain’s traditional and distinct link with the bullfight, something which Picasso had captured numerously throughout his career. However, while Picasso would so often paint the conflict between the horse and bull on the arena as a battle between the sexes, the two are notably separate in Guernica, conflicted by some other destructive force. If the bull is to maintain its traditional link with Spain as a country, then it is clearly the horse which represents Spain as a nation of people. After all, it is the horse, who blindfolded, is the vulnerable victim into which the antagonised bull will charge during the bullfight, and who here represents the Spanish people; victims to this unprovoked attack. Unlike the bullfight however, the horse is not blindfolded, a poignant absence which not only forces the horse to view this scene of devastation as must the Spanish people, but also adds a degree of cynicism in suggesting that with eyes open to the threat of Franco, such an attack should have always have been an anticipated one for a party who, after all, gained power through violent and destructive means. Nevertheless, quite contrary to several of Picasso’s original sketches, including the composition first painted onto the final canvas, the horse is not shown fallen, onto her knees, with what looks like a broken back. Rather her head remains horizontal and her body is still standing, almost as though, as he progressed with the painting, Picasso began to install more and more Spanish pride and fighting power into his national symbology, showing that even when anguished by the massacre around them, the Spanish people still have the strength to stand up against this kind of brutality.

Screaming horse by Picasso – one of his preparatory works for Guernica (Reina Sofia, Madrid)

In contrast to the horse is the bull, who shows no anguish, but merely stands proud and disengaged as a witness to the scene. No longer tormented by the bandilleros’ spikes, he is the only participant of the bullfight to look on as the world crashes around him and the drama unfolds at his feet. Unlike the horse who is inescapably controlled by the picador who sits upon her back and leads her into the bullring, and the matador who enters the ring in a voluntary move to show skill and prowess, the bull is the only part of the fight not to be controlled completely by human intervention once within the ring: He must fight for his life and for his honour against the humans who try to manipulate him. While his impassive stance is symbolic that all honour, all the sense of purpose which is so obvious in the ring, is lost, the fact that he remains untouched by this tragedy emphasises that the drama going on around him remains an exclusively human one, something which is accentuated by the death and fragmentation of the matador who lies shattered like a ancient bust at the foot of the horse. Nevertheless, in maintaining the bull’s traditional link with Spain as a country, his unreceptive stance could introduce an element of hope that beneath the initial horrific consequences of the attack, the nation can disengage themselves from this regime of horror and brutality rather than accept it as a political representation of Spain, a resistance which would need, in Picasso’s opinion, to be maintained throughout Franco’s aggressive rule.

Picasso – mother and child preparatory study for Guernica (Reina Sofia, Madrid)

Women’s Heads and the Mother and Child
The anguished face of the horse is notably mirrored by the faces of the humans featured in the painting, four out of five are which are women, and all of whom are alive, living and feeling the pain. While the lady who peers through the window with a candle wears a look of genuine horror on her face when she discovers the scene revealed under the candlelight, the lady beneath her stumbles, half standing and half kneeling in obvious pain towards the hope of survival and rescue which the candlelight seems to provide. The other two women show a notably higher degree of anguish: On the right one has her arms up in despair as she tries to escape the flames burning around her, and on the far left, the distressing scene of the mother, who holds her dead child, has her head tilted backwards in an unbearable wail of torment. It is interesting to note that of the thousands who suffered the onslaught, it is women whom Picasso depicts. This was not however unusual for the artist who painted numerous weeping women, dancing bathers and vulnerable prostitutes, and suggests that he is comfortable with illustrating the outward emotion that the suffering female is more customarily associated with. Particular example of this can be shown by the bare breasts which are revealed by all three of the anguished women who face forward and which represent a traditional symbol of female grief. However more notable are the religious connotations of the weeping women which are common in Spanish religious art, particularly the icons of the Maria Dolorosa and the Virgin Mother with her dead son spread across her knees. The latter in particular can be paralleled with Guernica’s mother and child which is made all the more poignant with the death, not of an adult Christ, but of a small baby. The power of these female symbols then is to provide a very Spanish angle on a tragedy that was emblematic of a world wide political crisis, while the mother and child are particularly effective in demonstrating the destruction of another integral part of Spanish society: the family.

Picasso’s Guernica – detail of the fallen warrior

The use of Black and White
Picasso’s sole use of black and white in Guernica was by no means a common trend of his art. Nevertheless, while the colourless nature of the painting is immediately striking, especially to the viewer accustomed to the more colourful bulk of Picasso’s collection, while being successful in expressing the stark, bleak reality of this horrific scene, it also serves a number of other purposes. Firstly, Picasso, living in Paris, would have collected most of his inspiration for the painting through depictions of the massacre in the press media, pictures which would have consequently been printed in black and white, but which could obviously still conjure significant emotions in its readers, Picasso being no exception. The fact that Picasso’s Guernica is depicted in the same colourless format is significant in mirroring those news images from which he sourced his own ideas, for in portraying this scene as though it is itself an image from the massacre within a newspaper, he emphasises the seriousness of the occasion, while accentuating the political and social importance which the depiction holds.

Guernika in ruins

Secondly, the varying tones of grey enable Picasso, without the distraction of colour, to make an effective contrast between light and dark. The use of light in the painting is particularly striking to mark the contrast between the hope of life and civilisation as opposed to the darkness of the events which throw so much into the shade. There is, for example, a build up of light towards the centre, where the lady who peers in the window with a candle appears to be doing so with the aim of discovery and rescue, while the electric bulb similarly contributes towards lighting the scene, thus revealing to the human eye the horror which the fascist armies imposed upon this innocent civilisation in the black of night. The light of the figures, which contrast with the black around them, is equally representative of innocence, and seems to glow with a sense of hope in what is the living civilisation that remain. They are in pain, but the hope of survival will strengthen them to reach out beyond the brutality of this disaster, something illustrated by the lady who reaches out in a desperate attempt to escape the flames, the woman who stumbles towards the candlelight, and the mother who screams upwards as though searching for some hope, some higher power, to save them from this scene of destruction. But in discovering the scene and bringing hope of the victim’s rescue is the candle, the source of light which is held at the very centre of the painting and which burns, like an eternal flame: An eternal reminder that there is hope.

Madrid 3/11: The dawning of a second Guernica
After New York’s horrific terrorist attacks of ‘9/11’ and the launch of the ‘War on Terror’ in Iraq, a second terrorist attack was inevitable. But while most looked in natural caution towards the UK, the terrorists hit a vulnerable target which few had considered in the prospect of another attack: Madrid. Spain’s ‘3/11’ killed fewer people than the Guernica attacks, but it was an equally horrific atrocity, which hit another nerve in the Western World’s attack on terrorism and rendered the Spanish powerless to stop the slaughter of countless innocent lives. It was an unprovoked, unforeseen attack which caused widespread devastation, outraged the Western ‘civilised’ world and left Spanish morale at an all time low. This was indisputably a second Guernica, an attack meant to intimidate, warn, and terrorise. Nevertheless, while warn it may have done, Spanish pride was not thrown to the ashes of the burnt-out trains. In the fashion of Picasso’s horse, which remained standing, her fighting power far from diminished, the Spanish stood against this attack in a unanimous outcry against terror. With their palms painted white with a black ribbon in the middle, this gesture of palms faced outwards against terrorism became widespread across Spain, and is just one example of how the Spanish, with the nationalist determination depicted in Guernica, fought against this second massacre on innocent life.


Seguna Guernica – my take on Picasso’s masterpiece (acrylic on canvas, 2005 © Nicholas de Lacy-Brown)

While I do not count myself as an artist worthy of particular analysis, the similarities which I saw between the Guernica massacre and this second, contemporary terrorist attack on Spain inspired me to paint this second Guernica, based faithfully on the first, but including all the changes which have shaped the social and topographical landscape of the modernised Spain since the Guernica attack. Thus, included within it, Picasso’s inclusion of one building and one window is proliferated to represent the developed landscape of modern Spain, his candle is replaced by electric torch lights, the fabric of the mother is exchanged for one of the designer brands which fill Spain’s high streets, while the inclusion of mobile phones by which the families of the dead try and communicate with their lost ones, extend the element of family loss which was integral to Picasso’s masterpiece. But despite the changes which have remoulded Spain’s economic and social landscape, especially since the fall of Franco and with its entrance into the European Union, the symbology and political strength of Picasso’s Guernica is still exceptionally apt as a depiction of the horrors which recently struck modernised Spain. It is thus on the basis of my interpretation of this second Guernica that I now proceed to analyse how Picasso’s nationalist symbology is now more relevant than ever in an expression of this second Spanish tragedy.

Picasso painting Guernica

The use of Light and Dark
While the use of black and white in Segunda Guernica was a natural choice in following Picasso’s original, it enabled a similar use of light and dark symbology within the painting. As with the original, the main concentration on light is representative of the Spanish efforts of recovery and the pulling together of civilisation to aid one another through the darkness. Picasso’s candle-branding woman is replaced with a rescuer who leans through the window of the blown-apart body of the train, his torch illuminating the extent of the horror: Picasso’s dead man meeting the glare of the torch, while the search light on his helmet hits upon a newspaper. The newspaper’s headline reads “Matanza”: slaughter and is representative of the national and international outcry which this terrorist attack met in the Western world. It is hence significant that the light, symbolic of hope, finds this newspaper which in itself represents the hope which the ‘civilised’ world provide in their unanimous condemnation of the attack. The same theme of rescue is continued by the woman in the foreground who, instead of crawling towards the hope as she does in Picasso’s work, helps in the rescue mission herself. The various body parts she needs to collect are symbolic of the brutal destruction of human life, but the hand stands palm outwards with the Spanish sign against terror proudly positioned. Also, despite the modernisation of the light source, the use of candles is not lost. Rather the one candle of Picasso’s work is multiplied and 50 candles at the foot of the painting become a feature of their own, placed not only as a memory of the dead in a hazy underworld depicted under the bolted railway track, but also as a symbol of hope for the families of the victims and the survivors of the attack: For it was such persons who placed so many beautiful candles, after the attacks, across Madrid in remembrance of the dead and as a symbol of everlasting hope. This symbol of the strength and hope embodied in the surviving civilians is also mirrored by the skyline, the lit rooms representing those survivors of the attack and the darkened rooms signifying those in mourning or those whose innocent lives were taken.

Finally Picasso’s electric bulb surrounded by its white rays is replaced by a pop-art style explosion within which a mobile phone, the method by which the train bombs were detonated, rings, causing the explosion. While this explosion is itself, like the bulb, a source of light, it represents a warning rather than hope. While the mobile phone on the right of painting rings with the concerned calls of a victim’s relative, and thus represents family and Spanish civilisation, the use of such an object in exploding a bomb on a train which was similarly full of Spanish civilians, shows that the terrorists have encased the method of the attack within the fascia of civilised objects. The phone explosion is therefore a warning. The light may appear to be a sign of hope, but deceit is the method by which the terrorists are succeeding in infiltrating and consequently hurting the innocent.

Destroyed train – Madrid 3/11

The Bullfight
The escalation of animal rights concerns together with the growing influence of some of the more forward thinking EU members, has somewhat re-established social priorities and tastes in Spain. Consequently, bullfighting has lost much of its influence in Spain, and is seen in many towns as more of a tourist’s pursuit. Barcelona for example voted to ban bullfighting in April 2004 and label the city an “anti-bullfighting city”. Consequently, the symbol of bullfighting for Spain which was used so successfully in Picasso’s Guernica looses emphasis in this second depiction: The horse and bull are present, but introduced more discreetly into the scene, while the matador, the human element of the bullfight, is the only figure that remains, although with the loss of his sword, he could easily be construed as a mere citizen. Nevertheless, the important national symbology which the bull and horse provide cannot be disregarded. In the newspaper, the picture which represents the suffering citizens in the ‘matanza’ is the horse, its scream mirroring that of the mother as it does in Guernica. On the other hand, the bull is placed at the centre of the painting, in the process of being rescued. The importance of Spain’s rescue is the implication that Spain is being picked up from amongst the wreckage and consequently given hope for the future. Nevertheless, the bull is depicted as a child’s toy. It introduces poignant symbolism of a broken family, perhaps even a dead child, the split of a family unit which Spanish society still holds with fundamental and traditional importance, while its mere make-up of seams and a zip illustrates the fragility of Spain, and its vulnerability which left it open to this unforeseen attack.

Guernica today: merchandise favourite

Religious symbolism
Few would argue that the significant influence of Catholicism in Spain has decreased at the same rate as bullfighting. Rather, religion maintains its importance in Spain, above all things, as a time for the family, providing opportunity to worship together and to enjoy religious fiestas in the streets and plazas of Spain, a unity which was shown similarly as crowds of Madrilenians packed onto the streets of Madrid for days following the attacks, with candles, tributes, and palms painted in defiance. The importance of the religious symbol of the weeping mother and child which presents such striking grief in Picasso’s Guernica is not therefore lost in this Madrid-inspired depiction, a faint halo emphasising the suffering role of the Virgin Mary to which so many in desperate plight aspire. From her bag, which lies at her feet, a rosary bead falls out, its crucifix hanging into the candlelit space of the underworld, there producing a comparison between the sacrifice of the innocent Christ on the cross with the similar innocent slaughters of 3/11’s victims, while the candles, glowing out of the gloom, provide the same solemnity and calm offered by the sombre yet compassionate atmosphere of a church, where a similar such stand of flickering candles are a frequent addition to its cool, dark cloisters.

Tiled replica of Guernica in Guernika (with me, on crutches, stood in front)

In conclusion, Picasso’s Guernica remains one of the most important artistic works ever to have been produced. Its enormous political and social influence was such that the work necessarily remained in exile until the political regime against which it fought so ardently had slipped from command, while its continuing power was such that the advocates of a new war thought it prudent to cover the work before announcing in front of it, the arguments for doing something so intrinsically contrary to the anti-war attitude it symbolises. Above all, Guernica is a symbol of national Spanish pride, which can be embraced again and again by the nation as a symbol of strength and determination in the face of unwarranted brutality. Hence its powerful message was never more relevant in contemporary times than with the horrific events of 11th March 2004, a massacre so unforgettable not only because of the horror which it symbolised, but because of the strength of opposition and condemnation which the Spanish people presented in the face of disaster, something which Picasso and his legacy of Guernica, would have been so proud.

Guernica, as it hangs today at the heart of Madrid’s Reina Sofia gallery

© Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm, 2005-2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of the material, whether written work or artwork, included within The Daily Norm without express and written permission from The Daily Norm’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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