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The Roots of Modern Art, Part 8: Picasso (II) - Guernica



By David Misialowski (2006)

... "cries of children, cries of women, cries of birds, cries of flowers, cries of timbers, and of stones, cries of bricks, cries of furniture, of beds, of chairs, of curtains, of pots, of cats, and of papers, cries of odors which claw at one another, cries of smoke pricking the shoulder of the cries which stew in the cauldron and of the rain of birds which inundates the sea which gnaws the bone and breaks its teeth biting the cotton wool which the sun mops up from the plate which the purse and the pocket hide in the print which the foot leaves in the rock." - Picasso

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DREAM AND LIE OF FRANCO
The above is part of a poem that Picasso wrote to accompany a set of drawings in the nature of a comic strip that he made early in 1937, also called Dream and Lie of Franco, and reproduced below. In it, Picasso depicted Franco as a diseased polyp, a malignant and oozing thug that, in one panel, devoured the entrails of its own horse.

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Picasso had never been a political artist, and as Jung noted, his images seemed increasingly to withdraw from objective reality and primarily reflected some inner psychic state that he was trying to work out on canvas. He made no war-related art during World War I and after the war he turned from the cubism that he had invented and began painting figures in a neo-classical way, a move that might have been a parody of such art. Later he turned to an increasingly obscure version of surrealism that involved bizarre and unsettling distortions of the female form, possibly a reflection of his troubled relations with women.

But by the mid-1930s, the apolitical artist who had been born in Spain but had spent the last 30 years of his life in Paris was confronted by the Spanish Civil War, embodied in the form of Generalissimo Francisco Franco, the military renegade who was leading fascist forces in an effort to topple Spain's republican government. Picasso made his art and poetry skewering Franco after the latter had led his forces on ruinous marches through Picasso’s homeland.

A little later in 1937, representatives of the Spanish government asked Picasso to paint a mural for the Spanish pavilion of a world’s fair that was scheduled for Paris later that year. They knew that Picasso’s sympathies lay with the republican government of Spain, and they wanted an explicit visual statement supporting it against Franco.

Picasso demurred. He told them that he was not a political artist, and that he did not work on commission. Nevertheless he ultimately agreed to the project, but weeks went by and he did not know what he would do to fill the immense space - nearly 26 feet wide by 12 feet high - that was being prepared for his much-anticipated work.

On April 26, 1937, Nazi bombers destroyed the ancient Basque town of Gernika from the air. Hitler's forces were now openly aiding Franco in his drive to topple the Spanish government and also defeat Communist fighters who were assisting it. The aerial obliteration of Gernika was a new thing in the world. There had been air warfare in World War I, but this was the first time that a civilian population was specifically targeted and the scale of the bombing was unprecedented. When Picasso, in Paris, learned of the attack, and saw black-and-white photos in the newspapers of the dead amid the ruins, he knew that he had found his subject for the Spanish Pavilion: Guernica, the Spanish rendering of the Basque Gernika.

Below is the very first study for Guernica, which Picasso executed with a few lightning pencil strokes:

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A figure bursts from a window, holding a light. Below a dying horse writhes in the center of the composition, and off to the side a bull watches. Intuitively, with a few quick strokes, Picasso had captured his subject.

Why the bull and the horse?

Picasso was raised in the culture of the bullfight. The bull, the horse and the man in the ring had played central roles in many of his motifs, and in the early 30s, in particular, he had begun to explore the myth of the Minotaur, the half-man half-bull of Greek mythology that was imprisoned in a labyrinth built by Daedalus. The Minotaur in the labyrinth was also a central concern, in literature, of Borges, and less directly in the form of Steven Daedalus in the labyrinth that Joyce built called Ulysses.

As Picasso developed his work, he paid little attention to the particulars of the town of Gernika itself. This is because Picasso, in this work as in so many others, was concerned with universals rather than particulars. One way that scholars and historians have often judged art as influential (while avoiding problematic value judgments of whether it is good or bad) is when a work somehow transcends the particular circumstances that inspired it, and speaks across cultures, across time and place. Such works seem to have more influence - they endure in human memory, even across centuries - because in them, even modern people can recognize meaning.

Picasso instinctively was striving to make his mural Guernica one such painting, a work that would speak, not so much to the particular circumstances of the Nazi bombardment and slaughter of innocent civilians in a particular town, but to the timeless theme of war’s horror, of the tenuousness of life and the way that death can be both sudden and brutal. In Spanish culture, the horse and bull in the ring were symbols of uncertain life and sudden death, and represented stylized warfare.

Picasso worked to refine his figures in May 1937. Here is an early study of the head of the horse that would eventually dominate the center of the painting:

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Picasso had long ago mastered and abandoned realistic or mimetic art as too limiting. He was a distorter and inventor of forms. To those who have a hard time seeing art as anything but the mimesis of forms in the outer world, one could pose the question, Do you think that this horse's head would have had more power, more terror, a more nightmarish aspect, if he had painted it realistically? I doubt it. Picasso understood that he needed to make monstrous forms, nightmarish things, in response to a monstrous and nightmarish act. The monster in art was nothing new, though the style of depicting it had changed. Consider Bosch's depictions of hell, an example of which is below - a surrealistic painting long before surrealism had been invented:

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In addition to the bull and the horse, Picasso filled his canvas with human figures in various states of suffering and disorientation. Here is an early study, that, while it would change quite a bit, still already captured, starkly, the terror and suffering that he wished to convey. One could scarcely imagine a more dreadful image than that of a screaming mother with her small child dead in her hands because of bombs falling from the sky. The image is all the more powerful because of its brazen distortions, echoing the fragmentation and obliteration of the city under assault:

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This image could be thought of as a modernistic heir of Michelangelo's Pieta:

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As Picasso worked and reworked his figures, he arranged them in various compositional studies. The following pencil drawing is already extremely powerful and unsettling, though it does not even contain the weeping woman with child that we have just seen:

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It is interesting to speculate, already, on some of the possible symbolism of the figures, which eventually took on a mythic but also somewhat enigmatic cast in the finished work. Of the final forms, Picasso said, "This bull is a bull, and this horse is a horse. It's up to the public to see what it wants to see."


But it is possible in this early study to discern some literal meanings, which might have been why Picasso revised it, and made the horse and the bull more problematic in their relationship. The horse, buckled and broken and fallen to earth, head twisted around in agony, can be read as symbol specifically of the victims of Gernika, and more generally of the suffering people of Spain or of suffering in the abstract. The monstrous, robust, upright bull, which seems to have entered the scene as if invasively, could be Franco. There are fallen warriors to the lower left - the defenders of Republican Spain - the innocent civilian horrified by the devastation, as represented by the woman holding the light, and to the far right we find a defiantly raised upright arm clenched in a fist: the salute of the defenders of the Spanish republic.

Picasso continued to refine his figures and change the composition, a process that was recorded in photographs by his lover Dora Maar. The fallen figure with the upraised arm and clenched fist was moved to a more prominent role in the center of the canvas, but Picasso eventually discarded the form, apparently because he believed that the detail was too heavy-handed, too obvious. Again, he was striving for something timeless and universal, something that would transcend the particulars of the event (for who knew whether an upraised arm with a clenched fist would always be associated with the defenders of Republican Spain, or even that it would always be associated with anything positive?) The version with the upraised fist that did not survive the final pictorial cut is below:

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As it happens, rather than any upraised arms or clenched fists, the hands of all the people ended up splayed, disorganized, stretched out in pleading gestures and shot though with lines that could be interpreted as slashes, symbolizing wounds and the threat of death, or as the lifelines of palms, symbolizing the promise of life.

The horse went through many poses, but all its postures were intended to emphasize horrific suffering, the impression of being flayed alive. In one version, Picasso rendered a miniature Pegasus winging its way out of a gaping wound in the side of the dying horse, an obvious resurrection motif, as if Picasso were showing that in dying, the horse (whether it represented Republican Spain, or humanity in general) was destined to experience rebirth. Again, he evidently decided that this icon was too obvious or heavy-handed, for he removed it from the final picture, and the only symbol of hope that eventually remained was a flower in the right hand of the broken warrior that lay across the bottom of the picture space.

Picasso's figures and the composition co-evolved, and he eventually combined them into a mammoth triangular composition at whose apex was the light clutched by the woman leaning out the window and a form next to it suggesting either another electric light or perhaps the sun or even a bomb, and thus the picture equivocates between night and day, and between indoors and outdoors. This seemed appropriate, because the Nazis had thoughtfully destroyed so many buildings in Gernika that most people who remained alive did not have roofs over their heads and hence were simultaneously indoors and out.

We can examine the symbolism of the figures.

The Bull

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For me, this is the most intriguing figure in the mural. In an early version of the work, which we have seen, the bull seemingly suggests Franco. In that version, it was the only undamaged animal or human in the scene, and it had a large, invasive, bullying presence, suggesting a brute force presiding over the destruction that it had wrought.

In the final version, the creature is much more ambiguous. Borrowing from the multiple perspectives of cubism, Picasso worked the magic of making the head seem, simultaneously, to be in profile and facing the viewer. The expressions is confused, even startled - what you might expect to find on the face of a bull that has been flayed by a matador, but the animal shows no evidence of wounds. What's more, it seems to hover almost protectively over the weeping woman clutching her dead child. On the other hand, one could imagine that the woman is screaming, not just for her dead child, but in terror at the enormous (and evil?) animal that is looming menacingly above her, its head just inches from her own. The meaning is ambiguous, but the anguish and chaos are clear.

The Horse

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In most early versions of the work, the horse has collapsed, writhing, on the ground, dominating the lower part of the canvas. In the final version, it is rearing up on galloping legs, its contorted and agonized face providing the focal point, under the lamp and "sun", of the painting. The horse has been pierced by a lance, and a gaping wound in its side is no longer softened by a regenerative Pegasus winging out of it.

The animal is clearly on the verge of collapse, in its last throes, and if we take the horse to be a symbol of Republican Spain, then Picasso seems to be saying farewell to it - although the war was still going on, Franco's forces were in ascendance and would win. Picasso probably intended the horse as a universal symbol of human suffering, with certain particulars representing Gernika or Republican Spain. For example, some have thought that the myriad notches in the creature's hide, like the marks someone makes on a prison wall to chronicle the passing days, are meant as notches for each person who died in the Gernika raid. That, like so much else about the work, is pure speculation. Picasso did not discuss Guernica, and resisted the reductive analyses of others.

Fallen Warrior

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The fallen warrior is terrifying. The expression - so simple a child could have made it, the sort of criticism that Picasso interpreted as a compliment - has the power of a drawing made by a disturbed child who is trying to work out some awful trauma, perhaps a sexual assault by a trusted adult. Apparently the warrior has been decapitated, and he is at least partly being crushed by the crumpling horse. Unlike in earlier versions, his fist is no longer thrust upward in the Republican salute, which had been a potential sign of hope or at least defiance. Instead one hand shows fingers splayed and what look like wounds crisscrossing the palm. The other hand clutches a futile, broken sword and a flower, perhaps a symbol of hope and regeneration. But we see that the bent leg of the crumpling horse is destined, probably, to crush the flower and the corpse of the warrior.

The Woman Holding the Lamp

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The woman holding the lamp, the very first form that Picasso sketched with lightning pencil strokes in his first study for Guernica, was said to be based on one of his lovers (he had two women fighting over him during the painting of his mural, which amused him, and he goaded them on). The figure's face radiates a combination of shock and infinite compassion as she looks out on the shattered world where man and beast alike rear and buckle and sob. The light she holds could be construed as a beacon, representing hope, but the light it sheds is on a vista of chaos and death. Compositionally, the light provides the apex of the overall triangular shape that dominates the scene.

A Fleeing Woman?

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I find this woman also to be ambiguous. One the one hand it could be that she is fleeing the bombs and the carnage, and like the other figures she bears what look like slashes, on the one visible palm of a hand and the one visible sole of a foot, suggesting mutilation, perhaps even hinting at crucifixion. On the other hand she seems to be rising up to the vortex of terror at the center of the image, toward the rearing and bucking horse. Perhaps she is on the verge of some effort to soothe or even try to save the immense, tortured beast with its side ripped open and bearing the fatal javelin in its back.

A Falling Woman?

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This figure, too, is ambiguous. Is she falling? Or are the flames consuming her, and is she reaching upward for helping hands that are not there? Terror and bewilderment mark her expression, like those of the others. All the human figures in the scene are women, except for one child of indeterminate gender and the fallen warrior. Possibly Picasso is using the feminine as a metaphor for vulnerability in the face of masculine warfare that has evolved into mechanistic, psychotic and implicitly misogynistic slaughter, an effort by the fascists to destroy the feminine part of the male psyche. The woman’s raised arms could also suggest crucifixion.

One should notice yet one more figure - a crowing cock - in the upper left quadrant, between the braying head of the horse and the enigmatic bull's head. Mostly lost in shadow, a single ray of light provides a horizontal white element on its body, a lighted feather perhaps, that creates a unifying form tying together the heads of the horse and bull.

Composition and Gray Scale

Picasso painted his work in black, white and gray. He was never a colorist, in the way that Van Gogh was, and his cubist work was frequently almost monochromatic. It might have seemed that an obvious way to give the work expressive power would have been to fill it with lurid colors, like the red of blood. But Picasso resisted this. Black and white provide the sharpest contrast of all, and enabled him to make his tormented figures stand out with the immediacy of graphic design.

Despite the white/black contrast, the picture space seems flat, consistent with the modernist concern for avoiding what they saw as the pointless illusion of depth. Although the figures seem to be caught in a hurricane of chaos, and the forms themselves are in some ways chaotically drawn, the composition as a whole has a massive and almost serene stability, because of the great implied triangular shape that dominates the center of it.

It seems to me that Picasso's figures have the enormousness and immediacy of cave painting:

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Like those images painted on cave walls, or the figures that Michelangelo painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, they have a haunting, almost shamanistic feeling to them. Their ugliness, their contorted and twisting postures and their amazed and terrified expressions emphasize the unprecedented slaughter that they are enduring - as well as the universal theme of human suffering. The figures are ugly in a conventional sense, but the composition as a whole is strangely beautiful. This antinomy of beauty and death also lies at the heart of the bullfight that provides the work with its underlying visual metaphor, and is echoed, too, in the antinomy of white and black that dominates the mural.

These strange figures look like wiverns conjured from coal-black nightmares, like hallucinations spilled from the head of a man twisting and turning in a dreadful sleep while running a high fever. One could imagine some sacred ceremony by the light of torches, in which shamans wearing disguises of the bull and the horse and the horrified women troop past, as part of a secret midnight rite of passage, perhaps an initiation into the mysteries of alchemy.

In the past, artists had painted realistic scenes of death and slaughter on the field of battle. But they had made their pictures at a time when there were no photographs and no movie reels. Picasso had to find a visual shout that would exceed the shrill volume of the images of the destruction that already dominated newspaper front pages. And he had to find a new visual vocabulary to respond to something that, at the time, was truly unprecedented: the deliberate murder of innocent civilians by aerial bombardment.

Picasso finished the work in a few furious weeks of work, and it was installed at the Spanish Pavilion in time for the fair. The pavilion was filled with other works that broadly supported the goal of Republican Spain and opposed Franco, and Picasso’s work was dismissed by the press in Nazi Germany, which suggested that Germans ignore the "Red" Spanish pavilion and especially Picasso's work, which they assured readers was a chaotic and meaningless mess that could have been thrown together by a four-year-old.

Picasso's mural drew a mixed reaction. Some people did not like it because it was not mimetic. Others felt it was not specific enough with respect to the bombardment of Gernika (but remember that Picasso was seeking after the timeless). A few felt that it was too ugly, too offputting, too unbearable, a feeling that only confirmed its power.

Franco's forces won the civil war, and the self-styled Caudillo took power and held it until his death in 1975. The painting grew in stature when it was realized that in addition to providing a cry over protest over what had happened in Gernika, it proved to be prophetic. World War II was just over the horizon, the Nazis were heating up the Holocaust ovens and all sides in the tragedy to come were getting ready to rain death on innocent civilians from the air. Warsaw. Rotterdam. London. Dresden. Hiroshima. Nagasaki.

During the war, Picasso remained in a Paris under Nazi occupation, and it is thought that only his international celebrity status prevented him from being deported or maltreated. Picasso said that a Gestapo officer once visited him in his studio and saw a photograph of Guernica. "Did you do that?" he asked. Picasso said that he replied, "no, you did."

After the fair ended, the work went on various international tours to growing acclaim, and it ended up at the New York Museum of Modern Art. Picasso had stipulated that the work should eventually find a permanent home in his native Spain, but only after Franco was gone and republican institutions were restored. Franco outlived Picasso by two years. Picasso died in 1973, at 92. He had never returned to Spain.

With Franco gone, the dictatorship ended and Spain again embraced democracy. Guernica was moved to Spain in 1981, where it remains. Since 1937, it has become an icon of anti-war sentiments, and the most well-known painting of the 20th century. It was in the news just a few years ago, when a reproduction of the painting at the United Nations had to be covered up to avoid embarrassing Colin Powell during a speech calling for war with Iraq.

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