Next to the Demoiselles d'Avignon, Picasso's most important work historically is Guernica (now in the Museum of Modern Art, New York), named after the Basque town destroyed by an air raid on April 26, 1937. The very title of this canvas, chosen by the painter himself, as well as its large size (11 feet 6 inches by 25 feet 8 inches) and the circumstances of its first public showing (about which more later) emphasize its special character. Juan Larrea, who devoted an extensive monograph to it, justly praises it as "the most famous painting of our time. No other picture portrays and defines our age so completely."
We shall make no attempt here to substantiate this judgment which, considering our closeness to the work, cannot pretend to be more than an anticipation or intuition. We shall confine ourselves to defining the place Guernica occupies in Picasso's development; in doing so we shall also gain some insight into its exceptional artistic importance. We begin with a brief description of the painting, which will serve as the basis for a discussion of its genesis and an interpretation of its contents.
The canvas shows a shallow space like that of a stage. Its left half, illumined by a large lamp, suggests an interior; the burning house with several openings in the right half produces the illusion of an outdoor scene. The central figure, which belongs to both halves of the picture, represents a horse, pierced by a spear, collapsing on its knees. In front of the horse we see a dead warrior, clutching the hilt of a broken sword in his right hand, near which a small shoot rises from the dark ground; his head and left arm occupy the extreme lower left of the canvas. A half-clothed female figure, gazing upward, seems to crawl from the right toward the horse. Above her a screaming woman leans from the window. Her enormous profile is turned toward the center; the outstretched arm with the lamp, and the hand and the breasts in the window are hers.
At the extreme right, in front of the crumbling wall of the burning house, and partly covered by wreckage, there is a third woman, surrounded by flames, with a fearfully deformed head and reaching arms. To the left of the horse, the largest figure is a bull in an aggressive attitude. Its head is turned sidewise, and its tail is upraised; its body seems curiously to merge with a table that recedes diagonally to the right. Above the table is the outline of a bird with stretched neck and open beak. In front of the bull there is a woman with a senseless child in her arms; her face with its open-mouthed grimace is turned heavenward.
The flat composition follows a strict triangular design. The lamp in the woman's hand is the apex of this equilateral triangle whose right side is formed by the woman approaching the horse, and the left by the hind part of the horse and the dead warrior on the ground. The woman with the lifeless or sleeping child, the bull, the bird, and the large lamp, as well as the house with the leaning woman and the burning woman, are outside the triangle, to its left and to its right. The predominant formal means are the flat elements of Synthetic Cubism of the 1920s, which are used in a particularly characteristic manner in the treatment of the horse. While the bull's head, and to some extent the human heads, are shown in the multiple views of Cubism, the oversized limbs of the figures at the lower ends of the canvas are reminiscent of the elephantine forms of the period between 1920 and 1923; and while the Expressionistic human faces mark the continuation of a graphic development begun a short time earlier, the horse's head is treated Cubistically and with relative realism.
Nevertheless, this work which represents formally a synthesis of various periods is unified in its total effect, not least thanks to the sober, "abstract" coloring—black, gray, and white— which is in keeping with the tragic events portrayed here and with the Spanish spirit of Picasso. The painting is not, however, devoid of delicate coloristic effects, since there is a subtle contrast between the diluted yellowish tonality of the natural canvas and the sometimes blue-gray mixture of black and white pigments, on the one hand, and the whitegray-black scale of the background, on the other hand. For instance, the warm effects seen in the bulb and the rays around the large almondshaped white lamp and in the hair of the screaming woman are set off against her bluish flesh tones; and curiously enough, the flames around the burning woman at the right are also in cold tones.
As for the genesis of the composition: if we set aside its emotional, intellectual, and artistic antecedents, we must distinguish two main stages—the preliminary studies, and the revisions made on the canvas itself. Picasso had been commissioned to paint a representative work for the Spanish Pavilion of the Paris World's Fair as early as January 1937; he had not yet begun it when the news of the bombing of Guernica gave him the idea for the painting. On May 1, that is, a few days after the air raid, he prepared the first preliminary pencil sketches on blue paper.
The drawing reproduced here is the earliest of about seventy known studies connected with Guernica. It contains the most important motifs of the final version—the dying horse at the center, the bull at the left, the bird above his back, the tower-like house at the right, and the woman with the outstretched arm in the window. Moreover, one or two human figures lying on the ground and a kneeling figure to the right of the tower are summarily indicated. On the same day there also reappears the dying horse of the drawings dated two decades earlier, and on the following day the upraised head of the horse receives a clearly defined and deeply moving form in several drawings and a study in oils.
At the same time Picasso progressively clarifies the formal structure of the composition, although he is still primarily concerned with the choice of motifs to be portrayed. The woman holding the light approximates her final state; the fallen warrior lying under the horse and clutching his weapon is drawn more distinctly, and in one of the studies a small winged horse is seen emerging from the wound of the larger animal. A horizontal study directly preceding the work on the canvas already shows the picture space framed by architectural forms, as well as the triangular patiern of the composition and the distribution of tones. At the center of this study there is a wheel, presumably of symbolic significance, and on the ground there are the heads of several victims; one of these heads, like the head in the twelfth scene of the Franco series, is within the outline of the horse.
After May 8, Picasso worked intensively on the kneeling woman with the child to the right of the horse. Then, as the work progressed she was split up into two separate figures—a woman who occupies the same place as the woman in the finished picture (but without the child), and a woman with a child to the left of the bull. A woman with a child on a ladder appears only tentatively in drawings of May 9 and May 10; she is later replaced by the burning woman before the house.
The painting itself underwent radical changes in May and June. We can follow them with the help of eight photographs taken by Dora Maar. A comparative study of these, which cannot be undertaken here in detail, gives us interesting glimpses of Picasso's method of working.
Particularly revealing is the first state of the drawing on the canvas, because it shows a number of auxiliary compositional lines entirely independent of the motifs. These lines helped Picasso to orient himself on the enormous surface and to determine the place and dimensions of each figure, and they have partly been preserved in the final state as lines separating the "color" planes. The central axis, probably one of the first lines, if not the first, that the painter drew on the empty canvas, indicated the altitude of the compositional triangle, the apex of which is formed by the light held by one of the women.
The right side of his triangle, too, is indicated as an abstract line and the triangular patterns next to the burning woman on the right are developed from earlier representational forms. Here, the bird is at the right, lying on his back on the ground. Otherwise the right half of the canvas is substantially the same as we see it in the final version, except for the changes mentioned in connection with the preliminary studies. But the left half went through several mutations: least changed is the woman with the child at the extreme left, most changed is the bull, who originally extended from the center of the picture to its left border. The hind part of its body was to some extent covered by the horse, and by the enormous upraised arm of the dying warrior on the ground.
In the second state, this arm is treated symbolically, with the raised fist holding laurel branches in an aura of light. Subsequently this arm is entirely eliminated, and all that remains of the aura is the large eye-shaped light source, inside which a bulb was later inserted as a "pupil."
In the fourth state, a crucial regrouping has taken place. While in the previous states the horse's head was bent down and enclosed by the contours of its body, now Picasso has decided to paint it as it appears in the study of May 2, i. e., to disentangle it from the chaotic mass of the body parts, and to secure for it a dominant effect by placing it under the large lamp against a dark background. This compelled him to swing the body of the bull a full 180 degrees to the left, and to represent it foreshortened. As though anticipating this change, he had, already in the third state, placed a crescent in the empty space of the upper left corner; the form of the crescent now appears in the bull's tail.
The gap between the bull's head and the horse's head was filled by the curious "table" that lies in half shadow; above it was placed the bird, which in the first state had been lying on the ground at the right. The white strip cutting across it was part of the bull's back in the previous states. Finally, the dead warrior holding the broken sword (the other human figures lying on the ground which were shown in the preliminary studies have now been eliminated) has completely changed his position in the course of the progressive stages. Only the fist with the hilt of the sword and the little plant growing above it have remained in the same place. All these formal changes refute the assertion made by Raynal in his most recent book about Picasso: "Guernica no longer displays a reflective search for form; here Picasso completely surrenders to his emotion."
In interpreting the contents of Guernica we must proceed on two levels at the same time. Some of the motifs and episodes can be accounted for realistically as showing the consequences of the bombing of defenseless people and animals: such motifs, for instance, are the woman with the child and the woman falling into the flames. Other elements seem to be allegorical or at least susceptible to several interpretations; for instance, the large lamp above the horse's head is characterized as an earthly source of light, but at the same time the saw-tooth rays endow it with a metaphysical meaning. Just as in the case of the Minotauromachy, it would be erroneous to try to interpret Guernica point by point, as though it were a rebus. In conversations with an American painter in 1944 and 1945 Picasso explicitly denied that his works, including Guernica, were conscious symbolic allusions to specific persons or political events. Only after a long discussion did he concede the possibility of unconscious political references.
With this in mind, let us try to elucidate, as far as possible, the meaning of the picture. We shall begin with the central figure, the horse. We cannot agree with Larrea, to whom this horse symbolizes the death of Spanish Fascism, and thus Picasso's wishful thinking. Such an interpretation is contradicted by the fact that the horse in Guernica certainly has the sympathy of both the painter and the beholder. As we have seen, this has always been the case in Picasso's works, including The Dream and Lie of Franco etched in 1937. It is true that in the last scene of the series Picasso portrays the end of "Franco" as the death of the horse gored by the bull; but this "horse" is not a real horse, as is proved by its Surrealist head, which is not the head of a horse.
Next: The Bull in Guernica
Pablo Picasso, Cubism, Pablo Picasso Biography, Picasso Paintings, Picasso Drawings, The Blue Nude, Don Quixote, Enamel Saucepan, Evening Flowers, Femme A La Fleur, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, Spanish Art, The Dream, The Pigeons, Guernica, Musse, Bull with Bullfighter, Mediterranean Landscape, Nude and Still Life, Toros y Toreros, Mother and Child, Girl with Red Beret, Frau Mit Turban, The Bathers, The Lesson, The Old Guitarist, Three Bathers, Violin and Guitar, Lovers, Evening Flowers, The Kitchen
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