Why is this painting so shocking? – Iseult Gillespie


On April 26th, 1937, Fascist forces bombed the Basque village
of Guernica in Northern Spain. It was one of the worst civilian
casualties of the Spanish Civil War, waged between the democratic republic and
General Franco’s fascist contingent. For Pablo Picasso, the
tragedy sparked a frenzied period of work in which he produced a
massive anti-war mural, aptly titled “Guernica.” The painting is a powerful work of
historical documentation and political protest. But while Picasso’s artistic
motivations are clear, the symbolism of the painting can be as
confusing and chaotic as war itself. How can we make sense of this
overwhelming image, and what exactly makes it a
masterpiece of anti-war art? The painting’s monumental canvas is
disorienting from the start, rendered in the abstracted Cubist style
Picasso pioneered. Cubism deliberately emphasized the
two-dimensionality of the canvas by flattening the objects being painted. This afforded viewers multiple and often impossible perspectives
on the same object; a technique considered shocking
even in Picasso’s domestic scenes. But in this context, the style offers a profoundly
overwhelming view of violence, destruction, and casualties. Multiple perspectives only compound
the horror on display– sending the eyes hurtling around the
frame in a futile hunt for peace. On the far left, a woman holding her
dead child releases a scream; her eyes sliding down her face
in the shape of tears and her head bending back unnaturally
to echo her baby’s. There is the statue of a soldier
present below, but he is unable to defend
the woman and child. Instead his broken body lies in pieces, his arm clutching a splintered sword
in a signal of utmost defeat. The tip of his sword meets a woman’s foot
as she attempts to flee the devastation. But her other leg appears
rooted to the spot, locked in the corner of the canvas
even as she stretches to move it. Another victim appears
behind this slouching figure. Falling helplessly as flames
lick around her, she too is caught in her
own hopeless scene. Each of these figures bordering the
painting are horribly trapped, giving the work an acute
sense of claustrophobia. And where you might expect the canvas’
massive size to counteract this feeling, its scale only highlights the nearly
life-sized atrocities on display. Some possible relief comes from a lamp held tightly by a ghostly woman
reaching out her window. But is her lantern’s hopeful glow
truly lighting the scene? Or is it the jagged lightbulb– thought to represent the technologies
of modern warfare– which illuminates her view of
the chaos below? From the coffin-like confines
of her window, her arm guides the viewer back
into the fray, to perhaps the most controversial
symbols of all– two ghostly animals caught
in the destruction. Does the screaming horse embody the
threat of Franco’s military nationalism; or does the spike running through
its body convey its victimhood? Does the white bull represent Spain, the country of matadors and a common
theme in Picasso’s work– or does it stand for the
brutality of war? In this scene of strife, these animals
raise more questions than answers. And additional elements hidden
throughout the frame offer even more secrets for
close observers. At the top of the canvas flashes a bird
desperate to escape the carnage. And the abundance of animals on display
may hint at the bombing’s date– a market day which flooded the streets with villagers, animals, and
other potential causalities. Like the bombing of Guernica itself, Picasso’s painting is dense
with destruction. But hidden beneath this supposed chaos,
are carefully crafted scenes and symbols, carrying out the painting’s multifaceted
attack on fascism. Decades after its creation, “Guernica” retains its power to shock
viewers and ignite debate, and is often referenced at anti-war
gatherings around the world. Hundreds of viewers have grappled with
its harsh imagery, shattering symbolism and complex political messaging. But even without a close understanding
of it’s complicated subtext, Picasso’s work remains a searing reminder
of the true casualties of violence.

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