BBC NEWS | UK | Magazine (2023)

Pablo Picasso's monochrome painting of the 1937 bombing of the town of Guernica remains one of his more famous works. The tapestry version just unveiled at London's Whitechapel Gallery usually sits at the UN, acting as a powerful visual statement against the horrors of war. But there is much meaning beneath this famous work, writes Picasso expert Gijs van Hensbergen.


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It is the horse that takes centre stage in this apocalyptic knacker's yard where nothing seems to make any sense. Are we in a bull ring, a village square or a plywood theatre set?

The horse's screaming dagger-shaped tongue and its death-head nostrils focus our attention directly on the terrible pain and suffering that pulls us repeatedly back to witness the horror. If this is a bullfight it has gone horribly wrong, defying all logic of the corrida.

No horse is ever run straight through with a spear in a plaza de toros, as the horse of Guernica has been. In an early version, hidden under layers of paint, Picasso had bent the horse's head down to the ground in submissive defeat.

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Operation Rugen took place on 26 April 1937 during Spanish Civil War

German and Italian bombers allied with nationalists pounded town in Basque country held by Republicans

Deaths estimated between 200 and over 1,000

Much of town flattened

Bombing brought to international attention by Times journalist George Steer

Here, in the final version, even in its dying moments the horse remains defiant. It may be the last gasp but down to the right of its crooked knee a plant sprouts a few anaemic leaves as the only symbol of hope. Did the horse represent the Spanish people, Picasso was asked? He refused to answer.

Throughout the history of painting the horse has become the universal symbol of man's companion in war, understood by every culture. Guernica was a horrific example of saturation bombing - not the first, nor the last. From Coventry to Dresden, from Hiroshima to Baghdad, people have forged a powerful empathy with this fatally wounded horse.

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The Bull, of all the protagonists in the painting is the only one that remains calm and dispassionate. Picasso was quizzed if the bull represented the Spanish dictator Franco but the truth appears far more complex. With its statuesque head, and lozenge eyes it watches the drama unfold.

In many depictions of artists in their studios, most notably Velazquez's Las Meninas and Goya's Family of Charles IV, both in the Prado, and known to Picasso from his early youth, the artist anchors the left border of the masterpiece.

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Normally hangs at UN

At Whitechapel Gallery to mark reopening

Donated to UN by Nelson Rockefeller in 1985

In lead-up to Iraq war, tapestry was covered by blue cloth for US media conference

Although denied, critics said this was because of anti-war message

More variations in colour compared with painting

Throughout the 1930s Picasso had increasingly depicted himself in the guise of the bull and the minotaur, half-man, half-bull. In his Vollard Suite of etchings, again and again the potent minotaur violates, rapes, caresses and treats with tenderness his beautiful, voluptuous, female victim.

Picasso loved in-jokes, secrecy and the rituals of ancient Mediterranean cultures. Fascinated by the Roman cult of Mithraism and the ritual slaughter of the bull by the Sun God Mithras, Picasso places the bull's head between a jagged naked light bulb, a crowing cock and a screaming mother - the Virgin Dolorosa (paraded through every Spanish street during Holy Week).

What are we to make of Guernica's confusing compendium of images weighted so heavily with religious content? The Bull watches the sacrifice. If it is Picasso is it a mere impotent witness? Or, is it the cause of this tragedy?

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Early on, in the first few days of painting Guernica, Picasso placed his own self-portrait - recognisable by his characteristic swept-over hairstyle - in the position of this decapitated bust. Turned over, with his gaping mouth to the sky, the final version becomes a kind of "everyman".

Some see in the smashed bust, severed arm and broken sword, which frame the base of the painting, distant echoes and memories of the horrific earthquake that rocked Malaga destroying 10,000 houses in Picasso's early childhood. It is possible. Picasso had an extraordinary memory and throughout his life kept all the gates to his deep and fertile subconscious wide open.

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Born 1881 in Malaga, Spain

Studied in Madrid

First visiting in 1900, Picasso spent much time in Paris

Helped create Cubism but worked in several styles

Died in 1973, aged 91

At his father's knee, in Malaga's Cafe de Chinitas, he would have heard the story of the Arab fakir Ibrahim al-Jarbi, sent to kill the Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella in the final desperate days of the Christian reconquest of Spain, after 750 years of rule by the Muslims. Al-Jarbi was caught, chopped into pieces and catapulted over the walls of Malaga's Arab fort.

It was an epic legend that was repeated in Malaga like a mantra and would have fired the imagination of any impressionable young boy. But the source is perhaps closer to hand.

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Just months before painting Guernica, Picasso had been asked to create a series of prints to raise funds for the Republic. The Dream and Lie of Franco is a savage attack by Picasso on Franco's regime. Portrayed as a swollen monster, Franco proceeds through a series of scenes to desecrate and destroy all in his path, including a classical bust.

As director of Madrid's Prado gallery, in exile, Picasso felt a deep loathing for the military machine that was prepared to visit indiscriminate violence upon his people and bomb the Prado, while also peddling propaganda about the Republic's alleged war on culture.

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The mother screams and screams, but nothing will bring her child back. No god and no amount of divine intervention can breathe life back into the limp rag doll. Her dress has fallen off her shoulder, the swaddling clothes of her child open up to reveal a range of stubby little toes.

Everywhere we look across the painting we see gesture - fingers like sausages, hands carved with lines and an array of clasping, grasping fists. Her grief has depersonalised her. Her eyes are tears. Her tongue a dagger pointing up to the Bull's steaming nostrils.

For Guernica, Picasso produced almost 70 preparatory works that included sketches and paintings, many in black and white but some in dramatic colour. An early sketch for Mother and Child - which travels the entire history of the image including Michelangelo's Pieta - showed the mother and child descending down a ladder.

Picasso, as the Prado's director in-exile, knew the collection inside out. No artist, or anyone with sensibility, could fail to be drawn to the museum's extraordinarily poignant Descent from the Cross by Rogier van der Weyden - arguably, the greatest Christian image ever created.

Picasso, as was his will, cannibalised it and gave us this pathetic timeless image of an inconsolable woman that we see repeated today in the newsreels transmitted from Gaza, Rwanda, Bosnia and Sudan.

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Picasso's life while painting Guernica represented the worst period in his life. His mother and sister still lived in Barcelona and it was impossible to know where Franco might bomb next.

Picasso's personal life in Paris had become immensely complicated. His wife Olga Khokhlova, a Russian ballet dancer, had become increasingly unhinged as she discovered the artist's infidelities, and wished to sue him for half his estate. This included his works of art - some unfinished, others his working archive.

His suppliant mistress, Marie-Therese Walter, a Grecian beauty less than half his age, had given birth to their daughter Maya and was farmed out to the country for weekends away. Into the empty space came Dora Maar - a dramatic dark-haired beauty, who was as exotic and erotic as an artist could ever ask for.

He first met her on the terrace of the Deux Magots cafe in Paris staring deep into his eyes as she stabbed her fingers through her gloves playing dare with a knife.

In many ways Dora was his intellectual equal. She took photographs of Guernica in progress and also, as it happened, painted many of the markings on the flank of the dying horse.

One day, unexpectedly, Marie-Therese came up from the country to see Picasso in his Paris studio. He was up the ladder painting and Dora was in the room. The fight between the two women was left to run its course by Picasso, who transferred it and distilled it into the image we see today.

Three women at war, three graces, three fates, three women mourning at the cross, all readings are viable. But we must also remember that the woman holding the torch we have seen before - she is Liberty leading the people and, of course, Bartholdi's Statue of Liberty - a copy of which Picasso passed every morning in Paris while walking the dog.

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Gijs van Hensbergen is the author of Guernica: The Biography of a 20th Century Icon.

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Guernica is the most moving anti-war painting I've ever seen. It's rightful place was in the UN building, so that everyone who passed it whilst holding a nations peace in their hands, would be reminded of the horror war brought on civilian life.
Linda Docherty, Giffnock

The lightbulb deserves deeper exploration as a very important item in this painting, recalling the electric eye of the modern age which made the whole world audience to the Guernica atrocity. Secondly, it is certainly indicative of the technological magic which made possible such startling military abuses. This is consistent with cubist/modernist/futurist fascination with war as the ultimate expression of human power and tendency to use creation for purposes of destruction.
Charlie LeBel, Paris, France

I have always thought that this was a very unsatisfactory painting. Picasso was not a political man and this work of art seems to be the work of someone who is being forced to make a statement about something he does not really feel. It does not move me.
Roger, Verona, Italy

What always comes to me when I see this picture is the noise.
John McCormick, Northampton

Guernica resonates with every generation - from the nightmarish qualities of the twisted bodies frozen in time to the flower of hope clutched in dying fingers. Does man ever learn that war is futile - or are we destined by our leaders to repeat our mistakes in some kind of macabre symphony, each succeeding movement more devastating than the next?
S Matthews, Erie, Pennsylvania USA

Once Picasso was asked by a German military official "Haben Sie das gemacht?" (Did you make this ?). He replied: "Nein , das haben Sie gemacht." (No you made it).
Roel, Krakau

Guernica stands as one of the most powerful indictments of the human cost of war. It still has the power to shock, as noticed when it was covered up at the UN headquarters in New York just before the start of the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Phil Brand., London, England

A note on setting: All of these very Spanish characters seem to have run downstairs. On the upper right hand corner we see the bombs going off like lightning at the top of the staircase, a glimpse of the bombs going off, the lightbulb about to go out, the ceiling ready to cave in. Downstairs, their bomb shelter, was more like the wine cellar of a typical Tapas bar, the warmth of wood, the wine rack behind the horse. Besides the wood, lightning from the bombing probably rendered this colorisation, opaque and frighteningly orange. These very "Spanish" characters have made their mark through history, mythology and art. The horse, a symbol of their conquests on other lands, could probably be Rosinante, if the fellow underneath the horse is Don Quixote, with armor and broken spear. The bull is panting, with its tongue hanging out. The only reason it stands stoically is because it has nowhere else to go. The Virgin and Child are in the pose of Stabat mater dolorosa, rather than the Virgin holding baby Jesus. The Three Graces are naked and ashamed. With the representation of such popular symbols, perhaps Picasso was telling us how the massacre of a small town was the violence Franco inflicted on the whole land, the destruction of her people, her art and her history.
Jackie Pike, Austin, Texas USA

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