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.
THE WOUNDED HORSE
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.
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.
Return to top
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.
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?
Return to top
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.
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.
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.
Return to top
THE MOTHER AND CHILD
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.
Return to top
THE THREE WOMEN
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.
Return to top
Gijs van Hensbergen is the author of Guernica: The Biography of a 20th Century Icon.
Send us your comments using the form below.
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).
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
The BBC may edit your comments and not all emails will be published. Your comments may be published on any BBC media worldwide.
|E-mail this to a friend||Printable version|
What is the American version of BBC? ›
The BBC is watched/listened to by all British people, while PBS and its radio arm, National Public Radio, are only watched/listened to by a subset of Americans. What is the full form of VNSGU?Is BBC a newspaper or magazine? ›
|Digital logo from 2022|
|Founded||14 November 1922|
|Headquarters||BBC Television Centre (1969–2013) Broadcasting House (2012–present), London , England|
You can read BBC News articles and watch BBC News videos online on the BBC News website. If you're signed in to your BBC account, you'll also be able to see local news for your area in the Local News tab.Can Americans subscribe to BBC? ›
You can try BBC Select for free for 7 days. After the free trial, the subscription price is just $4.99 per month. Restrictions apply*. Follow the instructions below for how to get BBC Select in the US.How can I watch BBC for free in USA? ›
- Sign up for one of the VPNs mentioned below (we recommend NordVPN).
- Download and install the app, making sure to get the right version for your device's operating system.
- Connect to one of your VPN's British servers.
- Sign in to BBC iPlayer and try loading a video.
BBC America is an American basic cable network that is jointly owned by BBC Studios and AMC Networks.Does Hulu have BBC? ›
Watch BBC Studios Network Online. Hulu (Free Trial)Is PBS like the BBC? ›
PBS America is a British free-to-air television channel derived from PBS, an American public television broadcaster similar to the BBC and Channel 4.What is the difference between CNN and BBC News? ›
BBC is state owned while CNN is a private news channel owned by Time Warner Company. BBC has a reach in more homes than CNN though CNN is presently seen in more countries than BBC. For many, BBC is a synonym for reliability and efficiency.Is there a BBC magazine? ›
BBC History Magazine is Britain's bestselling history magazine, exploring a broad range of British and global history in an authoritative but accessible fashion. A subscription also makes a great gift idea for anyone interested in Britain's rich history.
Is the BBC a reliable source of news? ›
BBC is a British publicly funded broadcaster. It is considered generally reliable.Can I read BBC News for free? ›
BBC News apps: iPhone, iPad and Android
The app is free to download.
Signing in unlocks a BBC that's personalised to you. And as a public service, it allows us to check we're making something for everyone.Why can't I read BBC News? ›
Android: try clearing the app cache & data
Go to: Settings > Apps > BBC iPlayer and select the Clear Cache option. To clear the app data entirely, select Clear Data on the same page. Then sign back in and try playing a programme.
BBC Select is available on Amazon Prime Video Channels, the Apple TV app and The Roku Channel for only $4.99 a month. Start a 7-day free trial and watch a range of acclaimed documentaries from the BBC and beyond. Restrictions apply*.How can I watch BBC outside the UK? ›
If you download a programme on BBC iPlayer when you're in the UK, you can watch it anywhere in the world. You can download programmes on your computer, or on your mobile or tablet using the BBC iPlayer app.Is BBC America on Amazon Prime? ›
Amazon.com: Included With Prime - BBC America / Prime Video: Movies & TV.Is BBC UK or USA? ›
The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) is the national broadcaster of the United Kingdom, based at Broadcasting House in London, England.What is the difference between BBC America and BBC One? ›
Basically, it's a different site – BBC USA is a cut down version without all the TV streaming capability.Is BBC American or British? ›
One hundred years ago this week, the company that would become known as the British Broadcasting Corporation was founded in London. Transmitting news and entertainment across radio and television, the BBC would go on to have a far-reaching impact on not only the United Kingdom, but also audiences worldwide.
How do I use BBC iPlayer in the US? ›
On the computer it's just a matter of selecting the right country, so to get BBC iPlayer in USA then just select a UK server. In fact, where you actually are is irrelevant, so you can also use it to watch US media sites by selecting a US server too.How can I watch British shows in the US? ›
- Register for a reliable VPN with UK servers. We recommend NordVPN, now 63% OFF!
- Download and install the software.
- Connect your VPN to a UK server.
- Login to the streaming service of your choice. ...
- Search for the show, sit back, and enjoy!
Our distribution rights are fairly limited and are generally confined to dissemination within the United States. While over-the-air broadcasts reach beyond U.S. borders, online video is subject to geo-filtering, which restricts the areas that can view PBS content.Why is BBC shutting down? ›
The BBC is preparing to shut down its traditional television and radio broadcasts as it becomes an online-only service over the next decade, according to the director general, Tim Davie. “Imagine a world that is internet-only, where broadcast TV and radio are being switched off and choice is infinite,” he said.Do people still watch BBC? ›
The BBC's audience has more than doubled in the last ten years. BBC's international news services also reached record levels with 456 million adults using them each week (an increase of 18m). This includes audiences for World Service languages, World Service English, World News TV, BBC.com and BBC Media Action.What is better BBC or CNN? ›
This puts CNN in a dominant leadership position – with a third bigger audience than the BBC (27% reach) and even further ahead of other outlets such as Sky News (24% reach), euronews (20%) and Al Jazeera English (10%). CNN is also well ahead of business news brands such as Bloomberg (15% reach) and CNBC (14%).Does the BBC own CNN? ›
CNN is owned by Time Warner, which is owned by Jeffrey Lawrence Bewkes, an American media executive.Is BBC news well known? ›
BBC World News is the BBC's commercially funded international 24-hour news and information channel, broadcast in English in more than 200 countries and territories across the globe. Its estimated weekly audience of 112 million makes it the BBC's biggest television service.How much is the BBC Focus magazine? ›
Pay just £3.50 per issue!*
Pay just £3.50 per issue when you subscribe to BBC Science Focus by Direct Debit!
Subscribe to our newsletter to get BBC News direct to your inbox, every weekday morning. It's quick and easy to sign up – and simple to unsubscribe if you change your mind. To subscribe you need to be 13 or over and have a BBC account.
What is the difference between BBC History magazine and BBC History Revealed magazine? ›
We launched History Revealed as we felt there was an appetite for a different kind of history magazine to our existing BBC History magazine. Whereas that magazine is aimed at a more history-literate audience, History Revealed appeals to readers looking for a less academic approach to the past.What is the most trusted British news? ›
Research shows that news consumers view it as not only one of the most popular news websites but the most trusted. With 669.1 million monthly visits, it is, hands-down, the UK's most visited news website. Read BBC News here.What is the most trusted news in the UK? ›
Public broadcasters such as the BBC, ITV, and Channel 4 that are required to meet strict impartiality standards remain the most trusted news brands, followed by national broadsheet titles.What channel is BBC News on free? ›
Channel number: 231
The BBC News Channel brings you breaking stories as they happen, with the latest news and analysis, weather, sport and business updates, 24 hours a day.
TuneIn.com offers BBC World News for free across the globe for anyone looking for BBC live news and updates. To begin listening to BBC news live, click the play button below to start streaming. To get additional BBC world news updates or report issues you can follow the links below.Why is the BBC free? ›
Is BBC iPlayer free to use? BBC iPlayer costs are covered by your annual TV Licence. This means that, unlike many streaming services, you do not need to pay to watch BBC TV programmes on iPlayer if you have a licence.Does a BBC account cost money? ›
Signing in is quick, free and easy and you should stay signed in for two years on each web browser or app. Sign in isn't required to watch children's content through your web browser. We need to understand more about what people are watching to ensure we are providing something for everyone.Do you have to pay for a BBC iPlayer account? ›
It's quick, free and easy and means you can sign in across the BBC, add programmes for later, get personalised recommendations and pick up watching programmes where you left off across your devices.Why do I have to keep signing in to BBC? ›
Without signing in, you won't be able to play programmes or choose to benefit from the personalised features that BBC iPlayer offers including adding programmes for later, getting personalised recommendations, and picking up where you left off across your devices.What countries is the BBC not allowed in? ›
As such, the BBC has been banned in both Russia and China, the former following its 2022 invasion of Ukraine and the latter for having "violated regulations that news bulletins should be 'truthful and fair".
Why does BBC News look different? ›
The BBC said it wanted to modernise "all aspects of our services so the experience feels coherent wherever you access our content" adding that it wanted to "join the dots" between the different BBC services "through simplified layouts and graphics".Can I watch BBC on Amazon Prime? ›
BBC Select. Prime Video Channels is the Prime benefit that lets you choose your channels. Only members can add BBC Select and 100+ more channels — no cable required.Is there a BBC channel in the US? ›
BBC America is an American basic cable network that is jointly owned by BBC Studios and AMC Networks. The channel primarily airs sci-fi and action series and films, as well as selected programs from the BBC (such as its nature documentary series).Is there an app to watch BBC News? ›
BBC News apps: iPhone, iPad and Android
The app is free to download. Go to Google Play or the Apple app store to download the official BBC News app.
Watch BBC Studios Network Online. Hulu (Free Trial)Can you get BBC News on Amazon? ›
On Amazon Alexa:
Say "Play BBC News" to your Amazon Alexa smart speaker, and get the BBC's first ever interactive news bulletin. You can hear the latest headlines, deep-dive into the stories that interest you, or move on when you've heard enough - simply by using your voice.
Is BritBox free with Amazon Prime? Whilst you can add BritBox to your Prime Video subscription as a Prime Video Channel, you'll still have to pay for your subscription. That's because adding BritBox to your Prime Video package is the same as adding any other channel like HBO or Showtime.Where can I watch BBC News live for free? ›
BBC iPlayer - Watch BBC News live.Is BBC the only news channel in UK? ›
BBC News (TV channel)
|Launched||9 November 1997|
|Former names||BBC News 24 (1997–2008)|
PBS America is a British free-to-air television channel derived from PBS, an American public television broadcaster similar to the BBC and Channel 4.