Picasso’s Guernica: A Legacy beyond Aesthetics

Many would argue that the best works of art aren’t just about aesthetics. The best works are about expression, making a statement, taking a stand. They tell a story to the viewer, they communicate an emotion, a legacy. They can be the statement of an era, of a society, and sometimes even agents of change. As a matter of fact, this is rare to find, but this is why Picasso painted Guernica and indeed succeeded. Spray-painted in murals, wielded on anti-war banners, and even once hung as a tapestry at the United Nations, Pablo Picasso’s Guernica might be the world’s most famous political artwork.




Guernica is a mural-sized oil painting on canvas by Spanish artist Pablo Picasso completed in June 1937, at his home in Paris. The painting, now in the Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid, was done with a palette of gray, black, and white, and is regarded by many art critics as one of the most moving and powerful anti-war paintings in history. The painting was created in response to the bombing of Guernica, a Basque Country village in northern Spain, by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italian warplanes at the request of the Spanish Nationalists.

In January 1937, the Spanish Republican government commissioned Picasso to create a large mural for the Spanish display at 1937 World’s Fair in Paris. At the time, Picasso was living in Paris, where he had been named Honorary Director-in-Exile of the Prado Museum. He had last visited Spain in 1934 and never returned. His initial sketches for the project, on which he worked somewhat dispassionately from January until late April, depicted his perennial theme of the artist’s studio. Immediately upon hearing reports of the 26 April bombing of Guernica, the poet Juan Larrea visited Picasso and urged him to make the bombing his subject. However, it was only on 1 May, having read George Steer’s eyewitness account of the bombing, that he abandoned his initial project and started sketching a series of preliminary drawings for Guernica.

Due to both Guernica’s antifascist message and Adolf Hitler’s personal aversions to modern art, the official German guidebook for Paris International Exposition recommended against visiting Picasso’s piece, which it called “a hodgepodge of body parts that any four-year-old could have painted.”

When the fair ended, the Spanish Republic toured the painting throughout Scandinavia and England to raise awareness and for their cause. In 1939, however, they gave up to the Nationalists. Picasso refused to allow the painting to rest in Spain under Franco’s rule, declaring that “the painting will be turned over to the government of the Spanish Republic the day the Republic is restored in Spain!”.

Fearing the Nazi occupation in France, Picasso gave Guernica to the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which toured the painting throughout the United States and elsewhere. As the painting traveled, it became more famous, leading to a heated debate on Picasso’s art and literary sources, working process, and the symbolism of its subjects, among other topics.

Following the death of Franco and years of negotiations between Spain and the United States, finally returned to Spain in 1981, where it was housed in the Casón del Buen Retiro, of the Prado Museum in Madrid. In 1992 the painting was moved to the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía Spain’s newly established national museum dedicated to 20th-century art, where it rests even today. The move was controversial, as it defied Picasso’s desire that the painting is hung among the Prado’s great masterpieces.

From 1985 to 2009, the United Nations adorned the entrance of its Security Council with a tapestry reproduction of Guernica. In February 2003, Secretary of State Colin Powell delivered a televised speech on site at the UN, testifying in favor of America’s imminent declaration of war on Iraq. A large blue curtain covered the tapestry during Powell’s speech. Conflicting reports attributed the decision to obscure Guernica both to journalists thinking the violent imagery would be unpleasant for viewers of the broadcast, and to the Bush Administration deeming the display of such a recognizable antiwar painting inappropriate for the backdrop of Powell’s promotion of military action.
As Picasso remarked himself, “I have always believed and still believe that artists who live and work with spiritual values cannot and should not remain indifferent to a conflict in which the highest values of humanity and civilization are at stake.” This is a fascinating example of how art goes beyond aesthetics to a social-political statement of its own. The Guernica has been used as a symbol in many protests across the world. Indeed, the power of the paintbrush must never be undermined!


Image Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/adam_jones/



  1. https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-guernica-picassos-influential-painting
  2. https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2018/aug/22/spaniards-fret-about-picasso-guernica-archive-1978
  3. https://www.pablopicasso.org/guernica.jsp



Guernica – movie (2016)

Leave a Reply

Recommended Posts

%d bloggers like this: