Art can not be read like a text; it cannot be explained, but it is fascinating to learn how to look at a work of art: Guernica is not just a depiction of an event, but a sequence of extremely complex images that aim at communicating strong emotions. The scene takes place in an enclosed space, with an enigmatic part of tiled roof in the middle. There is a lamp hanging from the ceiling and forming an ellipse with pointed ends that form dark shadows on the wall. After a first impression of chaos, we notice that the work “rests” on some figures with strong emotional charge.
On the left, the mother, crouched on the ground, with a naked bust, holds her dead baby in her arms: a strong image that evokes anguish and death. Her face, pointing upwards, screams all her pain with tear-shaped eyes. The mother who lost her baby expresses an extreme amount of pain towards the bull, a threatening figure that enters the scene from left to right but violently turns its head in the opposite direction, staring at the viewer. It is impassive and oblivious of the pain expressed by the humanity around it. To its right, a panicking bird, surrounded by shadows, with its head stretched up in what seems to be a shrill cry. On the ground, a man with his arms outstretched, with a severed arm, his left hand with strained fingers and his palm full of deep marks, maybe the hand of workman, while the other hand is clenched into a fist and holds a broken sword. Meanwhile, a small flower appears from below. He is a soldier, and his head is also turned upward in a silent cry, with lifeless eyes. In the center, right under the light, a horse, located – unlike the bull – near the man, writhing in pain, pierced by a spear whose tip protrudes from its side. Its body is covered with small black marks, perhaps evoking the fonts of a newspaper. Its mane denotes that its head has turned both to the left and to the right, in a painful movement, and a sharp, penetrating cry comes out of its open mouth. On the lower right a woman drags herself, a knee on the ground, almost burned by some weight. Raising her head in a pleading attitude, she looks wounded. To her right, another woman whose arms are the only thing we can see, rises in a sign of supplication and despair; she seems to be surrounded by flames, perhaps in an attempt to reach the window above her head.
There are three dramatic images of death in three different parts of the painting. Picasso moved them during his preparatory study: the mother, for example, was first imagined while climbing a ladder, almost as a Virgin Mary ascending to the cross of her dead son. Then, in the following iteration, he removed all the colors and portrayed her as a “Pietà” with her son abandoned in her lap below the bull: the maximum of pain versus the maximum of indifference and cruelty!
The fourth female figure is an enigmatic bearer of light that enters the scene as if she was hovering, with a single, long arm holding a torch. Hence, of the six main figures, four of them tend towards the left and help us understand that Guernica should be read from right to left, in reverse, like the world at war Picasso describes.
Picasso decomposes and simplifies the bodies, dividing the three-dimensional space and multiplying the painting’s points of observation: the light bulb indicates that we are in an enclosed space while that part of the roof suggests that we are in an open space outside. A simultaneous vision, an element that typically belongs to the Cubist language, at the same time, conveys the tragic effects of the bombing.
The horizontality of the painting allows us to catch a triangle leading upwards, towards the light: some hope after so much pain?
After a more careful observation, we notice that this triangle highlights a division into three parts of the composition: the left area with the bull, the mother and the baby; the right area with the woman surrounded by flames; and, the central area dedicated to the wounded horse and the bearer of light. The horse has always been the animal that shares with the man his fight against evil, even in bullfights, where the bull represents the brute force against the man who represents the strength of reason.
Here the bull, of which there are a number of preparatory drawings, is separated from the scene and ignores the pain around it; its disquieting look turns straight to the viewer. It has been said that it does not accept drama onto itself, but it sends it back to the world! Indomitable, in its immobility, it threatens humanity with its violence. All that remains of the human world are anguished women and animals! Chaos has upset the world.
This change of Picasso is extremely interesting: initially, in the center of the painting there was the raised arm with the fist, a symbol of republicans, which will later be removed so the work can become a universal symbol against all wars, not just of this era. Picasso has therefore chosen to represent this tragedy allegorically, not using real elements. The exile made this conflict even more painful to him, causing his reaction to be more intense. Picasso decides not to be silent and to react immediately, as Goya had done with his “Les executions du 3 mai 1808, 1814” when he portrays the shooting of thousands of Spanish civilians who had revolted during the French occupation in Spain. The evil that man does to his fellow comrades is the sleep of reason that generates monsters, to mention Goya again. André Malraux wrote about how much Picasso loved this painting by Goya, in which the double illumination was extremely fascinating to him: the diffused light of the night and the precise and brutal light projected by the assassins.
Not only is it important to look at the contents of an artwork, but it is also essential to evaluate the value of its symbols. In this case, it is important to understand why Guernica is an extraordinary icon of peace today. The beauty of these images, even if they express violence and despair, lies in the emotions conveyed and communicated. This is the extraordinary strength and effectiveness of the value of peace to “make the doors of hate fall,” as Neruda writes, about the beauty that gains an aesthetic and ethical dimension.
We will use the words of the artist himself, used in a public statement while working on the painting: “The war in Spain is the reaction against people and freedom. All of my life as an artist has been nothing more than a constant fight against the reaction and death of art. How could one think, even for a moment, that I can agree with reaction and death? When the revolt began, the Republican Government of Spain – legally and democratically elected – appointed me as the director of the Museo del Prado, and I immediately accepted. The panel I am working on, which will be named Guernica, as well as all of my recent artworks, clearly express my horror for the military caste that led Spain into an ocean of pain and death…”
Hence the modernity and universality of his message: the violence of that brutal act involves the whole Western culture and makes us ask ourselves: where is Guernica today, while we face continuous massacres? Where are the voices of artists and intellectuals speaking against the barbarity of war?
“The world is a dangerous place not because of those who do evil, but because of those who look on and do nothing about it” – Albert Einstein
Abstract from the exhibition catalogue by Serena Baccaglini, curator of Guernica. Icon of peace.