Exhibited in its own gallery chamber at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia in Madrid, Spain, the 11 feet 5 inches (3.49 m) tall and 25 feet 6 inches (7.76 m) wide huge oil painting on canvas, titled Guernica, is one of the most powerful works of the Spanish artist Pablo Picasso, and is regarded by several critics as the most moving and anti-war painting in the history of art. In 1936, while Picasso was living in Paris, the newly formed Spanish Republican government commissioned him to paint an artwork for the Spanish Pavilion at the 1937 Paris World’s Fair. From January until April 1937 Picasso worked somewhat dispassionately on the initial sketches of the project. But on 1st May, when he read an eyewitness account of the horrible bombing of Guernica in northern Spain, by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy at the request of the Francoist Spain, in the front page of a local newspaper, which was originally published in The Times and The New York Times on 28 April, he discarded his initial idea and began sketching a series of preliminary drawings for Guernica.
In the Spanish Civil War fought from 1936 to 1939, the Republican forces, made up of assorted factions, were united in their opposition to the Nationalists, led by General Francisco Franco, who sought a return to the pre-Republican Spain. At that time, Guernica, a quiet village 10 km from the front lines, and in-between the front lines and Bilbao, represented a focal strategic point for the Republican forces as it was the path of retreat for the Republicans from the northeast of Biscay and the key to bringing the war to a conclusion in the north of Spain. Guernica also became a target of the Nationalists as it was considered as the northern bastion of the Republican resistance movement.
On Monday, 28 April 1937, at around 4.30 pm, warplanes of Nazi Germany bombed Guernica, at the behest of the Nationalists, led by Francisco Franco. During the bombing, the town was populated mostly by women and children, since the majority of the male were away, fighting on behalf of the Republicans. It was a cold-blooded genocide, designed to terrorize the opponents, which continued for more than three hours, when twenty-five bombers dropped 100.000 pounds of bombs, killing around a thousand civilians, reducing the village to rubble. It was one of the first bombings on civilians to capture global attention.
Guernica, painted in a matt house paint represents Picasso’s reparation of the brutal bombing on the Spanish hamlet, depicting the tragedies of war and the sufferings it inflicts on the innocent civilians. It is not easy to decipher the complex composition where the canvas seems to be the stage for death and dying, mixed with the artist’s characteristic Cubist figures and disquieting representation of space.
On the far left of the canvas, there is a partial image of a wide-eyed large white bull that stands over a wailing woman with her head leaned back, holding her dead child in her arms, and screaming in grief and pain. There is a dead man, below the woman, clutching a broken sword in his severed hand, while the rest of his body is obscured by the scattered body-parts of other figures. The centre of the stage is occupied by a terrified braying horse, which seems to be in agony and stumbling over its fallen rider sprawled below and strangely lit by the spiked rays of an electric bulb above. There are three more women on the right.
One of them seems to have floated into the room through a window, looking up at the light bulb at the top of the scene, while another staggers towards the centre, holding a lamp in her extended hand. There is another woman on the far right, appears to be engulfed by fire and screaming in fear. The faces of all the women are distorted in pain and agony.
Nevertheless, there have been endless debates about the inner meaning of the representation of Guernica in the painting. Many critics attributed the horse and the bull to the deadly battle between the Republican resistance force displayed by the horse and Franco’s fascist army represented by the bull. It is presumed by many that the bull probably represents the onslaught of Fascism, and the horse stands for the defenseless people of Guernica. However, it is generally agreed that the grey, black, and white painting portrays the sufferings of the common people and animals by the onslaught of violence, as exhibited with the terrified horse, the screaming woman, the scattered human-limbs, and fire.
When it was unveiled and exhibited in the Spanish Pavilion at the Paris International Exposition in July 1937, Guernica garnered little public attention, while some Marxist groups strongly criticized the artist for his lack of political commitment and failure to offer a vision for the brighter future. However, after it was displayed around the world, Guernica became famous and widely acclaimed.