My first thoughts are probably what Picasso might have wanted. I see pain, fear, death, dying and destruction. People and animals. Superficially striking and provoking a deep uncomfortableness.
Having never seen this painting before and not knowing that this actually references the mass bombing of a Spanish Basque town by the right wing dictator Franco, in 1937, the overall message is clear. Guernica, I now know, is a town in Northern Spain which was known to be a base for the republican forces. In 1937 German and Italian troops carried out a mass indescriminatory bombing, destroying the town completely with up to 1645 people killed, including a large number of women and children.
How do you convey the horrors of something like that? I think Picasso does that very well. Why, and how, took a bit more thought.
The monochrome greys and blacks I think echoes the black and white photographs of the day. The record of the event and many other war horrors that were documented in this way. It also gives it a seriousness, a gravitas, demanding sombre attention. There are textures of a newspaper to suggest that this relates to current events – hot off the press. black and white ink and again this was the main method of communication. How Picasso himself would’ve heard about the events.
I am drawn first to the mother and lifeless baby. Ultimate pain. Personal reflection as a parent. The pain on her face is real. There may be some religious implication of mother and child.
The lightbulb I find interesting. This takes centre stage in the upper canvas – the apex of a triangle of light. Although the lightbulb and the surrounding jagged flash appear indoors I see that this signifies the bombing. Bombs coming from the planes above the people and animals. There is a thought that this represents the evil eye with the candle light held by one of the women next to this being the good ‘eye’, which Picasso has painted as the stronger light, to signify hope and good overcoming evil.
The overall composition is well thought out. Most figures either form a triangle in their own shape or form part of the larger triangles of composition, in line with cubist pronciples. The geometric shapes take your eye around the whole painting and combine what would otherwise be isolated figures into a unified scene.
It is a powerful antiwar message. It warns of the reality of actions and decisions of those in power – in retrospect, the beginnings of many horrendous war time crimes that were to be committed in Europe. It was in retrospect a warning.
The overall canvas must be breathtaking at 8 x 3.5 m in size. I believe it is now held in Madrid. I’m not sure if I would want to see it, with the emotional attachments, but I think it is an amazing picture and commend Picasso’s public defiance at a very risky time.