Watching the recent events in Afghanistan unfold in the headlines, I’ve been thinking about how important it is to humanize far-away tragic events — and the unique ability of artists to do so.
Picasso’s monumental painting “Guernica” — more than 25 feet wide — is a powerful example of this. It’s not only a piece of art but a piece of history, capturing the horror of modern war in a modern style.
The painting (which has been recreated, in this photograph, on a wall in the Basque market town of Guernica itself) depicts a specific event. On April 26, 1937, Guernica was the target of the world’s first saturation aerial-bombing raid on civilians. Spain was in the midst of the bitter Spanish Civil War (1936–1939), which pitted its democratically elected government against the fascist general Francisco Franco. To quell the defiant Basques, Franco gave permission to his fascist confederate Adolf Hitler to use the town as a guinea pig to try out Germany’s new air force. The raid leveled the town, causing destruction that was unheard of at the time (though by 1944, it would be commonplace).
News of the bombing reached Pablo Picasso, a Spaniard living in Paris. Horrified at what was happening back in his home country, Picasso immediately set to work sketching scenes of the destruction as he imagined it…
The bombs are falling, shattering the quiet village. A woman howls up at the sky, horses scream, and a man falls to the ground and dies. A bull — a symbol of Spain — ponders it all, watching over a mother and her dead baby…a modern “pietà.”
Picasso’s abstract, Cubist style reinforces the message. It’s like he’d picked up the bomb-shattered shards and pasted them onto a canvas. The black-and-white tones are as gritty as the newspaper photos that reported the bombing, creating a depressing, sickening mood.
Picasso chose universal symbols, making the work a commentary on all wars. The horse with the spear in its back symbolizes humanity succumbing to brute force. The fallen rider’s arm is severed and his sword is broken, more symbols of defeat. The bull, normally a proud symbol of strength, is impotent and frightened. The scared dove of peace can do nothing but cry. The whole scene is lit from above by the stark light of a bare bulb. Picasso’s painting threw a light on the brutality of Hitler and Franco. And, suddenly, the whole world was watching.
The painting debuted at the 1937 Paris exposition and caused an immediate sensation. For the first time, the world could see the destructive force of the rising fascist movement — a prelude to World War II.
Eventually, Franco won Spain’s civil war and ended up ruling the country with an iron fist for the next 36 years. Picasso vowed never to return to Franco’s Spain. So “Guernica” was displayed in New York until Franco’s death (in 1975), when it ended its decades of exile. Picasso’s masterpiece now stands in Madrid as Spain’s national piece of art.
With each passing year, the canvas seems more and more prophetic — honoring not just the thousands who died in Guernica, but the 500,000 victims of Spain’s bitter civil war, the 55 million of World War II, and the countless others of recent wars. Picasso put a human face on what we now call “collateral damage.”