Explore the symbolism behind Picasso’s painting “Guernica”

As one of the most famous artists in the history of Western art, Pablo Picasso is known for his remarkably prolific career which spanned 79 years and included several disciplines. In particular, his paintings have undergone several stylistic evolutions such as cubism and surrealism, reflecting the artist’s permanent need to push the limits. And while many of Picasso’s paintings are known for their pioneering appearances, only one is known for its powerful anti-war message: the 1937 painting, Guernica.

Measuring approximately 11 feet tall and 25 feet wide, this massive piece of work is visually striking in its scale, composition, and unusual grayscale palette. Its dark subject was fueled by the Nazi bombing of the Basque town of Guernica in northern Spain during the Spanish Civil War. The work was then used by the Spanish government to help raise awareness about the war and raise the necessary funds.

Here we will learn more about the historical context in which Guernica was made before analyzing the anti-war symbolism within the painting.

Who was Picasso?

Photo by Pablo Picasso

Photograph by Pablo Picasso, 1962 (Photo: Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Picasso (1881 – 1973) was a Spanish child prodigy who began his creative career at the age of thirteen. As he continued to make art, his realistic and academic approach to painting waned, while other, more imaginative styles became increasingly important. His work can be traced through eight different periods: realist, blue period, pink period, African, cubism, surrealism, neoclassicism, and later works. Picasso used each of these distinct approaches to explore aesthetics, figurative subjects, emotions, and reality. He is considered one of the most influential figures in modern art.

Commissioning Guernica and its historical context

Ruins of Guernica

Photograph of the ruins of Guernica, 1937 (Photo via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0 de)

In 1937, Picasso, who lived and worked in France, was commissioned by the Spanish republican government to create a work of art for the Spanish pavilion at the upcoming Universal Exhibition in Paris.

Meanwhile, Spain was in the midst of a civil war between Republicans and Nationalists. The Basque town of Guernica was one of the bases of the republican movement, as well as a center of Basque culture. For this reason, the city was targeted by nationalists assisted by the Nazis and bombed on April 26, 1937, for two hours.


Shortly after the tragedy, Picasso was encouraged by a close friend to make the attack the purpose of the commission. Picasso immersed himself in reports of the atrocities and, horrified by the state of his home country, began working on a large-scale painting based on the event.

The piece was completed in just 35 days.

Analyse of Guernica

Guernica - Picasso


Since the commission was originally intended to be a mural for the World’s Fair, Guernica was designed as a very large canvas (approximately 11 feet by 25 feet). Picasso opted for a matte house paint so the room had little to no gloss, and he chose a limited palette of black, gray, and white to mimic the effect of black and white photography.

Guernica represents the after the bombardment in a contained space. From left to right: a distraught mother mourns her dead child; a bull rises above his shoulder with a blank or shocked expression; wounded horse screams in pain as dead soldier is trapped under his body; two women watch the scene in amazement; and another woman is trapped in a fire and screams.


Guernica (Picasso)

As part of Picasso’s later work, Guernica exhibits qualities from different stylistic periods, but more particularly, cubist and surrealist characteristics. The range of different human and animal subjects is spread across the entire canvas, their shapes distorted into dreamlike versions of themselves. Most the numbers overlap, creating more shapes and narratives in these additional spaces.


Picasso, Pablo (1881-1973) - 1937 Guernica (Prado, Madrid)

While the anti-war message of Guernica is clear, the specifics of the painting’s symbolism are still debated among art historians. The bull and the horse, for example, are both important subjects in Picasso’s work, but have also been theorized as important figures who perhaps embody people or ideals.

Others have pointed out that using grayscale gives the impression of desolation and torment and the crowded and chaotic composition means oppression. Likewise, the torsion shapes of bodies have been interpreted as a expression in the face of adversity, fire is seen as the destructive power of war, and the dismembered arm holding the broken sword is representative of the people defeat.

Picasso said of the symbolism of the painting: “It is not for the painter to define the symbols. Otherwise, it would be better if he wrote them in so many words! The audience viewing the image should interpret the symbols as they understand them.

Legacy of Guernica

led mural

After Guernica, it was used during the World’s Fair to raise awareness of the Spanish Civil War. The painting was later sent to the United States to help raise funds for the Spanish refugees. Picasso said that Guernica was not to be returned to Spain until she had reestablished a republic. Finally, in 1981, the monumental piece was transferred to its country of origin.

Today it can be seen at the Reina Sofía Museum in Madrid.

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