Guernica and witnessing suffering

Pablo Picasso’s Guernica expresses suffering. Witnessing suffering is a subject Picasso has explored again and again throughout his work, notably through his numerous depictions of the bullring. Often the images of the bullring show the crowd looking on at the bull and the horse entangled, as the horse screams out in the throws of death. In Picasso’s Guernica the human, animal and bird figures are caught in a moment of incredible violence and we the viewer become witness to their suffering, a part of the suffering – implicating all who see Guernica in the atrocity taking place.

Picasso’s Guernica travelled far and wide from 1937. It functioned as a rallying cry to raise the awareness of the plight of the Spanish people enduring the Spanish Civil War, it helped to highlight the aerial bombardments being carried out by the combined Fascist forces of Europe in Spain. Guernica was also a call to action.  As it toured it helped to raise funds and to encourage food donations to be sent to Spain. Guernica toured to the UK in 1938 and 1939.

Guernica 1937, Pablo Picasso. Courtesy of Peter Horree / Alamy
Guernica 1937, Pablo Picasso. Courtesy of Peter Horree / Alamy

Guernica Remakings exhibition tour, 2019

The Guernica Remakings exhibition is touring to the north of England to the Working Class Movement Library in Salford opening on 31 January – 20 March 2019.  This exhibition is timely and marks the 80th year from the display of Picasso’s Guernica in Manchester, in a car showroom, 1-15 February 1939. Unique to this installation archival material held at the Library will be incorporated alongside Salford artist Claire Hignett’s moving work recording the moment the Basque Refugee children stayed in Salford in 1937. The material on display from the Library archive focuses on: 1939 when Picasso’s Guernica came to Manchester and the organised relief efforts by the British people to help those starving in Spain and the Spanish children’s refugee camps established in and around the local area in 1937.

Witnessing suffering

Picasso’s preparatory sketches for the commission that became Guernica included a theatrical stage – a set design. These sketches were poignantly displayed opposite Picasso’s Guernica as part of the exhibition Pity and Terror, Picasso’s Path to Guernica at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia 5 April – 4 September 2017. The phrase the ‘theatre of war’ has a particular resonance here, acknowledging all of those who have a part to play in conflict; those that can be seen on stage and those who are known to be involved but are out of sight and off stage. Those who view the image become the fourth wall, completing the scene – there to witness, acknowledge and amplify the suffering.

Picasso was asked about the figures depicted in Guernica and who they represented on a number of occasions, he refused to fix their meanings and didn’t align the figures with distinct political affiliations. This ambiguity has not remained within more recent reworkings of Guernica. In Vasco Gargalo’s 2016 illustration Alepponica the bull becomes Russian President Putin with his war planes hanging in the air, the horse is America’s then President Obama fatally injured, Syria’s President al-Asad holds a missile in his outstretched arm and a suicide bomber stands arms outstretched just behind a spilt barrel of oil. For more information about the relationship between Syria and the bombing of Gernika see the post

Aleppo(nica), 2016, Vasco Gargalo
Aleppo(nica), 2016, Vasco Gargalo

For more information about the relationship between Syria and the bombing of Gernika see the post Syria reflections of Guernica.