Picasso’s Guernica

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Pablo Picasso’s Guernica was created in 1937 in response to the aerial bombardment of the civilian population of Guernica in northern Spain on 26th April 1937. The area attacked is in the Basque region, in the local language the spelling of the town is Gernika. This moment in the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) is captured in Picasso’s Guernica; a cacophony of suffering crammed into a single image. General Franco’s fascist allies from Germany and Italy joined this bombing raid and other assaults in support of his leadership of the military coup in Spain (1936-39). This attack on Guernica was part of the terror campaigns that were honed and developed throughout the Spanish Civil War. Xavier Irujo notes:

“[T]error campaigns were nourished by propaganda leaflets and radio messages that – while making no direct reference to the atrocities that were being committed – emphasised the destructiveness of the air units and the importance of enemy cities to resist them. Following this logic , on April 27 all three allied commands, Spanish, German and Italian, requested the complete surrender of the Basque troops under threat of bombing Bilbao in the same manner.” [1]

The terror campaigns were devised with the purpose of demoralizing the civilian population. The technologies used on the people of Guernica were refined and subsequently employed on civilian populations throughout the Second World War, including people in London during the Blitz.

Franco later became the fascist dictator of Spain and ruled from 1939 to 1975. Picasso was one of many Republican supporters living outside of Spain, overtly critical of the nationalist military coup. Franco used art and design to reinforce his nationalistic rhetoric through tight controls on education and the media in Spain, propaganda was rife purporting nationalist ideals. Interestingly Franco requested Picasso’s Guernica to go to Spain on a number of occasions, it is thought he wanted to push it into obscurity. Picasso refused to allow his anti-fascist work to be silenced. Notably he stopped the painting from going to Spain until “a genuine Spanish republic had been restored” consequently Guernica did not go to Spain until 1981.

Guernica a rallying cry

Picasso intended for Guernica to function as a rallying cry, a call to action to stand up against fascism. During 1938 and 1939 the painting toured England. In January 1939 the price of admission to see Guernica at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in London “was a pair of boots, in a fit state to be sent to the Spanish front”[2] this was to help those in support of the democratically elected Republican government of Spain fight on against the military coup. These boots were lined up at the base of the painting. The painting then continued its fund raising mission for the Spanish Refugee Relief Campaign in America for the remainder of 1939 before it went on exhibition around the country starting in New York in May 1940. [3] The late 1930s tour of Guernica was part of a larger appeal to raise awareness of the growing humanitarian crisis in Spain and to generate funds for the food ships that were being sent to relieve the suffering of the Spanish people.

Guernica the postcard

Since the painting’s completion in 1937, Guernica has been reproduced and recreated in many forms and for a range of different purposes. Notably Guernica was reproduced from very early on in its creation. The photographer Dora Maar came to Picasso’s Paris studio regularly throughout Guernica’s development. Picasso began his preparatory sketches on the 1st May 1937 and Maar visited regularly from the 11th May until 4th June 1937 photographing Guernica throughout its creation.[4] Picasso was able to see how his very large canvas worked on a much smaller scale through the medium of photography, whilst also documenting the painting’s metamorphosis – a phenomenon Picasso was interested in.[5] Ultimately the image of Guernica circulated widely in hand held form as a postcard. Interestingly a postcard of Guernica has entered into Picasso legend. During World War Two when the Germans occupied Paris (1940-44), Nazi officers would regularly visit Picasso in his studio. The story goes that a Gestapo officer picked up a postcard of Guernica and asked Picasso: “Did you do this?” Picasso responded: “No, you did!” This story demonstrates the power of Guernica even in its hand held and mass-produced form.

[1] Xavier Irujo, Guernica 1937 The Market Day Massacre. Reno: University of Nevada Press. 2015: 68.

[2] Gijs Van Hensbergen, Guernica a Twentieth Century Icon.London: Bloomsbury. 2004: 95.

[3] Genevieve Lipinsky de Orlov, “Original Stretcher for Picasso’s Guernica Rediscovered in MoMA Storage.” 7 September 2016. Accessed 19 May 2017: https://www.moma.org/explore/inside_out/2016/09/07/original-stretcher-for-picassos-guernica-rediscovered-in-moma-storage/

[4] Concha Calvo Salanova, “Reportage sur l’évolution de «Guernica» (Photo Report of the Evolution of “Guernica”).” Museo Nacional Centro De Arte Reina Sofia. Accessed: 19 February 2017:

[5] Ibid.

For more information on Picasso’s Guernica see Gijs Van Hensbergen’s book: Guernica a Twentieth Century Icon. For a comprehensive investigation of the bombing of the town see Xavier Irujo’s book: Gernika 1937 The Market Day Massacre.