Re-looking at Picasso’s Guernica

In September 2017 I finally stood in front of Picasso’s Guernica at the Museo Nacional Centro De Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid. Until this point I had got to know Guernica through books, projections, low resolution online images and print outs. I had missed so much! The bull’s third eye looking directly out of the canvas; the roof tiles intact above the woman leaning out with lamp in hand; a section of the interior wall visible through the same window the lamp bearer leans from revealing horizontal lines. I was able to see drips of paint from the horses gaping, strained mouth that gave the appearance of saliva, whilst drips that hung from the outstretched arm of the lamp bearer showed sweat pouring from her.  Floor tiles became visible along the bottom of the painting.

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Stood in front of Guernica the profound differences in the three women Picasso depicts were illuminated, conveyed through their differing female forms. The mother is shown in a state of utter despair holding her dead baby, her tongue juts out to a point mirroring the horse’s tongue expressing pain and anguish. Her breasts appear soft and uneven marking the many breast feeds given to her child. The lamp bearer leans out of a top floor window. Her arm held strong supporting the lamp, her focus held in front, her breasts are buoyant full and round but the nipples are  weaponised turned inwards. Each forms a piercing point that appears to be moving into attack the hand in her cleavage. The woman in motion in the foreground echoes the orientation of the lamp bearer. Her movement seems laboured, her legs heavy beneath her. Her nipples take on an almost mechanical form, flat plains with rounded nipples stamped on them, machine like in their structure.

The mother, from Reina Sophia’s Rethinking Guernica website.
The lamp bearer, from Reina Sophia’s Rethinking Guernica website.
The woman in motion, from Reina Sophia’s Rethinking Guernica website.

Picasso’s Guernica toured extensively in the first part of its existence, seen first hand by thousands. In this period the canvas was regularly taken off its frame and rolled up. With the passing of time and extensive use some interesting marks have appeared on the surface of the canvas that now add to its texture and meaning. Paint has peeled from the buttocks of the woman in motion leaving lines and marks as if to show the uneven undulations of the skin. Moving down her leg, there is an area at the back of her thigh and outstretched knee where the brush strokes are visible where watered down grey paint has been used to add shading.

Rethinking Guernica

With the help of advanced technology the Reina Sofia have taken the online visibility of Picasso’s Guernica to an extraordinary level. Towards the end of 2017 the museum launched their long awaited website Rethinking Guernica that charts Guernica’s influence.

Transcending the specific event it was based on, Guernica is a timeless, universal symbol, vilifying the implacable and criminal destruction of war, and opening artistic debate on the representation of armed conflict.

Rethinking Guernica comprises two extensive resources including a Chronology which covers the period from 1936 – 2017 and their Gigapixel system exploiting the latest imaging technologies. The Gigapixel area of the site provides four different detailed views of Picasso’s Guernica. These distinct views take advantage of a range of imaging technologies: visible light, ultraviolet light, infrared and x-ray imaging. It is important to see this use of technology within art history pushing through from behind the scenes into the public realm, providing the general public with a view of the painting once only for the eyes of museums and gallery professionals.

Journalist Nicola Davis reporting in the Guardian on 17 February 2018 highlights the use of new technologies in the recent finding of two paintings discovered under a Picasso canvas, La Misereuse Accroupie “revealed by x-ray”.  This new discovery presents some fascinating findings with regards to Picasso’s painting practices of working on used canvases – finding inspiration from the forms and composition of the paintings worked into the canvas that lie beneath La Misereuse. The application of new technologies within art history is contributing to the formation of an archaeology for each painting it is applied to. This information can then be used to reveal further information on the socio-cultural context of the painter and the painting – exposing their social lives – and the connections between artists [1].

The chronology on the Rethinking Guernica website consists of 1,958 documents that form a timeline that plots Guernica’s movements and its impact through various remakings. The documentary videos formed as part of the Guernica Remakings research project have been used to represent: Keiskamma Guernica (2010), Guernica, a play (2011) and Remaking Picasso’s Guernica, a banner (2014). The Guernica Remakings book* and postcards are also part of this chronology for 2017.

The team behind the Rethinking Guernica website are also in the process of creating an exhibition which will go on tour further disseminating this knowledge and understanding of Guernica.

*The book Guernica Remakings is available to purchase online.

[1] Some of this content appeared first in the article by Nicola Davis in a quote provided by the author.

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