Guernica by Picasso – What Do These Bizarre Faces Portray?

Guernica by Picasso - What Do These Bizarre Faces Portray?

Have you ever come across a painting that depicts war?

Which art pops up when you hear “the most famous war painting?”

Of course, Guernica by Picasso!

Pablo, as a painter, expressed the outrage of the Spanish Civil War that took place in 1936–1939.

One of the famous Spanish artists who gave the world a piece of horror has been witnessed by countless people.

But when you take a look at the painting, various questions cross your mind.

Does it really depict war? What gives the artist the inspiration to paint in such a way?

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With the aim of answering each query and coming up with a crystal clear meaning about the painting, this blog covers the entire scenario that led to the creation of Guernica by Picasso.

How about we start with the artist who gave us the opportunity to write this blog?

1. A Prolific Artist

Portrait of Pablo Picasso who created the painting Guernica
Image: cloudinary

Pablo Picasso’s name is on the tip of our tongues as soon as we hear “name one famous painter.”

He was an artistic genius, a pioneer of different art movements, a person who had the ability to make his artwork speak for itself, and whatnot!

Picasso gained mastery over many art movements and is the only artist whose name is attached to one of his periods—Picasso’s Blue Period.

He explored various cubist works and was counted among the top five surrealist artists.

Apart from paintings, Picasso put his hands on sculptures, prints, designs, ceramics, and other public works.

There are many famous paintings by Picasso, with Guernica taking the top spot among his cubist works. During his time, he was well respected for his ability to create work that left people speechless.

But what made such an artist create a painting of war?

2. Guernica – Creation or Commission?

What if I told you that the painting started as a commission and ended as one of Picasso’s most renowned works?

This journey has a small backstory.

In 1937, Picasso received a commission from the Spanish Republican Government to paint the largest mural for the Pavillion of the Spanish Republic.

The motive was to bring awareness among the people and raise a good amount of funds.

Picasso, who was least interested in this commission, somewhat started his initial sketches from January to April.

The news of the bombing of Guernica made poet Juan Larrea visit Picasso and evoke an urge to showcase it as the main subject of his painting.

Days later, he read about the attack by one of the eyewitnesses to the bombing, which made him think about Larrea’s suggestion.

This led to the creation of Guernica the painting, which took place at the home of Picasso.

But what exactly took place during that period that influenced Picasso, the painter of Guernica, to portray a picture of a war?  

3. An Act of War – A Tragic History

Image of news and the destruction cause the village which is also shown in Guernica by Picasso
Image: artincontext and getty images

Bombing of 26th April, 1937

A normal Monday for the Guernica people turned into a tragedy when Nazis bombarded the whole place. 

Hitler’s powerful German force acted as a support for Franco, which eventually resulted in the bombing of the village of Guernica.

According to some tales, it was Guernica’s Market Day, and a large number of people were gathered before the attack. 

There was no room to escape due to the destruction caused to the roads and bridges.

This resulted in the deaths of a few people as they had to face the bombing that was occurring continuously in the village.  

The Germans had the concept that transportation routes and troops were the primary targets, which included the military.

The Guernica men were away fighting for the Republicans, which means the bombing mainly caused damage to women and children.

The depiction of women and children was common in Pablo Picasso’s paintings, and this artwork gave him the opportunity to showcase them accordingly.

According to Picasso’s opinion, the attack on women and children strikes the heart of humanity and portrays the weakness of their souls.

Guernica is not a piece of art that should be glimpsed; it’s a work that should be observed, which wraps you in its meaning and larger-than-life figures.

The painting is unique as it challenges rather than accepts the war as a heroic conflict.

We already learned why Picasso painted Guernica, but what we didn’t learn were its aspects that brought attention across the world! 

4. What Do The Figures Symbolize?

The essence of the painting lies in the meaning of the figures that are represented to the viewers.

When you first glanced at Guernica by Picasso, what thoughts crossed your mind? 

It’s an image of war that shows utter pain, distress, or despair, right? 

You must have a common thought with the wide open mouths of all the figures, which make a sound like screams.

The painting gives an idea of what the war scenario looks like. 

Each character has their own unique way of adding life to the Picasso painting of Guernica.

A 1937 battle that gave a horrific view is something that shook people from inside.

Let’s look at what the figures want to say with the symbolism they carry! (left to right)

a) The Bull

There are certain elements that are significant and describe the culture of one’s country.

The bull shows the importance of Spanish culture.

With the human-eye the bull represents nationality, which makes the art fall into Spanish Civil War painting.

It also seems to guide the mother, who is shown below the bull with her dead child on her lap, like a huge shadow in the war.

Remember, the motive of Guernica by Picasso was not to describe the scenes from the Basque city but to act as an assertion against the brutality.

b) Lightbulb

Picasso, as an artist, was brilliant at depicting things metaphorically.

If you notice, there is no trace of a bomb in the painting; instead, the lightbulb gives a new meaning to Guernica Picasso artwork.

The placement of the bulb at the top, which illuminates its surroundings, gives a vision of what the blast must look like.

Picasso, as an artist, was brilliant at depicting things metaphorically.

If you notice, there is no trace of a bomb in the painting; instead, the lightbulb gives a new meaning to Guernica Picasso artwork.

The placement of the bulb at the top, which illuminates its surroundings, gives a vision of what the blast must look like. 

How can a lightbulb signify war? Picasso would make people think in a way that no one else could. 

He compels his viewers to create a perspective on a particular object that is way beyond reality. 

With his interpretation of showing the bombing of Guernica in the form of a lightbulb, Picasso addressed his point!

c) The Dove

Spot the dove in the main painting; you couldn’t, right?

This is because it is hardly visible to the naked eye but has a meaningful significance.

The dove symbolizes the scream of escape from the carnage.

It gives perspective to the fact that not only humans but animals were also stuck in the war with a desperate urge to escape.

As it was a market day in the village, various animals were also present during the bombing.

The dove represented the feelings that those living beings had at the market. It was none other than a feeling to escape trouble and save ourselves from the tragedy. 

d) The Horse

Another Spanish cultural symbol—the horse!

We heard what the bull wants to say in the painting; now it’s time to know about the other important element that brings the culture to light.

If you give it a closer look, the sword is drawn across the tongue of the horse with a cry for help.

The body of the horse is represented as a newspaper print that gives the viewers an idea of where Picasso heard the news of the war.

His legs squash the man below his feet, which leaves the audience with two interpretations.

Either the horse is the victim, or it can be an attacker, as we observe that the man has a sword in his hand.

There is also one personal insight that crossed my mind, which is the chaos that must be created during the war.

The chaos that made each living being rush to save their own lives, shoving the other person, is clearly depicted through the horse in the painting Guernica.

e) Oil lamp and flowers

Where are the oil lamps and flowers? Did you notice? 

Yes, you guessed it right!

The oil lamp is in the hand of a man beside the horse, and the flower is in the hand of the man below the horse.

But the question is, “What do these things represent in the picture of war?”

Picasso has the most interesting way to portray things in his artworks.

He knew what could captivate the eyes of the viewer or add more meaning to the artwork.

The oil lamp gives meaning to the artist’s mindset, where he showcased the lightbulb as destruction.

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It is a sign that brings light to the bombing of the war that is going to occur.

If we look towards the flower, which is more translucent, it depicts the hope that the man carries within himself.

A wish that cannot be fulfilled and is slowly fading away is what the flower signifies.

These small details in Guernica by Picasso made it the most famous cubist artwork of all time.

f) The Woman

We noticed a woman who was just below the bull with her dead son on her lap.

The picture symbolizes the scream of a mother for her dead child, who is in pain and suffering.

Another brilliant Picasso technique was the way he rendered the tears that can be seen in even her eyes. 

It is believed that Guernica Picasso’s portraits resemble those of Dora Maar, who was given the title “the weeping woman.”

Another woman could be examined in the right most side of the painting Guernica (Picasso), where her extended arms and a frozen yell symbolize the torture she was in.

The artwork has an authentic feel to it, surrounded by flames that depict the explosion of a bomb. 

g) The Man with Sword

The only figure in the Picasso painting who is lying down on the ground is the man with a sword below the horse.

Although his body is limbed off, he still holds the broken sword, which resembles his fight against the war.

He symbolizes the heroic attempt towards the battle, which gives Guernica meaning.

A warrior who gives his last breath for the people of his country is what the man depicts in the picture. He was a true soldier who didn’t care about his life when it came to protecting his country. 

But why is Pablo Picasso’s most famous painting in monochromatic form?

5. A black and white frame: Visual Interpretation

The symbols that each figure carries somehow bring a lot of clarity to understanding Guernica by Pablo Picasso. The artist was great at making his art intense and leaving his viewers stunned.

Picasso, well- known for his surrealist paintings and abstract artworks, gives a realistic touch to his pieces of art.

But what explanation can be given to this Pablo Picasso artwork in a monochromatic theme? Is it because of the depiction of war, or is it because of the reflection of Picasso’s other theory? 

a) Why is there no color in Guernica?

This question has a deep meaning that reflects the theory and mindset of Pablo Picasso.

A history painting that denounces a bloody war without showing any ounce of red blood in the piece explains what?

From Picasso’s eye, a painting that adds colors to the art makes people look and observe, whereas monochromatic art makes people think.

It basically creates a story in the viewer’s mind that makes them think about what would have happened during that period of time.

Picasso wanted his admirers to dig into the truth behind the picture, feel the pain that is dripping from each character’s face, and form an opinion about how it must’ve been to witness such a harsh view in front of them.

The choice of a black and white frame made this anti-war a famous Picasso painting.

The thought of not looking at the picture passively and instead imagining the terrible moment created a different perspective.

He even mentioned earlier that colors are secondary in his paintings; the structure and portrayal of things are the keys.

b) Technique used

Now that we know the reason why there are no colors in Guernica by Picasso, let’s get to know some Picasso art styles as well.

Do you observe the traces of newspaper over the painting?

It was one of the styles used by Picasso (before color newsprint was introduced) to show the viewers how the news of the bombing stressed its immediacy.

Design and colors are an artistic debate that was common among Renaissance artists.

Picasso used the grisaille technique to illustrate the visual cry of anguish of the Spanish Civil War.

The two styles of art—Cubism and Surrealism—could be examined through Guernica by Picasso.

If we talk about the art materials used in Picasso’s Guernica, then that would include oil-based linen and jute canvas.

6. Does Guernica by Picasso have a second meaning?

Image of Guernica by Picasso that have a second meaning
Image: theculturetrip

You must be wondering why I have included this topic in the blog. Does Guernica by Picasso really have a second meaning?

The answer is yes!

A university lecturer, Jose Maria Juarranz de la Fuentes, claimed that the artwork Guernica depicts the life of the artist.

The Picasso war paintings are believed to be the three key moments of his life.

The three moments include: Malaga, the Andalusian earthquake during his childhood, relationship issues, and the suicide of his friend Carles Casagemas.

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The thoughts that must have crossed your mind would be how the figures depict these three events in Picasso’s life.

Let me tell you how:

The horse is suggested to be emblematic of his first wife, who is often depicted as an animal in his other works.

The scream and war depict the earthquake that he experienced during his childhood days. The tragedy was harsh and brutal, as he suffered a huge loss in that disaster.

The artwork gives a portrayal of his “Blue Period,” which officially commenced when the news of his friend Carles Casagemas’s suicide came into the air. 

The blue period resulted in the creation of various famous artworks, including The Old Guitarist, which is also a representation of Picasso’s life and struggle.

7. Controversies and Recognition

Image of Guernica by Picasso which is examine by few people
Image: thoughtco

Who makes an artwork famous? You, as an individual, as a viewer, and as an admirer of the painting. 

Controversies and recognition always shed light on the painting, which put it on different paths over the years. 

Picasso never gave a personal interpretation of Guernica and denied the claim that it was associated with politics. 

However, he created a heavy political work that cannot be ignored and became a symbolic protest for peace.

It is also known as the symbol of Spaniards following Franco’s death and Basque nationalism.

Since then, Guernica in Spain has become a universal and powerful warning against inhuman activities.

Works inspired by Guernica by Picasso

  • The American People Series 20: Die is a painting created by Faith Ringgold in 1967 that has a reflection of Picasso style.
  • Goshka Macuga’s The Nature of the Beast was inspired by Guernica, which was used by Whitechapel.
  • In 1950, a film with the same title Guernica was released by Alain Resnais and Robert Hessens.
  • René Iché created a sculpture under the same name, Guernica.

Even the Spanish Republicans sent Guernica on a tour to create awareness about the war and raise funds for refugees.

It traveled for almost 19 years, which included European and American tours, and reached its final destination, the Reina Sofia, a national museum of modern art, in Madrid.

The question mark over ownership of Guernica made the painting one of the most controversial artworks.

But what was the controversy over ownership?

Pablo Picasso Guernica was intended to be a gift for the people of Spain, but ownership of the painting led to disagreement.

He never considered the art a material for sale; instead, Picasso himself chose to display Guernica all over the world.

The reason for considering the Guernica Picasso painting a sale was because the Spanish government gave him 150,000 francs to help pay expenses in creating Guernica.

The Spanish government believed that Guernica by Picasso was an acquired or commissioned painting.


Where is Guernica by Picasso?

The painting is on display at the Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid.

Among all the famous artworks, Guernica reveals the harsh truth about the incidents that were common during war.

The death, misery, and faces that depict suffering are what Picasso artist wants to portray.

We could surely name Guernica as an anti-war icon with powerful emotions!

Hi Readers

Done with the blog, “Guernica by Picasso?”

What are your views on the history and consequences that led to the creation of this amazing artwork?

Tell us your insights through comments, or you can also write to me at – [email protected].

Make the best use of your words and deliver your feedback to us!

See you soon in the next blog!


What is the message of Guernica by Pablo Picasso?

The primary message that Guernica conveys to its viewers is a protest for peace and a warning against inhumanity.

What are the measures of Guernica?

The size of Guernica by Picasso is 3.49 m by 7.77 m, which is considered among the largest murals in the world.

Who bombed Guernica?

The German air forces bombarded Guernica at the request of Spanish nationalists.

Why is Picasso’s painting called Guernica?

Picasso gave the work the name Guernica because he depicted scenes from Guernica after it had been attacked by Nazi aircraft.

Is Guernica Picasso’s largest work?

Guernica is the biggest and most famous work of Picasso’s entire career.

Does the Guernica painting belong to abstract art?

Some art critics consider Guernica an abstract work by Picasso, despite being a cubist artwork.

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