Guernica is a masterpiece created by Pablo Picasso in 1937. It is a painting done in oil on a mural sized canvas of 3.5 m (11ft) in length and 7.8 m (25.6 ft) in width. The colours used in the painting are blue, black and white and can be considered an amalgamation of epic and pastoral styles. The art piece currently resides in the Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid, Spain.
Guernica is regarded to be Picasso’s most essential political painting. It still remains to be a relevant work of art as a symbol of protest. It is an icon of modern art and is equivalent to the Mona Lisa of our time. Similar to the Mona Lisa, which Leonardo da Vinci used to evoke an ideal of serenity and self-control prevalent during the Renaissance period, Guernica comments on Picasso’s idea of what art can actually contribute in terms of liberation and self assertion of every human being. It also speaks about how art can protect the individual against overwhelming forces such as war and political crime, death and much more.
There are various existing interpretations of the painting. While the central pictures of the bull and the horse remain relevant with traditional Spanish tradition, the other imageries of the mother with the dead child, the pigeon signifying broken peace, the kneeling injured woman and the woman in the oil lamp along with the begging man all signify aftermaths of the horrors of war. The gray, black and white setting of the mural is also meant to indicate newspaper print as the source for Picasso’s knowledge of the incident.
Guernica is a town located in the Biscay province of Basques Country, 30 km east from the city of Bilbao. The city of Guernica has been a significant focal point for the people of the Basque country. The Gernikako Arbola or "the tree of Gernika" in Basque, is an oak tree that symbolizes traditional freedom for the people of not just Biscay province, but also the people of Basques. Guernica was not only regarded as the identity of Basque but also its spiritual capital. It was also considered to be the northern bastion of the Republican Resistance Movement and a centre for culture for the Basque community. This made it a significant target for the enemies. The bombing was carried out under the orders of the nationalist rebel faction headed by Generalisimo Francisco Franco. Their allies, the Condor Legion of the German Nazi Luftwaffe and the Aviazione Legionara of fascist Italy completed the task.
It was one of the first war crimes committed against civilians and the repercussion against it was unprecedented. It was the first war crime that received huge mass media attention and till this date, the total number of casualties caused by the bombings remain a matter of dispute. The 26th of April 1937 was a Monday and the weekly market day in Guernica. That afternoon, German and Italian bombers dropped over 500 pounds of explosives on the town, followed by planes dropping incendiaries burning at 2500°C. Most buildings in Guernica were deemed uninhabitable by evening. Different reports came out identifying varying numbers of civilians killed. While the Basque Government identified 1,654 casualties, nearly half the number was claimed by the Soviet Archives on the 1st of May 1937. No matter what the numbers are, they still do not take into account the number of people who died post bombing due to injuries. The importance of the bombing also lies in the terrifying message it sent to the world, saying that the Global Fascist powers were ready to unleash the terrible aerial weapon on the civilians. The bombings of Guernica served as a prelude to the 1940 Carpet bombings of European cities.
Picasso was staying in Paris at the time of the bombings, looking for an inspiration to paint something. It is told that certain ups and downs and the Spanish Civil war had severely affected his process. In January 1937, Picasso was given a commission to make a large mural at the 1937 Paris World’s Fair for the Spanish Pavilion. He worked reluctantly on the mural for four months, however upon hearing reports of the bombings on 26th April, he was approached by poet Juan Larrea and was urged to make the bombings, the subject of his mural. After a few days, on the 1st of May, Picasso read the eyewitness account of the bombing by George Steer. Thus he eventually abandoned his initial idea of the mural and acting upon Larrea’s advice, started working on bringing out the horrors of the bombing through his painting.
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