Analysis Of The Creation And Picasso’s Painting Techniques In Guernica

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The mid-twentieth century saw distinctive movement in conceptual and cubic art coinciding with global political and social unrest. Created by Braque and Picasso, cubism relinquished traditional perspectives of western paintings for more impenetrable works of intricate planes fusing with one another and the encircling area. Picasso exemplified continuity between these two aspects of art: style and message. In Guernica Picasso uses cubism and symbolic images showing his anti-war feelings. Artwork means many things to many people and academics have debated Guernica and its controversial significance, subtlety and use of imagery. This paper examines circumstances of its creation and using the Study Diamond, analyses the effects, techniques, context and meaning. Additionally, it will research strategies used, stimulating different emotions, how they mirrored painful feelings of repugnance and fear war creates, whilst reflecting upon past and current contexts of spectators, and how functions and meanings of one piece of art can change. 

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With the 1936 outbreak of civil war, Spain’s newly elected government became liable to attack from extremist overthrow. Supporters remained faithful to General Franco’s legislature, whose assurances to Spain had been prosperity and stability, only delivering death and destruction. The Spanish Republic had commissioned Picasso to create a mural for the 1937 World’s Fair in Paris. Picasso procrastinated in starting work, however, upon learning about unfounded Nazi bombing in the Basque town, Guernica, ordered by Franco, began work refracting the symbols exhibited in an apocalyptical picture of annihilation and protest against fascism, creating his most acclaimed painting. Picasso (1945), states: ‘No, painting is not interior decoration. It is an instrument of war for attack and defence against the enemy’, illustrating Picasso viewed Guernica as a compelling political artwork. Moreover, it is a history painting, a striking delineation of a singular event with an underlying anti-war theme. Recognised for his emotive artworks, rather than portraying the bombings or politics Picasso’s focal point centred on humans and animals in fear and disarray created by war in realist terms. Initially resembling a confused mass of body parts, when reading progressively slower spectators view a scene contained inside a room; overlapping unequivocal distorted figures with arms extending outwards; the distressed woman holding her dead child; the horse’s mouth aghast with fear; a scene of ghastliness and frenzy orchestrated compositionally into three discrete segments linked centrally by a triangular shape and a beam of light. This confusion mirrors the day when “the force of exploding bombs had thrown the inside of virtually every house into the open air”. Emotional intensity originates from the overwhelming size, 11 feet tall by 25 feet wide. Its narrow monochrome palette of black, white, and grey accentuates the severity of the scene creating a level of abstraction for the spectator, on one hand, adding suggestions of a torn newspaper photograph on the other. Differentiating hues bring out aspects of tension, drawing spectators’ attention to important areas. 

Contrastingly the left of the picture uses darker shading, whereas the centre is lighter given a hand of a woman glancing through a window holding a lamp. A sense of movement from right to left derives from the large head and arm extending out of the doorway on the right, mirrored by the position of the horses’ head leading to the bull’s head on the left, and the smaller figure beneath the large head extending its neck upwards towards the light. The symbolic images and distorted figures relevance in the painting are difficult to comprehend, as Picasso’s work typically characterises images with several contradictory meanings. Some commentators warn against trusting the political message as two elements have previously figured the rampaging bull, whether as a bull or minotaur, and the horse. Asked to clarify his symbolism, Picasso remarked, ‘It isn’t up to the painter to define the symbols’ and ‘The public who look at the picture must interpret the symbols as they understand them’ (Rowlandson, 2007). Above the horse are light sources from the light bulb and an oil lamp insignificant within the work and arguably playing a symbolic role. Ironically, the exploding light bulb, a modern element is not a light of hope or light of life but serves as a light of destruction symbolising bombs threatening Guernica during the assault. Art historian Llorens (2017) notes, “In Spanish, an electric bulb is called ‘bombia’ and ‘bombia’ is like the diminutive of ‘bomb’. So, ‘bombia-bombia’ is a verbal poetic metaphor for the terrifying power of technology to destroy us,” Picasso’s Guernica bears spiritual value and some commentators have discovered various iconographic associations with Christian traditions. Apostolos-Cappadona (1992) even observed links between the work and the Isenheim Altarpiece, suggesting the woman in the lower right-hand corner functions as a Mary Magdalene figure. Revelation, not necessarily the correct phrase for some, yet Guernica could point people towards a new way of being human in the face of evil. It is difficult to perceive arts fuller meaning if we discount its function of social protest. 

Artwork can be an effective form of protest against disparity, atrocity, or inequality. The shading, style and structure used in Guernica have influenced craftsmen in reproductions of artwork and sculptures, speaking of the works continuing power today. Imitations have pointed out other international regions of contention. Iraqnica, mirrors Guernica’s effect. Therefore, after reviewing all source materials on Picasso, this later work appears to be symbolic, highlighting the ferocity, inhumanity and brutality of the Iraq war. Guernica’s meaning has changed throughout the years. Sources, reviewing interpretations given on its art history context, suggest the anti-war message is similarly as strong. Contrastingly historical and social settings have changed. During Franco’s reign, he needed to suppress dissenting voices among Spanish people to remain in power. Controversially throughout this period, the painting collectively with Picasso’s will stipulated the artwork could not return to Spain until democracy became restored, drawing international attention to Franco’s fascist dictatorship and keeping Guernica’s legacy alive. When tyranny ended, the painting returned to Spain. 

Today rebuilt with a Peace Museum based around different interpretations of peace the painting offers a more reflective meaning of engaging with events. Crucially, Guernica’s meaning has changed from anti-war to pro-peace painting. Hensbergen discusses how ‘subtly over the years, Guernica has reinvented itself changing from being a painting born out of war to one that speaks of reconciliation and the hope for an enduring world peace’. Guernica’s functions and meaning have changed because of changes in world history and in spectators’ insights. 

16 December 2021

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