What emotion did you feel the first time you saw Picasso's Guernica? Perhaps curiosity or fascination, and maybe even surprise, given how different the painting looks from everything else in a museum or an art-history textbook. There was almost certainly a dash of confusion as well, but you probably didn't feel the kind of shock you would have if you had learned what many of its early viewers did. Just what gave Guernica its early impact is the central question of the animated TED-Ed video above, written by humanities scholar Iseult Gillespie. "How can we make sense of this overwhelming image," asks its narrator, "and what exactly makes it a masterpiece of anti-war art?"
Finding the answer requires going back to April 26th, 1937, when "Fascist forces bombed the Basque village of Guernica in Northern Spain. It was one of the worst civilian casualties of the Spanish Civil War, waged between the democratic republic and General Franco’s fascist contingent." For Picasso, it sparked the "frenzied period of work" in which he created this 25-and-a-half-foot-wide modernist mural named for the ruined village. Guernica's "monumental canvas is disorienting from the start, rendered in the abstracted Cubist style Picasso pioneered." That style "afforded viewers multiple and often impossible perspectives on the same object; a technique considered shocking even in Picasso’s domestic scenes."
All great works of art unite form and substance, and here Picasso used a shocking technique to render shocking material: "The style offers a profoundly overwhelming view of violence, destruction, and casualties. Multiple perspectives only compound the horror on display — sending the eyes hurtling around the frame in a futile hunt for peace." But the eyes find only a horse run through with a spike, a screaming woman holding a dead child, a villager about to be consumed by flames, and the helplessly broken statue of a soldier. "Each of these figures bordering the painting are horribly trapped, giving the work an acute sense of claustrophobia. And where you might expect the canvas’ massive size to counteract this feeling, its scale only highlights the nearly life-sized atrocities on display. "
A lifelike depiction of such a scene would be more difficult to look at, but the aesthetic Picasso used, which at a modern viewer's first glance might appear cartoonish and even humorous, makes Guernica much more haunting in the long term — a term that has exceeded 80 years now, during which the painting's considerable power has grown more subtle as the events of the Spanish Civil War have grown distant. "Like the bombing of Guernica itself, Picasso’s painting is dense with destruction. But hidden beneath this supposed chaos are carefully crafted scenes and symbols, carrying out the painting’s multifaceted attack on fascism." Yet it was also simple enough to rile up the Gestapo, one of whose officers barged into Picasso's apartment in occupied Paris, pointed at a photograph of Guernica, and asked, "Did you do this?" No, the artist replied, "you did."
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.