What Makes Guernica So Shocking? An Animated Video Explores the Impact of Picasso’s Monumental Anti-War Mural

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.”

Relat­ed con­tent:

The Gestapo Points to Guer­ni­ca and Asks Picas­so, “Did You Do This?;” Picas­so Replies “No, You Did!”

Guer­ni­ca: Alain Resnais’ Haunt­ing Film on Picasso’s Paint­ing & the Crimes of the Span­ish Civ­il War

A 3D Tour of Picasso’s Guer­ni­ca

14 Self-Por­traits by Pablo Picas­so Show the Evo­lu­tion of His Style: See Self-Por­traits Mov­ing from Ages 15 to 90

A Clas­sic Video of Pablo Picas­so Mark­ing Art, Set to the Song, “Pablo Picas­so,” by Jonathan Rich­man & The Mod­ern Lovers

The Scan­dalous Paint­ing That Helped Cre­ate Mod­ern Art: An Intro­duc­tion to Édouard Manet’s Olympia

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.

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  • DoorNumber3 says:

    If you are even remote­ly close to Madrid, go see this fan­tas­tic, unusu­al, chal­leng­ing work. One small com­ment to the video: I don’t believe the muse­um allows vis­i­tors to take snap­shots or pho­tos of the paint­ing. All for the bet­ter: Just spend your time tak­ing it in.

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