What Makes Picasso’s Guernica a Great Painting?: Explore the Anti-Fascist Mural That Became a Worldwide Anti-War Symbol

A painting is not thought out and settled in advance. While it is being done, it changes as one’s thoughts change. And when it’s finished, it goes on changing, according to the state of mind of whoever is looking at it. — Pablo Picasso

In a famous story about Guernica, Pablo Picasso’s wrenching 1937 anti-war mural, a gestapo officer barges into the painter’s Paris studio and asks, “did you do that?”, to which Picasso acerbically replies, “you did.” The title refers to the 1937 bombing of a Basque town during the Spanish Civil War, carried out by Spanish Nationalists and the Luftwaffe. Whether or not the anecdote about Picasso and the Nazi ever happened is unimportant; it encapsulates the artist’s disgust and outrage over the atrocities of war and the takeover of his country by Franco’s Nationalists, unyielding sentiments found not only in the painting but also its path through the world.

“Guernica had this really unique relationship with Picasso and his life,” says art historian Patricia Failing. “In a way it was his alter ego.” This is a bold claim considering that during most of his career, “Picasso generally avoids politics,” notes PBS, “and disdains overtly political art.” After the mural’s exhibition at the Spanish Pavilion of the 1937 Paris World’s Fair, however, the painting was sent on tours of Europe and North America “to raise consciousness about the threat of fascism.”

In 1939, after the fall of Madrid, the artist declared, “The painting will be turned over to the government of the Spanish Republic the day the Republic is restored in Spain!”  Then, almost 30 years later,

In a surprisingly ironic turn, Franco launched a campaign in 1968 for repatriation of the painting, assuring Picasso that the Spanish Government had no objection to the controversial subject matter. One can only imagine how incredulous Picasso must have been. Through his lawyers, Picasso turned the offer down flat, making it clear that Guernica would be turned over only when democracy and public liberties were restored to Spain.

Picasso died in 1973 and never saw his country free from fascism. Franco died two years later. The painting was not exhibited in Spain until 1981 — not a “return,” but a restoration, perhaps, of an international icon that had endured 44 years of exile, had become a potent anti-war symbol during the Vietnam War, and had survived a vandal attack the year after the artist’s death.

In the Great Art Explained video above, James Payne “looks at some of the more acknowledged interpretations along with techniques, composition and artistic inspiration,” as the video’s description notes. “We all know that Art is not truth,” Picasso said, consistently discouraging tidy interpretations of Guernica as a straightforward protest painting. “Art is a lie that makes us realize truth.” What do we realize when we stand before the mural — all 11 by 25 feet of it? It depends upon our state of mind, the artist might say, as he engulfs viewers in an allegorical nightmare standing in for a very real horror.

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

The Mystery of Picasso: Landmark Film of a Legendary Artist at Work, by Henri-Georges Clouzot

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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