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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