On April 28, 1937 the Basque town of Guernica was reported destroyed by German bombing planes flying for General Franco. Picasso, already an active partisan of the Spanish Republic, went into action almost immediately. He had been commissioned in January to paint a mural for the Spanish Government Building at the Paris World's Fair; but he did not begin to work until May 1st, just two days after the news of the catastrophe.
Picasso has given no detailed explanation of Guernica. Briefly, one sees: at the right a woman with arms raised falling from a burning house, another rushing in toward the center of the picture; at the left a mother with a dead child, and on the ground the hollow fragments of a warrior's figure, one hand clutching a broken sword near which a flower is growing. At the center of the canvas is a dying horse pierced by a spear hurled or dropped from above; at the left a bull stands surveying the scene, apparently unmoved. Between the heads of the bull and the horse is a bird with upraised open beak. Above, to the right of the center a figure leans from a window holding a lamp which throws an ineluctable light upon the carnage. And over all shines the radiant eye of night with an electric bulb for a pupil.
Guernica is painted entirely in black, white, and grey. There is no modeling and most of the drawing is quite flat in effect with only occasional foreshortening as in the hands of the fallen warrior or the mouth of the horse. But however flat the style there are indications of space in the perspective lines in the upper corners.
The composition is clearly divided in half; and the halves are cut by diagonals which together form an obvious, gable-shaped triangle starting with the hand at the left, the foot at the right, and culminating at the top of the lamp in the center--a triangle which suggests the pedimental composition of a Greek temple.
Many of the motifs in the Guernica appear in his previous work. The Dream and Lie of Franco with its bull ring symbolism is of course a direct prelude. The bullfight series of 1933-35 provides the shrieking horse; the Crucifixion of 1930 is comparable in its iconographic complexity and certain details. Above all the Minotauromachy anticipates the Guernica in the important dramatic relationship between the bull and the woman holding the lamp over the dying horse--though in the etching of 1935 the symbols perhaps concern personal rather than public experience.
Dated May 1st, the drawing (plate 34) is the first composition study for the Guernica. It is a shorthand note showing the bull at the left, the horse lying on its back in the center, and, at the right, the house with the lamp-holding figure leaning out of the window.
On May 9th he made the final study for the composition as a whole (plate 47). By May 11th Picasso had outlined the picture on the 26-foot canvas, but thereafter he made radical revisions in the composition as he painted. For instance, shortly before the completion of . . .