Considered by many art historians to be the single greatest work of protest art, Pablo Picasso’s Guernica is full of complex imagery and hidden symbols. From harlequins to Christian imagery to scenes of bullfighting, the massive canvas can be overwhelming to dissect. Here, you'll find a breakdown of Guernica symbolism to help you better understand the work.
What does Guernica mean? The truth is, there's no simple answer. The span of its references and symbols, many of which hail from completely different centuries of art history, served to place the work in dialogue with an entire tradition of Western art. Primarily, the painting seeks to depict the 1937 air raid on Guernica during the Spanish Civil War. Spain's fascist general, Francisco Franco, worked with German troops to carry out a massive campaign which essentially wiped out the city and took the lives of hundreds of civilians. For Picasso, this was a tragedy that required his particular form of documentation. Symbols of loss and the afterlife dominate Guernica, and there are also nods to various myths and aspects of history. The meaning of Guernica is complex and difficult to pin down, but one clear theme it its strong anti-fascist tone.
It is only by examining each of his visual choices for their unique symbolic nature that one can begin to appreciate the work. Guernica is a macabre record from a master and a memorial to a tragic event in world history.
The Terrified Horse Is The Guernican People
The single largest figure of the entire composition is the horse, which also stands at the center of the painting. Picasso had his own interpretation of the figure, suggesting it represented pain and loss while invoking the four horses of the biblical apocalypse. Like all symbols in the painting, however, there are multiple possible meetings.
Horses are frequently seen as companions during wartime given their use in combat, meaning the horse could signify the people of Guernica struggling to defend themselves. Despite the horse's obvious anguish, its head remains upward and struggling to live. This could point to the endurance of the people and the continuing fight against fascism.
The Horse Hides The Image Of A Skull
If you look closely at the horse's nostrils and teeth, you can make out the image of a human skull. Like all images in Guernica, this can be interpreted in a variety of ways. The skull could be another representation of the suffering of the people and, of course, highlights the amount of loss and destruction that played out that day.
The Dismembered Soldier Represents Both Futility And Hope
Near the bottom of the painting is the dismembered body of a soldier with only his head and arms completely visible. This is yet another example of the human toll of the event. In one hand, the soldier cradles a broken sword and a flower.
The sword may represent the inability of the citizens of Guernica to fight back against modern combat technology. The flower, shrouded in light, could signify hope despite the chaos.
There Are Harlequins Sprinkled Throughout The Painting
Picasso was more than willing to work his trademark motifs into Guernica. He managed to work harlequin figures into the composition that can be quite difficult to notice. The harlequins are mostly hidden beneath the surface of the painting, lying behind other images. The largest is found at the center and sheds a diamond-like tear. The others can be best glimpsed when the painting is viewed from an angle.
A possible homage to his earlier work, harlequins are also associated with the underworld in a mythological sense, which may again signify loss of life and destruction.