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.
One of many multifaceted symbols in the work, the combination eye/light bulb in the upper section suggests everything from the watchful eye of God to the vengeful gaze of Franco bearing witness to the aftermath of his orders. That the strike on Guernica was in part carried out as a means to test new artillery and blitzkrieg tactics resonates on a linguistic level; the Spanish for bulb (bombilla) is quite close to the Spanish word bomba.
One possible interpretation is that the light bulb/eye is a nod to new technology being used for nefarious purposes. Light as a symbol of creation goes back to the Book of Genesis, when God creates the Earth out of formless darkness with the words, "Let there be light." In Guernica, the light illuminates destruction rather than creation. Given the light bulb/eye's God-like presence in the scene, it may serve to illuminate the devastating capabilities of modern technology.
On the far left of the painting, Picasso included one of the most recognizable forms from Western art - the anguished mother cradling her lifeless child, mirroring the pietà. Some of the most famous versions of the pietà are religious works by Titian and Michelangelo that display Christ’s mother Mary holding Jesus in the moments after his body was removed from the cross.
Picasso’s pietà secularizes Mary’s anguish by trading her loss for a Guernican mother’s.
While Picasso didn’t incorporate any actual newspaper into the composition itself, his stylized black and white palette coupled with the near-typographical hash mark patterning evokes the medium. Picasso first heard the news of the Guernica air raid and its aftermath via a newspaper article, which included black and white photos of the event.
Further, the invocation of reportage helps establish the painting as a document bearing objective witness to the citizens’ tragedy.
When the poet Juan Larrea first spoke to Picasso about Guernica and suggested it as subject matter for a painting, Picasso claimed he had no idea what city looked like after such an event. Larrea said it looked like "a bull in a China shop, run amok." The bull in question, in the case of Guernica, may have been Franco and the imposing force of the fascist state. It’s also widely reported that Picasso himself thought of the bull as representing brutality and darkness, a further testament to the interpretation of it as a figure representing fascism.
The meaning is somewhat marred and open to multiple interpretations. Picasso often said his choice of images happened instinctively and without specific intent. He even stated, in regards to questions about symbolism, "A bull is a bull and a horse is a horse."
In other work, Picasso frequently drew himself as a Minotaur, the mythological half-man/half-bull. The bull may represent something more personal to Picasso, such as his own reaction to the event. Given Minotaurs frequently carry out acts of aggression in his work, the nod to the mythic animal may be another indication it represents the terrors of fascism.