This bull is a bull and this horse is a horse. . . . If you give a meaning to certain things in my paintings it may be very true, but it is not my idea to give this meaning. What ideas and conclusions you have got I obtained too, but instinctively, unconsciously. I make the painting for the painting. I paint the objects for what they are.1
On April 26, 1937, during the Spanish Civil War, warplanes acting in support of General Francisco Franco bombed and almost completely destroyed the defenseless city of Guernica on a crowded market day. This early example of modern mass bombing was a grim forecast of what would happen on a larger scale in World War II.
Six days later Picasso, intensely moved by this disastrous event in the land of his youth, began work on his huge painting Guernica.2 The finished work was shown at the Spanish Pavilion of the Paris Exposition that same year, and it was then housed in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, on extended loan from the artist. It is now on view at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid, where it permanently resides.
Guernica is Picasso’s major statement on the horrors of war, and a masterpiece of the twentieth century. It is a complex painting, but our understanding of it is helped by the preservation of forty-five preliminary studies, together with seven photographs of the painting at various stages of its realization.
Head of a Horse, Sketch for Guernica was one of the many preliminary works created in preparation for Guernica. The horse would figure prominently as the central figure in Guernica, run through with a javelin and wrenched in agony. Some have interpreted the horse as Franco’s Nationalism, with Picasso predicting its downfall. But another interpretation has also been proposed—that the horse represents the bombing victims as a helpless animal dying a senseless death. Picasso has heightened the effect of agony by turning the animal’s tongue into a sort of dagger protruding from its jaws.
Picasso repeatedly returned to black and white when he had an urgent message to convey, removing color from his painting to avoid distraction.3 In Guernica, his stark and somber depiction of the disasters of war resembles the grainy images found in newspaper reports of the attack.4 Guernica has become a universal and powerful symbol warning humanity against the suffering and devastation of war.
- Describe Picasso’s use of black and white in this work.
- Find a photograph of a horse’s head. Compare Picasso’s Head of a Horse, Sketch for Guernica with the photograph. How has Picasso distorted reality to create emotion? Try to articulate the emotions that this image is conveying to you.
- View the reproduction of Picasso’s grand painting Guernica at http://www.museoreinasofia.es/coleccion/coleccion-1/sala-206/guernica500.jpg. Compare Head of a Horse, Sketch for Guernica with the horse in Guernica. What are the similarities? What are the differences?
has become an emblem warning of the dangers and devastation of war.
Picasso used paint to express his protest against brutality, but in the
ensuing decades new communication methods have been perfected. If you
wanted to protest an injustice, what medium would you use? Create a work
that protests something that you see as unjust. Use either traditional
methods, or newer forms such as video, digital imaging, or social media
to share your views.
- Although for much of his life Picasso remained outside political debates, in 1945 he stated:
[The artist] is also a political being, constantly aware of the heartbreaking, passionate, or delightful things that happen in the world, shaping himself completely in their image. How could it be possible to feel no interest in other people, and with a cool indifference to detach yourself from the very life which they bring to you so abundantly? No, painting is not done to decorate apartments. It is an instrument of war for attack and defense against the enemy.1
Do you agree or disagree that it is the artist’s responsibility to speak out against injustice? Explain. Do you agree or disagree that art can be a powerful force for shaping and influencing political attitudes? Explain.
- In the quote that opens this section, Picasso states his unwillingness to define the symbols used in his work. Why might an artist not reveal the meaning of the symbols used in his/her art? Do you agree or disagree with this stance? Explain.
The conflict between bull and horse is one that interested Picasso throughout his life. At the age of nine, he watched a bullfight with his father and recorded his impressions in a drawing. In bullfighting, Picasso saw a mythological symbol embodying dramatic suffering, grief, and rage. The drama of ferocious struggle became a recurring theme in his work.
Create your own work that uses an animal or animals to symbolize forces and emotions. First discuss what qualities you associate with different animals, then make your own work—a drawing, poem, story, or any form you choose—that uses an animal or animals as metaphorical symbols.
English Language Arts