3.5 x 7.8m Museo Reina Sofia, Madrid

Guernica is a painting by Pablo Picasso. It was created in response to the bombing of Guernica, Basque Country, by German and Italian warplanes at the behest of the Spanish Nationalist forces, on 26 April 1937, during the Spanish Civil War. The Spanish Republican government commissioned Picasso to create a large mural for the Spanish display at the Paris International Exposition at the 1937 World’s Fair in Paris.

Guernica shows the tragedies of war and the suffering it inflicts upon individuals, particularly innocent civilians. This work has gained a monumental status, becoming a perpetual reminder of the tragedies of war, an anti-war symbol, and an embodiment of peace. On completion Guernica was displayed around the world in a brief tour, becoming famous and widely acclaimed. This tour helped bring the Spanish Civil War to the world’s attention.

Guernica shows suffering people, animals, and buildings wrenched by violence and chaos.

  • The overall scene is within a room where, at an open end on the left, a wide-eyed bull stands over a woman grieving over a dead child in her arms.
  • The centre is occupied by a horse falling in agony as it had just been run through by a spear or javelin. It is important to note that the large gaping wound in the horse’s side is a major focus of the painting.
  • Two “hidden” images formed by the horse appear in Guernica:
    • A human skull overlays the horse’s body.
    • A bull appears to gore the horse from underneath. The bull’s head is formed mainly by the horse’s entire front leg which has the knee on the ground. The leg’s knee cap forms the head’s nose. A horn appears within the horse’s breast.
  • The bull’s tail forms the image of a flame with smoke rising from it, seemingly appearing in a window created by the lighter shade of gray surrounding it.
  • Under the horse is a dead, apparently dismembered soldier; his hand on a severed arm still grasps a shattered sword from which a flower grows.
  • On the open palm of the dead soldier is a stigma, a symbol of martyrdom derived from the stigmata of Christ.
  • A light bulb blazes in the shape of an evil eye over the suffering horse’s head (the bare bulb of the torturer’s cell.) Picasso’s intended symbolism in regards to this object is related to the Spanish word for lightbulb; “bombilla”, which makes an allusion to “bomb” and therefore signifies the destructive effect which technology can have on society.
  • To the upper right of the horse, a frightened female figure, who seems to be witnessing the scenes before her, appears to have floated into the room through a window. Her arm, also floating in, carries a flame-lit lamp. The lamp is positioned very close to the bulb, and is a symbol of hope, clashing with the lightbulb.
  • From the right, an awe-struck woman staggers towards the center below the floating female figure. She looks up blankly into the blazing light bulb.
  • Daggers that suggest screaming replace the tongues of the bull, grieving woman, and horse.
  • A bird, possibly a dove, stands on a shelf behind the bull in panic.
  • On the far right, a figure with arms raised in terror is entrapped by fire from above and below.
  • A dark wall with an open door defines the right end of the mural.

Symbolism and interpretations

Interpretations of Guernica vary widely and contradict one another. This extends, for example, to the mural’s two dominant elements: the bull and the horse. Art historian Patricia Failing said, “The bull and the horse are important characters in Spanish culture. Picasso himself certainly used these characters to play many different roles over time. This has made the task of interpreting the specific meaning of the bull and the horse very tough. Their relationship is a kind of ballet that was conceived in a variety of ways throughout Picasso’s career.”

When pressed to explain them in Guernica, Picasso said,

…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.

In “The Dream and Lie of Franco,” a series of narrative sketches also created for the World’s Fair, Franco is depicted as a monster that first devours his own horse and later does battle with an angry bull. Work on these illustrations began before the bombing of Guernica, and four additional panels were added, three of which relate directly to the Guernica mural.

Picasso said as he worked on the mural: “The Spanish struggle is the fight of reaction against the people, against freedom. My whole life as an artist has been nothing more than a continuous struggle against reaction and the death of art. How could anybody think for a moment that I could be in agreement with reaction and death? … In the panel on which I am working, which I shall call Guernica, and in all my recent works of art, I clearly express my abhorrence of the military caste which has sunk Spain in an ocean of pain and death.

However, according to scholar Beverly Ray the following list of interpretations reflects the general consensus of historians:

  • The shape and posture of the bodies express protest.
  • Picasso uses black, white, and grey paint to set a somber mood and express pain and chaos.
  • Flaming buildings and crumbling walls not only express the destruction of Guernica, but reflect the destructive power of civil war.
  • The newspaper print used in the painting reflects how Picasso learned of the massacre.
  • The light bulb in the painting represents the sun.
  • The broken sword near the bottom of the painting symbolizes the defeat of the people at the hand of their tormentors. (Berger 1980; Chipp 1988)

In drawing attention to a number of preliminary studies, the so called primary project, that show an atelier installation incorporating the central triangular shape which reappears in the final version of Guernica, Becht-Jördens and Wehmeier interpret the painting as a self-referential composition in the tradition of atelier paintings such as “Las Meninas” by Diego Velázquez. In his chef d’oevre, Picasso seems to be trying to define his role and his power as an artist in the face of political power and violence. But far from being a mere political painting, Guernica should be seen as Picasso’s comment on what art can actually contribute towards the self-assertion that liberates every human being and protects the individual against overwhelming forces such as political crime, war, and death.

On April 26, 1937, German and Italian warplanes destroyed the Spanish city of...On April 26, 1937, German and Italian warplanes destroyed the Spanish city of Guernica. It was the first such large-scale bombing of a civilian target, and it presaged the massive destruction visited from the air during World War II. This image was taken on May 8, 1937.
Here, a composite photo showing the center of Guernica shortly after its...
Here, a composite photo showing the center of Guernica shortly after its destruction and the same spot 70 years later, in 2007.
During the Franco dictatorship, which lasted from 1939 to 1975, it was...

During the Franco dictatorship, which lasted from 1939 to 1975, it was forbidden to speak about the number of people who died in the Guernica attack, and the figure continues to be contested.
The destruction of Guernica was immortalized in Pablo Picasso's famous painting...Here, visitors look at a mural representation of Picasso’s painting at a monument in Guernica.
Germany's "Condor Legion" used massive numbers of incendiary bombs in the raid...Germany’s “Condor Legion” used massive numbers of incendiary bombs in the raid on Guernica, ensuring its almost complete destruction.
A pig searches for something to eat among the ruins: The image was taken...
A pig searches for something to eat among the ruins: The image was taken shortly after Franco’s troops took control of the city.
The Germans bombed Guernica at the behest of Spanish nationalist forces during...The Germans bombed Guernica at the behest of Spanish nationalist forces during that country’s civil war. This image shows troops of victorious General Francisco Franco walking through Guernica in October 1937.

Photos from Der Spiegel


Dress Rehearsal for Blitzkrieg

A Survivor Recalls the Horrors of Guernica

By Annika Müller, Der Spiegel

During the early days of the Spanish Civil War, German pilots took part in the savage bombing of the Basque town of Guernica. Seventy-five years later, the horror of this unexpected attack is still fresh in the mind of survivors like Luis Iriondo Aurtenetxea.

The Basque town of Guernica was bustling with activity on April 26, 1937. “It was market day, and there were finally some sweets on sale once again,” says Luis Iriondo Aurtenetxea, who was 14 years old at the time. There was a cloudless sky, the 89-year-old adds, and glorious spring weather.

The diary of a German pilot who took off in his “Heinkel” bomber in Burgos at around 3 p.m. that day confirms Iriondo’s recollections. “We couldn’t have asked for better weather for the operation,” the pilot wrote. Over the next few hours, he and 37 other pilots belonging to the “Condor Legion” would shower Guernica with thousands of bombs. They were supported by a squadron of fighter planes that flew so low “that one could make out the pilots’ faces,” according to reports from survivors.

At the same time, the German and Italian pilots knew very well that it was civilians they were shooting at rather than Republican soldiers. The streets of the Basque region’s oldest town were not only full of its 7,000 inhabitants, but also with many women and children who had fled the surrounding villages and towns as Franco’s troops advanced.

Guernica was completely unprepared for the airstrike. Iriondo claims that the only thing the town had to defend itself with was a single machine gun that wasn’t even functioning properly. Today, Iriondo still has nightmares about seeing his childhood home going up in flames. Until that day, he had no concept of what war meant.

“The first time I heard about the civil war, I was lying on the beach listening to my parents talk about the putsch in Morocco,” he says. But the boy didn’t feel that General Franco’s military putsch in the Spanish colony, which marked the beginning of the civil war, presented any immediate danger. “The only thing I was worried about was whether my Mickey Mouse book would arrive from Barcelona,” he told SPIEGEL ONLINE.

‘No One Took the Alarm Seriously’

The weeks before the airstrike were an exciting time for Iriondo. There was no school because most of the teachers had been summoned to the frontlines to aid the Basque-Republican brigades. Iriondo and other boys were left behind to build barricades out of sandbags. Soldiers who came through town brought pieces of news that made their lives sound exciting. Indeed, he says that he felt like these days were “just one big party.”

No one had any idea what that day held in store for them. Granted, forces loyal to Franco had already captured San Sebastian and Navarra, and there had been several sightings of airplanes in the days prior. Reports were also circulating about bombing attacks on the villages of Elorrio and Otxandio, and about how a bomb had destroyed a church in Durango and killed 200 people who had been attending mass there. But, in Guernica, where the Basques had been resolving the most important issues under a large oak tree for several centuries, the residents felt safe.

“No one took the alarm seriously,” Iriondo says, adding that the residents had heard the loud tolling of the church bells too often in the previous days and weeks. Iriondo, who was working as an errand boy at a bank that day, also wasn’t bothered by the alarm. But, in the end, he half-heartedly obeyed the prompting of a bank employee who had fled from Lekeitio to follow him to a shelter.

“If I hadn’t, I probably wouldn’t be alive,” says Iriondo, whose book about his experiences living in and fleeing Guernica has even been made into an opera libretto. Iriondo had originally hoped to run and join his friend Cipri in a hideout they shared just outside the town. There, he would later find the tattered corpse of his schoolmate.

‘We Thought We Would Suffocate’

Instead, Iriondo took refuge with many other town inhabitants in a tiny shelter beneath a terrace. “We thought we would suffocate. One of us tried to light a match, but there wasn’t enough oxygen,” says Iriondo, who didn’t know what else to do other than pray. After a half hour of uninterrupted explosions, the bombing appeared to be over. Unaware that the bombers were being loaded up with new bombs in nearby Vitoria, everyone rushed outside. For many of the survivors of the first attack, this meant death. In the thick cloud of smoke, they couldn’t see the airplanes coming back for a second attack.

In the evening, when the bombers were finally gone and Iriondo could leave his shelter, the town that had been the spiritual and cultural center of the Basques was engulfed in flames. As the British historian Gijs van Hensbergen has written, by 7:45 p.m., Guernica had practically ceased to exit.

Hardly any of the houses, which were built primarily with bricks and wooden framing, remained intact. The town hall, the church and the hospital had been completely destroyed. That evening, the only thing remaining in its previous place was the sacred oak tree. What’s more, not a single bomb had landed on the Astra weapons factory or the bridge in the suburb of Renteria, which was supposedly the primary objective of the attack.

Despite initial claims to the contrary, the Germans were not primarily concerned with clearing a path for Franco’s troops. When testifying during the Nuremberg Trials, Hermann Göring, the leading Nazi figure and aviation minister since 1933, said that this effort to support General Franco was much more about having an ideal opportunity to test out his still young air force and examine in a live-fire situation “whether the material had been adequately developed.”

Thus, Guernica was a dress rehearsal of sorts for the blitzkrieg and a new breed of warfare that held no regard for civilian populations. During the Franco dictatorship, which lasted from 1939 to 1975, it was forbidden to speak about the number of people who died in the Guernica attack, and the figure continues to be contested. While some sources say that 200 people died, foreign correspondents at the time put the figure at up to 3,000, although we know today that this figure was likely far too high.

Falsified History Books

Reuters journalist Christopher Holme wired back to London that it had been the most terrible air strike of all time. But German squadron leader Wolfram Freiherr von Richthofen noted enthusiastically that Guernica “has been literally razed to the ground. Bomb craters can be seen in the streets. Simply wonderful!” Later, he would admit that he had “acted a bit rowdily in Guernica.” But there was also criticism from within von Richthofen’s own ranks. A few days after the attack, Harro Harrer, another pilot with the Condor Legion, would write in his notes that “destroying a militarily insignificant city in this way” was an outrageous scandal in addition to lamenting the unnecessary victims.

The destruction of the holy city in the devoutly Catholic Basque region was also a problem for Franco. He had explained his campaign against the elected Popular Front of Socialists, Republicans, Catalan Liberals and Communists as being a “crusade against the godless reds,” and he needed the support of the Catholic Church. The official version of events had Guernica being burned to the ground by the “red barbarians,” and this version was widely publicized by the Spanish press and even remained in Spanish history books until Franco’s death.

When Iriondo returned from his exile in France to his home in Spain, he had to learn these truths, and trade his mother tongue, Basque, for Spanish. In a Spanish newspaper, he saw a photo with the caption: “The Church of Santa Maria in Guernica torched by Basque Socialists.”

Today, the memory still makes his voice tremble with anger. Iriondo has himself found duds and the remains of 250-kilogram (550-pound) cluster bombs and incendiary bombs that could reach temperatures of 2,500 degrees Celsius (4,500 degrees Fahrenheit). But, in Franco’s Spain, the bombs that created craters in Guernica up to 16 meters (53 feet) wide and 8 meters deep were officially the lies of Republican propagandists.

A Lifelong Fear of Planes

Since no one was allowed to talk about it, the survivors were robbed of their chance to process their horrible memories. Iriondo’s younger brother suffered the most. During the bombing, 10-year-old Patxi Iriondo Aurtenetxea ran liked a possessed person through the city and was forced to witness how his acquaintances, friends and relatives were torn to shreds and buried in the rubble. Several times, places where he was about to seek shelter went up in flames before his very eyes.

Patxi Iriondo reportedly spent weeks inside a train tunnel in Bilbao, where his family initially found refuge, and he even refused to go out onto the street during the day after arriving in France, where things were much safer. For the rest of his life, the sounds of airplanes and thunder would send him into a panic. In the end, he died while still young. Though doctors were not able to confirm a connection, Luis Iriondo blames his brother’s early death on the serious psychological damage inflicted by the Guernica bombing.

Even today, Guernica is still fighting to ensure that people don’t forget about what happened to it. The Guernica Peace Museum reminds people not only of the bombing, but also of various other armed conflicts. And Gernika Gogoratuz (“Remember Guernica”), the peace research center founded in 1987, provides financing for projects that seek to find peaceful resolutions to conflicts, hosts conferences, offers educational programs and organizes visits by Guernica survivors to schools.

In today’s Germany, the word “Guernica” is more often associated with the famous painting by Picasso than with the German attack on the small Spanish city. Indeed, it took the German government quite some time to come to terms with the issue. This moment finally came in 1997, on the 60th anniversary of the bombing. Roman Herzog, Germany’s president at the time, issued something resembling an apology by saying he “would like to confront the past and explicitly admit to the culpable involvement of German pilots.” And the man who accepted it on behalf of the victims was none other than Luis Irionda.


Historical context

Guernica is a town in the province of Biscay in Basque Country. During the Spanish Civil War, it was regarded as the northern bastion of the Republican resistance movement and the epicenter of Basque culture, adding to its significance as a target.

The Republican forces were made up of assorted factions (Communists, Socialists, Anarchists, to name a few) with wildly differing approaches to government and eventual aims, but a common opposition to the Nationalists. The Nationalists, led by General Francisco Franco, were also factionalized but to a lesser extent. They sought a return to the golden days of Spain, based on law, order, and traditional Catholic family values.

At about 16:30 on Monday, 26 April 1937, warplanes of the German Condor Legion, commanded by Colonel Wolfram von Richthofen, bombed Guernica for about two hours. Germany, at this time led by Hitler, had lent material support to the Nationalists and were using the war as an opportunity to test out new weapons and tactics. Later, intense aerial bombardment became a crucial preliminary step in the Blitzkrieg tactic.

In his journal for 30 April 1937, von Richthofen wrote:

When the first Junker squadron arrived, there was smoke already everywhere (from the VB [VB/88] which had attacked with 3 aircraft); nobody would identify the targets of roads, bridge, and suburb, and so they just dropped everything right into the center. The 250s toppled a number of houses and destroyed the water mains. The incendiaries now could spread and become effective. The materials of the houses: tile roofs, wooden porches, and half-timbering resulted in complete annihilation. Most inhabitants were away because of a holiday; a majority of the rest left town immediately at the beginning [of the bombardment]. A small number perished in shelters that were hit.”

This account contains striking discrepancies from other accounts that state that the town’s inhabitants were in fact congregated in the center of town, as it was market day, and when the bombardment commenced, were unable to escape the inferno because the roads leading out of the center of the town were full of debris and the bridges leading out of town had been destroyed.

Guernica’s location was at a major crossroads 10 kilometers from the front lines and between the front lines and Bilbao, the capital of Bizkaia. Any Republican retreat towards Bilbao and any Nationalist advance towards Bilbao had to pass through Guernica. “During 25 April, many of the demoralized (Republican) troops from Marquina fell back on Guernica, which lay 10 kilometers behind the lines.” Wolfram von Richthofen’s war diary entry for 26 April 1937 states, “K/88 [the Condor Legion bomber force] was targeted at Guernica in order to halt and disrupt the Red withdrawal which has to pass through here.” The following day, Richthofen wrote in his war diary, “Guernica burning.” The Republican retreat towards Bilbao did pass through Guernica, before and after the bombing, and, as Beevor points out, “At Guernica the communist Rosa Luxemburg Battalion under Major Cristobal held back the nationalists for a time”.

Guernica was a quiet village. The nearest military target of any consequence was a factory on the outskirts of the town, which manufactured various war products. The factory went through the attack unscathed. Thus, the motivation of the bombing was clearly one of intimidation. Furthermore, a majority of the town’s men were away as they were fighting on behalf of the Republicans. Thus, the town at the time of the bombing was populated mostly by women and children.

These demographics are reflected in the painting because, as Rudolf Arnheim writes, for Picasso: “The women and children make Guernica the image of innocent, defenseless humanity victimized. Also, women and children have often been presented by Picasso as the very perfection of mankind. An assault on women and children is, in Picasso’s view, directed at the core of mankind.” Clearly, the Nationalists sought to demoralize the Republicans and the civilian population as a whole by demonstrating their military might on a town that stood for traditional Basque culture and innocent civilians.

After the bombing, it was through the work of the Basque and Republican sympathizer and The Times journalist George Steer that propelled this event onto the international scene and brought it to Pablo Picasso’s attention. Steer, who rushed to town, compiled his observations into an article that was published on 28 April in both The Times and The New York Times, and which on the 29th, appeared in L’Humanité, a French Communist daily. Steer wrote:

Guernica, the most ancient town of the Basques and the centre of their cultural tradition, was completely destroyed yesterday afternoon by insurgent air raiders. The bombardment of this open town far behind the lines occupied precisely three hours and a quarter, during which a powerful fleet of aeroplanes consisting of three types of German types, Junkers and Heinkel bombers, did not cease unloading on the town bombs weighing from 1,000 lbs. downwards and, it is calculated, more than 3,000 two-pounder aluminium incendiary projectiles. The fighters, meanwhile, plunged low from above the centre of the town to machinegun those of the civilian population who had taken refuge in the fields.”

It was through this article that Picasso was made aware of what had gone on in his country of origin. At the time, he was working on a mural for the Paris Exhibition to be held in the summer of 1937, commissioned by the Spanish Republican government. He deserted his original idea and on 1 May 1937, began on Guernica. This captivated his imagination unlike his previous idea, on which he had been working somewhat dispassionately, for a couple of months. It is interesting to note, however, that at its unveiling at the Paris Exhibition that summer, it garnered little attention. It would later attain its power as such a potent symbol of the destruction of war on innocent lives.


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