The Interpretations of Guernica

Category: Guernica, Painting
Last Updated: 20 Apr 2022
Pages: 4 Views: 368

It is certain to say that Pablo Picasso is one of the most famous and influential artist of the twentieth century. Many of his paintings have deep meaning to them, but the painting Guernica was one of his work that really stood out - to me, at least. The painting was inspired by the bombing of German and Italian forces on the Spanish Basque town called Guernica. The factors in it can symbolize many things and people will have different interpretations on it, but two factors that are boldly present in the artwork and that are controversial between many critics are the bull and the horse.

These two elements of the painting have numerous perspectives from many different critics. Also, the absence of critical elements in the painting to the bombing of Guernica plays an important role of how people perceive this painting. An interesting perspective of this painting comes from an American professor of History of Art at the University of Virginia named Frederick Hartt. He relates the bull to a Minotaur: a creature that has a head of a bull and a body of a man. In the ancient Greek and ancient Roman cultures, this hybrid creature is a symbol of violence and rage.

Hartt, however, relates the Minotaur to the view of the Surrealists as a symbol to man’s irrational side and contrasts this symbol with the symbol of the horse. Hartt says, “If the Minotaur symbolizes the irrationality of Fascism and man's mistreatment of man, the horse represents the anguish of Spanish citizens, and the end of civilization. ” In contrast to Hartt’s belief of the symbolism in the bull, a poet and a friend of Picasso named Juan Larrea thought the complete opposite.

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He does not see the bull as a Minotaur that symbolizes irrationality and violence; instead, Larrea see the bull as the representation of the anger and fury of the Guernica people. He believes this because the bull is a “totem” of the Peninsula area. On another note, Larrea and Hartt have simular thoughts about the horse. Larrea says, “The horse is invariably full of ignoble and depressive features and there can be little doubt that it stands in the painter’s mind for nothing more nor less than the Nationalist Spain. ” Another view on the bull is that the bull is “outside the catastrophe” and “unaffected. This perception of the painting is from a German Gestalt psychologist named Rudolf Arnheim. In his book, The Genesis of a Painting: Picasso's Guernica, Arnheim writes about the relationship between the bull and the suffering mother holding her baby. With the bull’s snout resting on the mother’s head like a roof, he believes that the bull is trying to protect the mother, but fails in doing so. Even though its flaming tail shows its internal passion, the bull is unable to aid the mother and is absent, but still acknowledgeable of the scene.

John Berger, a English art critic, novelist, painter, and author, mentions the horse and bull in his book The Success and failure of Picasso. He writes about the position and poses of both the bull and horse; the bull seems to be mimicking the horse as both their bodies and heads are posed the same position and facing the same direction. Berger also mentions contrast in these two animals: the horse looks as if it is freaking out and in pain, as opposed to the bull, which is motionless and has no emotion on its face besides a remote look of caution.

It is obvious this painting is full of pain and distress, but there is something missing: the cause and protest of all it. The artwork consist of only a dead child, a bull, a horse, four women, an electric light, a lantern, and a bird; no soldiers, bombs, or explosions. As John Berger suggests, Picasso did not try to recreate the actual event in his painting; he had chosen not to represent the attack on Guernica literally. He did not need to show the attacks, but show the cost of conflict; this cost is shown in what has happened to the bodies.

Berger says, “We are made to feel their pain with our eyes. And pain is the protest of the body. ” Picasso’s images move the world from the specifics of the devastation of Guernica to the more universal and general suffering that is caused by war. The absence of the main elements of war in Guernica also makes the painting a general symbol of pain and horror, not just the pain and horror derived from war. It has been said that much of Picasso’s art was autobiographical.

The fact that the images of death and destruction in Guernica are not clearly referring to the result of a bombing and the fact that it is not clear where the scene is at has led Mary Mathews Gedo, a clinical psychologist and art historian, to believe the painting Guernica not only represented the bombing of the town of Guernica, but also represented Picasso’s early memories from his life. The source of influence was both the historical event and “a source deep within him” says Gedo. Thus, as well as a work of political force, Guernica also holds an autobiographical element within its creation.

From the bull symbolizing a Minotaur to protection, and the horse indicating the people of Guernica to the whole nation of Spain, critics discuss these factors and share the many different interpretations of what these two animals indicate. The act of Picasso not including any war-like elements, other than death and destruction, in the painting makes even more and deeper interpretations by critics. The meaning of Guernica is a broad subject and everyone is going to have different interpretations on it.

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The Interpretations of Guernica. (2017, May 20). Retrieved from

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