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Great Paintings: Guernica Decoded

The World's Masterpieces Explored and Explained. 

If a painting could speak, what would it say to you? Great paintings have hidden layers of meaning, but once you begin to unravel the clues, you may come closer to the true intent of the piece. Set in a period of time, for one they encapsulate a moment in history, that goes beyond what the history books tell you. You see beyond the colours and grasp the subtleties of the situation. Thoughts and feelings are all...

Art enthusiasts know that they never get tired of spending time staring at their favourite painting. It's hypnotic staring at a life sized painting of an artist that you admire. 

Take for example one of the most striking images of 20th-century art, Pablo Picasso's Guernica, a nightmare vision of violence, pain and chaos.  

Regardless of being painted with a monochromatic nighttime hue, Guernica oozes of vibrant energy. Jagged, fragmented forms and distorted faces, effectively create an atmosphere of panic and terror. Standing over eleven feet high and more than twenty five feet long, the Guernica makes a big impact on the viewer. Creating a sense of bleakness and disorientation, the painting feels like an emotional rollercoaster. So many messages enveloped in an underlying theme that later became the antiwar message. 

The year was 1937 and Picasso had been commissioned to create a mural for the Spanish Pavilion at the Paris World's Fair. It was a time when Spain was in the grip of a civil war, and in April of that year, the population of the small town of Guernica in the Republic-held Basque region of Spain was devastated by German bombers and fighters from the Condor Legion acting on General Franco's orders. 

A Visual Tour of Guernica*

A single bulb in the ceiling light illuminates a room of nighttime horror. Its glow has a jagged edge and suggests a burst of light, surely a reference to the incendiary bombs that fell on Guernica. The light also represents a huge eye that observes everything, perhaps a symbol of the all-seeing eye of God. 

A disjointed style of the woman's face conveys an impression of deep anguish. Her head is thrown back in a scream of despair and there is a spike in her tongue, a shape that expresses the sharpness of her pain. There is an echo of the Christian image of suffering, the pietà, in the way she cradles the lifeless child in her lap. 

When asked for the interpretations in his paintings, Picasso said the shrieking horse represented the innocent people. The contorted head and neck of the horse form a dramatic image of panic. A wound that looks like a slash in the canvas has opened in its side and the animal seems to be screaming in agony, its tongue a sharp spike, like that of the bereaved mother. 

The World's Masterpieces Explored and Explained 
by DK Books