Picasso’s Guernica: Propaganda, Art, or Revelation?

This post follows from recent discussions we have been having on the kind of role that human artistry may or may not play in social transformation. Guernica is a painting that focuses these questions and even adds a religious dimension.

Guernica is a great work of art.  It is one of the most widely known and recognized paintings from the 20th century.  It is Pablo Picasso’s masterpiece. Guernica succeeds both in its originality and in its historical sophistication.  As one commentator puts it: “Picasso often stressed the need for the modern artist to be a visual kleptomaniac, and with Guernica he didn’t disappoint.” Guernica is a mysterious and captivating work that always leaves the viewer with more than they brought to it.

Guernica is work of propaganda.  Even Picasso himself said the painting is propaganda.  The painting is in direct response to the atrocious bombing of the Basque town that bears the same name during the civil war.  Picasso further politicized the piece by withholding it from Spain until Franco’s regime had fallen.  Juan Larrea, a poet and friend of Picasso, argued (wrongly, I think) that Guernica envisages the death of Franco and the fall of his government. When the painting did eventually end up in the Prado in 1981 it was used by the then Prime Minister Adolfo Suarez as a political statement.

Guernica is a work of religious significance.  The word ‘revelation’ in the title of this post may be a bit strong (and intentionally provocative), but my choice for using it is clear: does Guernica carry religious content, and might we even connect it specifically to the Christian tradition?  Some commentators have observed numerous iconographical connections between Guernica and the Christian tradition.  Diane Apostolos Cappadona even observes a connection between Guernica and the Isenheim Altarpiece, and suggests that the woman in the lower right hand corner functions as a Mary Magdalene figure.  For some, ‘revelation’ may not be the right word, but is it possible that Guernica has the potential to point people towards a new way of being human in the face of horrendous evil?

I think that it is not entirely possible to separate out the different ways in which Guernica functions as propoganda, art, and revelation, and that reductive approaches towards works of art should be avoided.  But there are certainly distinctions that can be made.  For example, Toby Clark, in his book Art and Propaganda, points out that Guernica is an original object, and works of propaganda tend to function purely as reproductions.  And though connections may be made between Guernica and the Christian tradition, it does not seem that Guernica functions in quite the same way that most ‘religious paintings’ do.  The ambiguity as to whether Guernica is an work of propaganda, art, or revelation is, to my mind, an aspect that makes it fascinating and an important reminder that human life forms a whole that cannot easily be compartmentalized.

But what do you think about Guernica?  Can it be seen as a work of propaganda, art, and revelation all at once?   Do these different elements conceal or reveal the others?  How else might we draw distinctions between a work’s religious, artistic, and political significance?  Where does one draw line between painting something true about a tragic event and making an intentional political statement (or attack)?

Image Credit: artsnap.org
Works Cited available upon request

1 Comment

  • Michael Finocchiaro says:

    I just spent another 45 minutes having my soul crushed by Guernica for the 7th or 8th time. I think it is an incredibly powerful collage piece integrating, as you said, a propagandistic message with religious canonical symbols which seem to have been jumbled and exploded by the falling bombs. I see a Pieta on the left side but also a sort of anti-Nativity (male bull rather than female cow and masculine horse rather than feminine donkey. Picasso, the massive testicled bull as always watches in horror and screams with the horse but is powerless to stem the carnage. The painting is his primal scream. The painting also features a triangle of light anchoring the center of the image. Also in the center, is a lit candle and at the bottom, an uncrushed flower. Perhaps, there was still some optimism for Pablo just to keep sane.

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