Memento Mori: A Look at Guernica

A Nazi officer, upon seeing an image of the iconic painting (supposedly) asked “Did you do that?”

“No,” Picasso replied. “You did.”


In the days since the new administration took office (and indeed the months before it), the rampant xenophobia and aggressive patriotism have led many to speculate that the current socio-political climate uncannily matches that of the pre-war Germany.

Although I never had really cared for the art from Europe of that era, I find myself being inexplicably drawn to consider it more carefully now. I am curious to try an parse out their responses to their own government, as though it will be some comfort to me now with mine.

In particular, I find myself pondering Pablo Picasso’s Guernica (1937), perhaps the most iconic piece of anti-war art. On April 26, 1937, an aerial raid was conducted on the Basque town of Guernica in the north of Spain. The attack was shocking because it was conducted against civilians and is widely regarded as a terror bombing, meant to frighten its targets into submission.

The devastation and emotional impact of the bombing is so apparent in Picasso’s painting. While I have never seen the mural in its full glory (read: size), the intensity of the shock, fear and despair is so immediate in the formal elements of the painting. I often find it helpful to think of Picasso’s work as literally shattering precedent. Where older paintings are restrained, posed and life-like, Guernica is none of those things. The composition is incredibly disorienting at first look, with the figures forming a quasi pyramid but are mostly evenly placed throughout the canvas. There is a jumble of people and animals creating a chaotic barnyard-type of scene. On the left, a bewildered bull stands above a woman crying out in anguish. She holds a figure, presumably her child, in a direct visual recall of Michelangelo’s Pieta though with more unrestrained emotion. A horse tramples on dead or dying bodies holding broken swords. It’s unclear whether it is trampling its owners but in war, when are things ever clear? The centre of the composition is a jumbled heap of body parts, a floating head overlooks the scene with an expression of a somewhat reserved sadness on its features. The figure on the right of the composition, arms outstretched towards the heavens, is the ultimate sign of vulnerability but also surrender. They are not a threat to anyone, none of the civilians were. The entire scene is overseen by an eye at the top and center of the painting, like a twisted eye of Providence.

Some art historians argue that it is a black and white painting because it was meant to mimic the newsprint of the day. But photographs are somewhat clinical and detached-they give a literal snapshot of what things look like at any given moment of time. Picasso has given us how the bombing was experienced by those in the moment: the fear, the commotion, the anguish, the terror.

As of my writing this post, we are not at the level of attacks by foreign powers on American civilians and I hope that we never get to that point. But I firmly believe that Guernica should serve as a poignant warning. I am not going to hide the fact that I am afraid right now. Maybe this is partially due to the media but the administration is waging a metaphorical war on many of the things I value: civil rights of LGBT/immigrants, science and the fundamental definition of facts, trying to correct the environmental damage wrought since the dawn of the Industrial Era. I know that I am not alone in this so the chaos in Guernica may resonate with many. The painting represents how overwhelming and powerful fear is and if nothing else, how important it is that we fight against it.

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6 comments on “Memento Mori: A Look at Guernica

  1. I too have been wondering how we as a society will re-bound from this new oppression. I have been waiting for an uprising of artists, of musicians and painters and writers, but mostly all I have heard is …silence.

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    • It’s also my hope that the arts will prove to be tremendously powerful political agents, like we’ve seen throughout history. I wonder if maybe it is still in the early days but I’m definitely making it my priority as a writer here to spotlight works of Resistance

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  2. Guernica is one of the most important works of art of the 20th century. It is also a warning of what can happen. We can only hope that Trump will eventually be defeated by a rational person. Elizabeth Warren 2020

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