My husband and I visited Picasso’s masterpiece, Guernica, at the Reina Sofia museum in Madrid recently. What an honor. I had done my masters thesis on a comparison of the elements of Modern Art, specifically Guernica, to Gothic literature. Crazy, huh? Yes, and what is life if not crazy? Anyway, seeing the original gave me chills. It was profoundly dreadful, but thrilling at the same time. Dreadful because of the tragedy it’s based on, a tragedy that has been endlessly repeated over time, is being repeated even now, and thrilling because of the power of creative expression. Throughout history the injustices, cruelties, agonies and miseries, as well as the beauty of life have been recorded for all posterity by masterful artists in the form of writing, painting, and now movies and video games.
Guernica is about the slaughter of innocents. The painting is based on the bombing during the Spanish civil war in 1937 of the Basque town, Guernica, by Fascist allies of Franco. It was Market Day in Guernica, and thousands of innocent civilians were killed, among them merchants, women, children and animals. One might think that perhaps a realistic painting would have done a better job of portraying the horror. But through Cubism Picasso expressed the madness of war in a way that realism could not have accomplished. Cubism was a product of industrialism and technological advances of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, a time which saw the development of photography and its unique perspectives, angles and compositions. It is created by tearing apart photographic, or realistic representations of subjects, and reassembling them in unexpected collages unrelated to reality. Basically it replaces order with disorder, a process equivalent to madness. And what is war if not madness?
Looking at Guernica, the eye is immediately drawn to the triangular formation in the center, which, inherently lacking the uniformity offered by a circle or a square, immediately throws the reader into confusion. The base of the triangle is composed of a dead man with his arms outstretched on the left, and a woman with torn clothing, obviously in a state of panic, on the right. A light bulb with sun-like rays shooting out from it is at the tip of the pyramid; the manner in which people are reaching for and staring at the light indicates that it is an icon of hope. A wounded horse, symbol of the innocent animals at the market, is in the center of the triangle, literally falling to pieces; it has a huge wound on its side and images of a human skull and a bull’s head on its body, saying perhaps that, in death, we are all the same. The bull is an icon of the people of Spain. On the left is a woman doubled back in torment, howling as she cradles her dead child. Her tongue resembles a sharp point, referring to the sharpness of pain. Standing over the woman is, again, representing the people, a bull. But this one is uninjured, an icon of reassurance and hope, and his posture conveys strength, protection. On the far right, amidst jagged flames, is the window of a house in the background, a reference to the fires caused by the bombings, and a man with his arms thrown out in agony in the foreground. The rendering in blacks, grays, whites and dark blues conveys the disorientation of an attack during the night, when all that would be visible would be a chaotic jumble of figures highlighted by brilliant flashes of light, and darkness.
Expressed through the stabbing, piercing aspects of Cubism, the images bombard us with emotions: panic, confusion, terror, agony. They remind us of what we have done wrong in the past perhaps in the hopes that these will not be repeated, or perhaps to expose the darkness that is an integral part of human nature, and of what we are capable of if we are not mindful of it. Because that’s what Art is all about, right? Expression. Perhaps an expression of madness.