Art and the Spanish Civil War – Pablo Picasso and Robert Capa
University of Maryland, Baltimore County
December 4, 2003.
Art and the Spanish Civil War: Pablo Picasso and Robert Capa
An ancient Chinese proverb says that "a picture is worth ten thousand words." We often
look at pictures and interpret their meanings from looking at them directly. Have we
considered the historical background of them? Have we thought about other specific
messages that the artist want to convey through their works of art? The struggle against
fascism in Spain attracted many artists and resulted in an explosion of literature and art. Some
of the most celebrated figures include Pablo Picasso and Robert Capa. In this research paper,
I will discuss about how one historical event, the Spanish Civil War, could be seen through
the eyes of the two well-known artists of the 20th century: Pablo Picasso and Robert Capa and
how their works effectively deliver their response of the war to the viewers and the world.
The Spanish Civil War
The Spanish Civil War began in 1936. It was fought between the Spanish Republican
government, which had been elected to power in 1931, and the Fascist forced under the
control of General Franco. Fascism was a growing political movement in the 1930s. Its
right-wing ideas included a strong central government and extreme national pride. Franco
gained outside support from Germany and Italy, who both had Fascist governments, enabling
him to win power in Spain in 19391, which was the year the Civil War ended. The conflict
between Fascists and Communists was a precursor to the global devastation of World War II.
Kate Scarborough, Pablo Picasso (London: Fanklin Watts, 2002), 28.
Bombing of Guernica
On April 26, 1937, German warplanes bombed the Basque town of Guernica killing
1,664 people and injuring almost 900. Homes were left in flames and the market square was
Pablo Picasso and his creation of Guernica
After the Spanish Civil War in 1937, the Spanish Republican Government
commissioned Pablo Picasso to design a mural for the Spanish Pavilion at the international
exposition in Paris. The result was Guernica. According to Scarborough’s Pablo Picasso,
Picasso ―was horrified at the savage attack and conjured up all his feelings to paint
Guernica,‖3 and to give it a ―historical feeling,‖4 he only used shades of black and white as
in a photograph. He used imagery from the bullring to represent the unfolding story – the bull
represents evil and the horse, standing among the broken bodies, the bravery of the people of
Guernica. The dramatic result conveyed ―a horror of war in any age.‖5
There was once an American solider who asked Picasso in 1944: ―Why do you paint in
such a way that your expression is difficult for people to understand?‖6 Picasso’s responses
to the young American: ―I paint this way because it’s a result of my thought. I have worked
for years to obtain this result. …I can’t use an ordinary manner just to have the satisfaction of
Ellen C. Oppler, Picasso’s Guernica (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1988), 76.
being understood.‖7 While working on Guernica, Picasso carefully dated his preparatory
studies, even numbering them sequentially within a day, to document not just ―the result of
[his] thought,‖8 but its very process.
Guernica and much of art around the Spanish Pavilion featured modernist, semiabstract
styles, thereby celebrating individualism and freedom of expression. In composition-wise,
Oppler stated that Guernica "is ambiguous: a modernistic, decorative panel, yet also an
emotional response to the war."9 According to an art historian, Patricia Failing:
"The bull and the horse are important characters in Spanish culture. Picasso himself
certainly used these characters to play many different roles over time. This has made the
task of interpreting the specific meaning of the bull and the horse very tough. Their
relationship is a kind of ballet that was conceived in a variety of ways throughout
Guernica is full of hidden images and themes. Consequently, almost every line and shape in
it is meaningful, either in the context of what it represents or what it is concealing.
Years after the completion of Guernica, Picasso was still questioned time and time again
about the meaning of the bull and other images in the mural. In exasperation he stated
―Treasure of the World – Guernica‖.
emphatically: "These are animals, massacred animals. That’s all as far as I’m concerned..."
But he did reiterate the painting’s obvious anti-war sentiment: "My whole life as an artist has
been nothing more than a continuous struggle against reaction and the death of art. In the
picture I am painting — which I shall call Guernica — I am expressing my horror of the
military caste which is now plundering Spain into an ocean of misery and death."11
Guernica is an influential and innovational treatment of an historical subject; it deals
with a notorious war atrocity, the bombing of an undefended Spanish city by the German
Condor Legion during the Spanish Civil War. Yet it is a problematic work, stylistically
complex, with images difficult to decipher, and whose meaning is unclear. Molyneux once
stated that Guernica means "outrage at the horror and suffering of war"12; it is also a timely
and prophetic vision of the Second World War and is now recognized as an international icon
Robert Capa and his war photographs
Other notable artists who recorded the Spanish Civil War include one of the century’s
greatest photojournalists, Robert Capa. In support of the Loyalist cause, Robert Capa traveled
through Spain, photographing the civilian population’s anguish in the war. Capa’s work
during the Spanish Civil War elevated him to the top of his profession. In December 1938,
the prestigious British magazine Picture Post published eight pages of Capa’s Spanish Civil
Treasure of the World – Guernica, 2003.
John Molyneux, The legitimacy of modern art. http://www.isj1text.ble.org.uk/pubs/isj80/art.htm, 2003.
War photographs and proclaimed him "The Greatest Photographer in the World."13 Besides
documenting the Spanish Civil War, Capa also went on to photograph the Sino-Japanese War,
World War II, Israeli War for Independence, and the French Indochina War. But what
fascinated Capa was not the battle itself, the violence and the death, rather it was the human
detail and drama, the raw and emotionally intense expressions of war at its most intimate
Moment of Death
Capa felt passionately that if war had to be the reality of the moment, it was essential for
the side of justice to win. And so, to gain political support for the Spanish government, he
made photographs that "revealed not only the courage and determination of its soldiers
against great odds but also their fortitude in miserable conditions."14 One of Capa’s most
famous photographs is Moment of Death, which portrayed a Spanish government militiaman
who had just been shot, with his arms outstretched as he fell backward and his right hand
dropped his rifle.15 While shooting this photograph, he threw himself into the maelstrom of
war as no one had been able to do previously. His spirit of a true artist – the great intelligence,
passion, skill, sensitivity, wit and grace –made him a very important and famous war
Henri Cartier-Besson. Robert Capa: Photographs (New York: Aperture Foundation. 1996), 10.
Pablo Picasso and Robert Capa were two of the most distinguished artists during
the Spanish Civil War. Picasso’s passion to experiment and his fearless use of different styles
led to innovations that had a great impact on contemporary artists and made his name
throughout the world; in Capa’s photographs, the common denominator of them is not war
but people, which convey his "extraordinary sensitivity to and sympathy for the human
condition"16 and allow viewers to experience the wars as intimately as if they, too, were
embroiled in the anguish.17 Both of their works reveal their profound compassion and
perceptiveness, which bring us through the events of history to the very heart of humanity.
Cornell Capa and Richard Whelan, Robert Capa: Photographs (New Work: Alfred A. Knopf. 1985),
―Robert Capa: Photographs‖, http://www.tfaoi.com/aa/1aa/1aa461.htm 1996-2002.
Capa, C. & Whelan, R. Robert Capa: Photographs. New Work: Alfred A. Knopf, 1985.
Cartier-Besson, H. Robert Capa: Photographs. New York: Aperture Foundation, 1996.
Molyneux, J. 1998. The legitimacy of modern art.
<http://www.isj1text.ble.org.uk/pubs/isj80/art.htm>. Retrieve on November 3, 2003.
Oppler , E. C. Picasso’s Guernica. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1988.
Robert Capa: Photographs. 1996-2002. <http://www.tfaoi.com/aa/1aa/1aa461.htm>.
Retrieved on November 30, 2003.
Scarborough, K. Pablo Picasso. London: Franklin Watts, 2002.
Treasure of the World – Guernica. 2003.
Retrieve from November 30, 2003.