Politics in Art Pablo Picassos Guernica

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					Art and the Spanish Civil War – Pablo Picasso and Robert Capa

                        Timyee Cheng
          University of Maryland, Baltimore County
                         ART 323
                     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

completely destroyed.2

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

       Scarborough, 26.
       Scarborough, 26.
       Scarborough, 26.
       Scarborough, 26.
       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

     Picasso’s career."10

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

         Oppler, 76.
         Oppler, 76.
         Oppler, 74.
         ―Treasure of the World – Guernica‖.
http://www.pbs.org/treasuresoftheworld/a_nav/guernica_nav/main_guerfrm.html, 2003.

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

for peace.

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.
       Cartier-Besson, 10.
       Cartier-Besson, 11.


           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.


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