It isn’t up to the painter to define the symbols. Otherwise
it would be better if he wrote them out in so many words!
The public who look at the picture must interpret the symbols
as they understand them. – Pablo Picasso
Considered a progenitor of Modern Art and an originator of Cubism, there were nonetheless several recurrent themes in Picasso’s work. Instead of using traditional battle imagery as visual inspiration for Guernica, Picasso turned to the familiar arena of the Spanish bullring. Picasso was only three when his father took him to his first bullfight. The brutal choreography — fierce power and inevitable tragedy — had obsessed him since.
According to 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.”
In his studio Picasso kept a large wicker mask of a bull and often played out scenes from the bullring. Is the bull Picasso himself? The artist, gazing helpless and horrified at the surrounding holocaust? Do the horse and the bull represent
the fight between Loyalists and Nationalists, the stalwart Spanish people and Franco’s brutal regime?
Or the ongoing struggle between the female and male, perhaps a reflection of the artist’s personal life? Was the enemy evident in the work, or were all of the subjects victims?
“Sometimes the bull is seen as a symbol of Spain, as a symbol of the virtues and the values of Spain and Spanish culture,” says Failing.
“Sometimes the relationship is one of gender and a sort of masculine force and feminine force. Sometimes it’s a relationship of aggressor to something more passive. Sometimes it’s a relationship between darkness and light. So the bull can be the good guy, or the bull can be the bad guy, depending on which interpretation you happen to dig up in your in your survey of reactions to Guernica.”
In the past, Picasso has also drawn the bull in the form of the Minotaur — a mythological creature, half beast, half human — his thinly veiled alter ego in a battle of the sexes with the women in his life. His earlier works are filled with bulls and Minotaurs charging, goring, killing, raping. But many also depict bulls as the victims of suffering. Standing enigmatically in the background, the bull in Guernica was interpreted alternately as the brutish Fascist state and the Spanish people.
Picasso never committed to a specific explanation of his symbolism: “…this bull is a bull and this horse is a horse… If you give a meaning to certain things in my paintings it may be very true, but it is not my idea to give this meaning. What ideas and conclusions you have got I obtained too, but instinctively, unconsciously.
I make the painting for the painting. I paint the objects for what they are.”
The central figure in Guernica is a horse run through with a javelin, wrenched in agony. Some interpreted the horse as Franco’s Nationalism, with Picasso predicting its downfall. But other, opposite meanings make more sense in the overall context. The portrayal of the people as a helpless animal dying a senseless death, without the light of hope, is certainly a disturbing idea.
“Picasso made a very poignant personal statement about the horse in Guernica being connected to the idea of the suffering of the people,” adds Failing. “And since it’s an animal with a big lance wound through its center, certainly that’s a
connection many people would find quite plausible.
But Picasso was maddeningly inconsistent about what he had to say about these particular characters, although he didn’t like to say very much at all about them. He knew that it’s better to not say something and allow the interpreters to fill in the space. That gives them something to do. It makes them think about you more.”
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 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.”
Speculations as to the exact meaning of the tortured images are as numerous and varied as its viewers, and perhaps this was exactly Picasso’s intention. A composition so compelling challenges our most basic notions of war as heroic, unmasking it as a brutal act of self-destruction.