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.
With the growth of German nationalism from the end of the 1920s, the term “Entartete Kunst” was increasingly present in the art propaganda of the National Socialist Party and applied to everything that did not conform to Nazi goals. It became the central concept of their art policy, being used in the battle against ‘foreign infiltration’ of art. Citing petit-bourgeois artistic taste as ‘popular sentiment’ the Nazis had instigated a wide campaign of defamation within all the arts.
It was directed against avant-garde tendencies, both national and international, which had developed from the late 19th century.
By 1930, the Minister for Culture and Education, von Thüringen Frick, had already proclaimed his program ‘Against Negro culture— for German national traditions,’ aimed particularly at the Expressionists, and he ordered the removal of 70 paintings from the permanent exhibition of the Schlossmuseum at Weimar. Also in 1930, Hildebrand Gurlitt, the museum director in Zwickau, was dismissed for promoting such artists as Emil Nolde, Heinrich Zille, Ernst Barlach, Otto Dix and others.
In March 1933 Bettina Feistel- Rohmeder, director of the Deutsche Kunstkorrespondenz, called for the removal from the museums of all works revealing ‘cosmopolitan and Bolshevik aspects.’
The purpose of this propaganda was the bringing-in-to-line of the arts within a Nazi state. Art’s only task was to illustrate the ideas of National Socialism and the glorification of the State.
Feistel-Rohmeder demanded the seizure of ‘degenerate works of art.’ Museum directors were either forced out of office or relieved of their duties following the first of defamatory exhibitions of 1933. The Law for the Restoration of Civil Service with Tenure, passed on April 7, 1933, facilitated the dismissal of directors for ‘the promotion of degenerate art’. In October 1936, the ‘temporary’ closure of the modern wing in the Kronprinzenpalais in Berlin was ordered, though intended to be final. All these actions were arranged and coordinated by the Reich Ministry of the Interior for Information and Propaganda under Joseph Goebbels, in conjunction with the Gestapo.
In 1937, under the newly elected President of the Reichskammer für Bildende Künste, Professor Adolf Ziegler, a commission was set up to select works for a planned exhibition of EntarteteKunst upon orders from Goebbels.
One day after Hitler opened the first Grosse Deutsche Kunstausstellung in the Haus der Deutschen Kunst (now the Haus der Kunst),in Munich, the Entartete Kunst exhibition in the Archeologisches Institut in Munich began (July 19, 1937). The skillfully anti-aesthetic hanging and the defamatory commentary on the works did not fail to achieve propagandistic success. In a reduced form, this exhibition toured to Leipzig, Berlin and Düsseldorf (1938), and to Chemnitz, Frankfurt am Main and Vienna (1939).
By August 1937 the wide-scale confiscation of all works of art in museums designated degenerate’ had already begun. According to records, a total of 15,997 works of fine art were confiscated from 101 German museums. This action was justified by the Law on the Confiscation of Products of Degenerate Art, passed belatedly on May 31, 1938. Works affected were those of classical modernity, works by artists of Jewish descent and works of social criticism. Only a few were retained and hidden through the brave maneuvering of individual members of museum staff.
The artists themselves, assuming they had not already left Germany, were forbidden to paint or exhibit. In addition to confiscation, the destruction of murals and architectural monuments, among others, took place. In May 1938, Goebbels instigated the establishment of the Kommission zur Verwertung der Beschlagnahmten Werke Entarteter Kunst. Confiscated works were stored in depots and from there, sold to interested parties abroad (the Nazis hoped for a source of revenue for foreign currency, which was needed for the rearmament program), and sometimes exchanged (Hermann Goering made exchanges with older works of art for his private collection).
In 1939, 125 works were put up for auction in Lucerne, including works by van Gogh, Gauguin, Franz Marc, Macke, Klee, Kokoschka and Lehmbruck. The end of the Aktion entartete Kunst was signalled by the burning of 4829 art works in the courtyard of the Berlin Fire Brigade.
By Anita Kühnel New York Museum of Modern Art
Picasso’s masterwork, Guernica, plays a pivotal role in “A Picasso”. The work is Picasso’s interpretation– and damnation of– the Axis bombing of the small Spanish-Basque town of the same name in 1937. The operation occurred on a market day in the town of 5000. Over 1500 casualties were reported and final figures estimate that around 800 civilians died in the attack or subsequently from their injuries. You can read more about the Bombing of Guernica here.
Eyewitness to History:
The German bombers appeared in the skies over Guernica in the late afternoon of April 26, 1937 and immediately transformed the sleepy Spanish market town into an everlasting symbol of the atrocity of war. Unbeknownst to the residents of Guernica, they had been slated by their attackers to become guinea pigs in an experiment designed to determine just what it would take to bomb a city into oblivion.
Spain was embroiled in a convulsive civil war that had begun in July 1936 when the right-wing Nationalists led by General Francisco Franco sought to overthrow Spain’s left-wing Republican government. It did not take long before this bloody internal Spanish quarrel attracted the participation of forces beyond its borders – creating a lineup of opponents that foreshadowed the partnerships that would battle each other in World War II. Fascist Germany and Italy supported Franco while the Soviet Union backed the Republicans. A number of volunteers made their way to Spain to fight and die under the Republican banner including the Abraham Lincoln Brigade from the United States.
Hitler’s support of Franco consisted of the Condor Legion, an adjunct of the Luftwaffe. The Condor Legion provided the Luftwaffe the opportunity to develop and perfect tactics of aerial warfare that would fuel Germany’s blitzkrieg through Europe during 1939 and 1940. As German air chief Hermann Goering testified at his trial after World War II: “The Spanish Civil War gave me an opportunity to put my young air force to the test, and a means for my men to gain experience.” Some of these experimental tactics were tested on that bright Spring day with devastating results – the town of Guernica was entirely destroyed with a loss of life estimated at 1,650. The world was shocked and the tragedy immortalized by Pablo Picasso in his painting Guernica.
Rehearsal for War
Noel Monks was a correspondent covering the civil war in Spain for the “London Daily Express.” He was the first reporter to arrive on the scene after the bombing. We join his story as he and other reporters drive along a dusty Spanish road:
“We were about eighteen miles east of Guernica when Anton pulled to the side of the road jammed on the brakes and started shouting. He pointed wildly ahead, and my heart shot into my mouth, when I looked. Over the top of some small hills appeared a flock of planes. A dozen or so bombers were flying high. But down much lower, seeming just to skim the treetops were six Heinkel 52 fighters. The bombers flew on towards Guernica but the Heinkels, out for random plunder, spotted our car, and, wheeling like a flock of homing pigeons, they lined up the road – and our car.
Anton and I flung ourselves into a bomb hole, twenty yards to the side of the road. It was half filed with water, and we sprawled in the mud. We half knelt, half stood, with our heads buried in the muddy side of the carter.
After one good look at the Heinkels, I didn’t look up again until they had gone. That seemed hours later, but it was probably less than twenty minutes. The planes made several runs along the road. Machine-gun bullets plopped into the mud ahead, behind, all around us. I began to shiver from sheer fright. Only the day before Steer, an old hand now, had ‘briefed’ me about being strafed. ‘Lie still and as flat as you can. But don’t get up and start running, or you’ll be bowled over for certain.’
When the Heinkels departed, out of ammunition I presumed, Anton and I ran back to our car. Nearby a military car was burning fiercely. All we could do was drag two riddled bodies to the side of the road. I was trembling all over now, in the grip of the first real fear I’d ever experienced.”
“… I saw the reflection of Guernica’s flames in the sky.”
Monk and his fellow reporters drive on, traveling near Guernica where they can hear what they think may be the sounds of bombs. They continue to the city of Balboa, where after filing his report to London, Monk joins his colleagues for dinner. His story continues as his dinner is interrupted by the news from Guernica:
“…a Government official, tears streaming down his face, burst into the dismal dining-room crying: ‘Guernica is destroyed. The Germans bombed and bombed and bombed.’ The time was about 9.30 p.m. Captain Roberts banged a huge fist on the table and said: ‘Bloody swine.’ Five minutes later I was in one of Mendiguren’s limousines speeding towards Guernica. We were still a good ten miles away when I saw the reflection of Guernica’s flames in the sky. As we drew nearer, on both sides of the road, men, women and children were sitting, dazed. I saw a priest in one group. I stopped the car and went up to him. ‘What I happened, Father?’ I asked. His face was blackened, his clothes in tatters. He couldn’t talk. He just pointed to the flames, still about four miles away, then whispered: ‘Aviones. . . bombas’. . . mucho, mucho.’
…I was the first correspondent to reach Guernica, and was immediately pressed into service by some Basque soldiers collecting charred bodies that the flames had passed over. Some of the soldiers were sobbing like children. There were flames and smoke and grit, and the smell of burning human flesh was nauseating. Houses were collapsing into the inferno.
In the Plaza, surrounded almost by a wall of fire, were about a hundred refugees. They were wailing and weeping and rocking to and fro. One middle-aged man spoke English. He told me: ‘At four, before the-market closed, many aeroplanes came. They dropped bombs. Some came low and shot bullets into the streets. Father Aroriategui was wonderful. He prayed with the people in the Plaza while the bombs fell.’..
…The only things left standing were a church, a sacred Tree, symbol of the Basque people, and, just outside the town, a small munitions factory. There hadn’t been a single anti-aircraft gun in the town. It had been mainly a fire raid.
…A sight that haunted me for weeks was the charred bodies of several women and children huddled together in what had been the cellar of a house. It had been a refugio.”References:
Noel Monks’ account appears in: Monks, Noel, Eyewitness (1955); Thomas, Hugh, The Spanish Civil War (1977). “The Bombing of Guernica, 1937,” EyeWitness to History, http://www.eyewitnesstohistory.com (2005)
Well, folks, we’ve had our first two meetings for “A Picasso” and let me tell you: this show reads FABULOUSLY! Nimble, witty, and emotionally raw at times. And it has an amazing message about life and art and what it means to create versus destroy.
Jaguar Bennett (playing Picasso) and Chelsea Bonilla (playing Miss Fischer) are pulling out some new skills for their performances and I cannot wait to witness the fireworks when these two go head to head onstage!
Hope to see you at the show!
Heather Parish, director