A witness to Guernica: Picasso’s Weeping woman

The story of Guernica is by now one of the most familiar in the annals of modern art.1 Guernica has been the subject of several monographs and catalogues such as Rudolf Arnheim, Picasso’s, ‘Guernica’, Palais des Beaux Arts, Bruxelles, Stedelijk Museum, 1956; Picasso’s ‘Guernica’, California, 1962; Anthony Blunt, Picasso’s Guernica’, London, 1969; Frank Russell, Picasso’s ‘Guernica’: The Labyrinth of Narrative and Vision, London, 1980. During the Spanish Civil War, the ancient Basque city of Guernica was bombed for over three hours by German bombers sympathetic to General Franco. The city lay far behind the lines and was undefended. It contained only a civilian population who were relentlessly strafed as well as bombed. The bombing took place on 26 April 1937. On 1 May, Picasso made the first sketches of what was to become the epic-scaled painting, Guernica

Picasso had been invited earlier that year by the Republican government of Spain to paint a mural for the Spanish Pavilion at the Paris International Exhibition. The bombing of Guernica provided him with the grimly appropriate subject: the Spanish agony. The painting itself was one of the largest Picasso ever undertook, standing 351 cm high and running for 782 cm. Even for Picasso the work went with astonishing speed. Dora Maar, his companion of the late 1930s and early 40s, photographed the great work seven times before its completion, vividly recording the separate stages. It is a reasonable supposition that she did so because the work evolved so quickly; the changing faces of pity and terror had to be caught. Although there is no firm date to mark its completion, the underdrawing for the entire composition was in place by 11 May, just ten days after the first pencil sketches. The work was installed in the Spanish Pavilion by July 1937, therefore it must have been completed by the end of June at the latest. 

Whatever that terminus may be, the speed of Picasso’s execution was extraordinary – so rapid that even the extended scale of Guernica did not exhaust the original inspiration. The painting cast a long shadow over Picasso’s art for the remainder of 1937 as he produced a series of ‘postscripts’, as Alfred Barr aptly called them.2 Picasso: Fifty Years of his Art, Museum of Modem Art, New York, 1946, p.206.  

The principal recurring image amongst the postscripts is that of the weeping woman. The image derives from the screaming mother who holds her dead child and vainly attempts to escape from the Guernica nightmare at the extreme left of the painting. Picasso made many studies for this figure, who, right from the very beginning, was one of the principal figures in the total drama. She was the focus of pain and human suffering amidst the symbols of rearing horse and bull. The proximity in Picasso’s mind of the two images – the mother of the dead child and the weeping woman – can be gauged by two oil sketches dated by Zervos to the same day, 22 June (Ζ IX 49, 50). That first sketch of the weeping woman introduced the motif of the handkerchief. The date of the sketches – late June, when Guernica must have been almost entirely finished – confirms the view that these postscripts have an intimate connection with the great painting itself. They came unbidden, in the same moment of agonised inspiration. The shift in the images from painting to postscript is a shift from being a participant in the holocaust of Guernica to a witness of that drama. The screaming mother becomes the weeping woman. Both the link between them and the transformation of feeling from agony to grief, is what sustains the power and presence of the Weeping woman. The painting is without a vestige of sentimentality because it belongs to and witnesses a tragedy of modern history. 

Picasso etched the subject the following month after Guernica had been placed on public view and the etched image naturally reversed the head of the woman so that she now looks to the right. This was to become the composition Picasso used in October 1937 when he produced the three independent oil paintings of the Weeping woman3 Of the three versions, only the Penrose version is published in Zervos (Ζ IX 73). Both the Melbourne and the Musée Picasso versions have been widely exhibited and published., which include the Melbourne work (fig. 1). The version now in the Musée Picasso (fig. 2) is the sketchiest of the three and in its direct graphic quality recalls the sketches and the earliest postscripts to Guernica. It marks Picasso’s return to the difficult subject which had so troubled, exercised and inspired him during the middle months of 1937. 

The most celebrated and elaborate painting of the three is undoubtedly that owned by the late Sir Roland Penrose (fig. 3) and on loan to the Tate Gallery in London for many years. The addition of a hat with a flower and the brilliant blue and red colour chords of this work took the image away from the austere monochrome world of Guernica. The fall of the woman’s hair, the rhythmically striated pattern, added a further ‘portrait-like’ dimension to the image. 

The Melbourne version stands between these two. Less elaborate than the Penrose painting, without the hat or the complex passages of fingers, it is more fully worked than the Paris sketch. The Gallery’s work retains something of the immediacy of direct painting as much the product of the brush as of deliberate construction, but it lacks the careful orchestration and schematisation of the Penrose version. The ‘portrait’ qualities are certainly present in the Melbourne painting, and the acidic green/purple colour proposition gives it a cutting edge conceding nothing to conventional taste. 

The Melbourne Weeping woman has a subtle but important difference in its overall composition. The figure is firmly disposed in an interior setting. The narrow grey space against which the weeping woman throws an intense black shadow contributes a sense of claustrophobia to the painting and recalls the pent-up spaces of Guernica itself where so much turmoil goes on in a confined and ambiguous space. The weeping woman is literally and metaphorically shut in on her own grief. Of the three October 1937 versions, the Gallery’s Weeping woman stands closest to the expressive origins of the trio. 

The weeping woman is, however, a witness to Guernica and not a participant. She responds in imagination with inconsolable grief to the terrible acts of the drama. Earlier I mentioned the ‘portrait-like’ quality of the Melbourne and Penrose versions. They both possess a particularity the more generalised head of the screaming woman in Guernica and its sketches lack. Weeping woman unmistakably shows Picasso moving towards the Dora Maar series of portraits and figures which were to dominate his art through 1938 and into the early war years once she had become his mistress and replaced Marie-Thérèse Walter.4 Picasso painted portraits of Dora Maar with strikingly similar compositions and morphology to the Weeping woman on 1 October 1937 and 23 November 1937. See Picasso Oeuvres recues en paiement des droites de succession, Paris, 1979, nos 263, 266. Where Marie-Thérèse had been for Picasso the embodiment of the statuesque idol, both sensual and classicising; Dora Maar was the focus of apprehension, sensibility and feeling. She was herself an artist, a photographer and in that role had been the first ‘witness’ of Guernica as she photographed its dramatic succession of states during its creation. Sensitive and highly-strung, she was no doubt profoundly moved by the evolving work as Picasso explored and elaborated on the Spanish tragedy during those fateful weeks in May and June 1937. If she was the first witness to Guernica, how appropriate and how typical of Picasso that he would transform her first responses to the work into the lasting form of the Weeping woman. The historical and universal tragedy of Guernica became personal and particular in the Weeping woman.

Patrick McCaughey 


 1            Guernica has been the subject of several monographs and catalogues such as Rudolf Arnheim, Picasso’s, ‘Guernica’, Palais des Beaux Arts, Bruxelles, Stedelijk Museum, 1956; Picasso’s ‘Guernica’, California, 1962; Anthony Blunt, Picasso’s Guernica’, London, 1969; Frank Russell, Picasso’s ‘Guernica’: The Labyrinth of Narrative and Vision, London, 1980. 

2            Picasso: Fifty Years of his Art, Museum of Modem Art, New York, 1946, p.206. 

3            Of the three versions, only the Penrose version is published in Zervos (Ζ IX 73). Both the Melbourne and the Musée Picasso versions have been widely exhibited and published. 

4            Picasso painted portraits of Dora Maar with strikingly similar compositions and morphology to the Weeping woman on 1 October 1937 and 23 November 1937. See Picasso Oeuvres recues en paiement des droites de succession, Paris, 1979, nos 263, 266.