National Gallery of Victoria


Pablo Picasso
Spanish 1881–1973, worked in France 1904–73
Guernica 1937
oil on canvas
349.0 x 776.0 cm
Musée Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid
© Pablo Picasso/Succession Pablo Picasso, Paris. Licensed by Viscopy, Sydney 2006


Pablo Picasso
Spanish 1881–1973, worked in France 1904–73
The Dream and Lie of Franco
8 January 1937
etching and aquatint
31.7 x 42.2 cm
Dation Pablo Picasso, Musée National Picasso, Paris, MP 2751
© Pablo Picasso/Succession Pablo Picasso, Paris. Licensed by Viscopy, Sydney 2006


Dora Maar
French 1907–1997
Picasso painting Guernica, close-up
Paris, Grands-Augustins studio, May 1937
gelatin silver photograph
24.0 x 17.8 cm
Collection Dora Maar, Musée National Picasso, Paris, MP 1998-200
© Dora Maar/ADAGP. Licensed by Viscopy, Sydney, 2006


Dora Maar
French 1907–1997
Picasso painting Guernica, state 4/5
Paris, Grands-Augustins studio, May-June 1937
gelatin silver photograph
20.3 x 19.8 cm
Collection Dora Maar, Musée National Picasso, Paris, MP 1998-222
© Dora Maar/ADAGP. Licensed by Viscopy, Sydney, 2006


Dora Maar
French 1907–1997
'Guernica' in progress, 8th state
Grands-Augustins studio, May-June 1937
gelatin silver photograph
24.1 x 30.5 cm
Collection Dora Maar, Musée National Picasso, Paris, MP 1998-222
© Dora Maar/ADAGP. Licensed by Viscopy, Sydney, 2006

A Journey Through the Exhibition

An Introduction to Guernica

On April 26 1937, late in the afternoon, the undefended Basque town of Guernica was bombed relentlessly for three hours by German and Italian aircraft that were acting on the instructions of Franco's Nationalist forces. The horrific campaign experimented with the potency of modern warfare, including incendiary bombs, explosives and shrapnel and was deliberately aimed at destruction of the civilian population. Escort planes that plunged from the sky to strafe people fleeing from the town exacerbated the massacre. The town was razed to the ground. Of the ten thousand inhabitants and refugees who made up the population of Guernica, three thousand were estimated to have died and thousands more were injured and mutilated.
When newspaper reports of the brutal attack appeared the following day the world was shocked and outraged, particularly as the attack took place on market day. Also, most of the inhabitants of Guernica were women, children and the elderly, because the younger men were away fighting in the Republican army.

To access Bombing of Guernica: original Times report from 1937:,,13509-2151248,00.html

Picasso had never been moved to engage in overtly political art, but his deep sorrow at the outbreak of civil war in his homeland (where his cousins were fighting on the Republican side), and his relationship with the politically charged Dora Maar, a member of the French Communist Party, had galvanized the passionate Spaniard into publicising his outrage. Early in 1937 he began the Dream and Lie of Franco, a series of fourteen etchings designed to be published as individual postcards to raise funds for 'Governmental Spain'. Resembling a comic strip, they evoked a traditional form of satiric Catalan engraving and depicted Franco as a giant, grotesque, demonic dictator in a series of ridiculous postures and costumes, including the elaborate attire of a courtesan. A nightmarish parody of civil war and a protest against Franco's claim to be a champion of traditional Spanish culture, the works show him in various frames riding a mad and disembowelled horse, destroying a classical sculpture or mounted on a pig. In each case Franco is leaving a trail of death and destruction. The key messages were in no doubt, that Franco was an oppressor of the common people, an enemy of the arts and a murderer of women and children.

When news of the bombing of Guernica reached Picasso he was stunned and horrified to such an extent that he was again driven to respond with impassioned political statements. He added four new plates to the Dream and Lie of Franco series that were first printed in the journal Cahiers d'Art in 1937, and later as a portfolio with an epic poem by the artist mourning the tragic events in Spain.

'Cries of children cries of women cries of birds cries of flowers cries of wood and of stones cries of bricks cries of furniture of beds of chairs of curtains of casseroles of cats and paper cries of smells that claw themselves of smoke that gnaws the neck of cries that boil in cauldron and the rain of birds that floods the sea that eats into bone and breaks the teeth biting the cotton that the sun wipes on its plate that bourse and bank hide in the footprint left embedded in the rock.. '

The above is Picasso's poem accompanying the Dream and Lie of Franco

Picasso was appointed honorary director of the Prado in 1936 and commissioned by the Spanish Republican Government to create a mural for the Spanish Pavilion at the World Fair being held in Paris in 1937. He started on a large painting based on the theme of The Studio: The Painter and His Model. The emotional wave of horror and indignation following the barbaric attack on Guernica led Picasso to instead create what was to become one of the greatest masterpieces in the history of art – a monumental outpouring of grief and rage condemning the senselessness of war.

The Making of Guernica

Picasso moved into a new studio in the attic of 7, rue des Grands-Augustins, which Dora Maar found for him in early 1937. Originally part of a grand 17th-century mansion, it had an intriguing history that appealed to Picasso's sense of irony, particularly as he was painting Guernica. The studio was said to be the setting for The Unknown Masterpiece, a short story written in 1837 by the famous French author, Honoré de Balzac. It describes an obsession by the painter, Frenhofer, the greatest painter of his time, to represent the absolute on his canvas, a process that takes years for his creative powers to complete. When the picture, which becomes less and less recognizable as time goes on, is ridiculed by his artist friends as the work of a madman, he destroys the work and dies. The story resonated with Picasso who, like Frenhofer, also locked himself away in the same studio to create a masterpiece, although in his case it was recognized as such.

Picasso made hundreds of preliminary drawings for Guernica and more than fifty studies. In some of these the heads of Weeping Women appear for the first time.

Constraints such as the enormous size of the stretched canvas, measuring 3.5 x 7.8 metres and so had to be tilted to fit under the rafters of the ceiling, and dim lighting from bay windows on one side of the studio, failed to hinder Picasso. The painting was completed in twenty-four frenetic days. Streams of ideas, emotions, traditions, myths, obsessions and symbols of his roots deeply embedded in Hispanic and Mediterranean culture spilled onto the canvas. These were fuelled by anger and a need to express his pain.

Motifs of a woman screaming in agony as she clutches the limp body of her dead child; another woman stretching out from a window with a lamp, hoping in vain to illuminate the encroaching darkness; mutilated bodies and the gaping mouths of those hysterical with pain, fear and sorrow merge with a wounded horse and the ever-present bull to create a profound dramatic tension. The gruesome imagery encircled by burning buildings and painted in black, white and subtle gradations of grey, suggests that Picasso may have drawn on newspaper photographs and newsreels documenting the tragedy in Guernica. The fine patterning in the centre of the painting resembles words on torn pieces of newspaper, suggesting that art is as powerful as the mass media in communicating a message. Chaos and despair are amplified by sharp, angular shapes, particularly the bold triangular form at the centre of the painting and vivid contrasts of light and shade. Purity of line from Picasso's Neo-classical period, elements of Surrealism and Cubism, and a reference to Goya's famous painting of 1814 depicting the horrors of war, El Tris de Mayo (Third of May), coexist in this summation of Picasso's development as an artist to date.

Speculations about the exact meaning of the symbolism in Guernica have varied. Some insist that the bull represents brutality or the ritual of life and death epitomised by the bullfight, while the horse is a metaphor for the suffering people. Others suggest that the reverse is true and maintain that the bull signifies the people and the horse can be read as Franco's Nationalist forces. Picasso was adamant that he had not intended to symbolise in such a concrete way and it was entirely up to the viewers to interpret the painting.

A photographic record of a masterpiece

The creation of Guernica was to stimulate an even greater personal closeness and deeper professional understanding between artist and photographer when Picasso asked Dora to document his art in the making. Her photographic record brings to life the intensity and passion of Picasso at work and provides the first complete record of a Modern work of art in the making. Dora's documentation of the eight key successive stages clearly explains both the development of the work and the multiple transformations that occurred during the course of its journey. The photographs reveal that the bull's head, for example, changes direction over time, and that Picasso experimented with applying strips of coloured paper collage to the painting that were later removed. Dora gives insightful glimpses into the workings of Picasso's artistic genius as he composes, adds, experiments and deletes in the search for perfection.

The constant conversation between the painting in progress and its photographic recording manifests in a number of ways. The dramatic intensity of the dark tones slowly making their appearance felt as the painting evolves can be likened to the gradual appearance of an image in a developing tray. In a more concrete way, the tonal variations Picasso observed in Dora's photographs appear to have influenced the development of those in the middle stages of the painting. Guernica was to be published as postcards for sale at the exhibition (to fund the Spanish Republican war effort), which also meant that Picasso must constantly consider how the painting would work as a photographic image on a small scale.

The composition has at its heart a white triangle of light projected by a naked light globe, resembling the dazzling eye of a flash bulb used to take photographs in the dark.

Dora again demonstrated her skill and innovation as a photographer, unobtrusively recording the passion and energy of Picasso at work, the physical challenges of working on a monumental scale and the emotional power of the painting as it materialised. Picasso moved the lighting as he worked, sometimes causing halos and spots to appear in the photographs. In order to correct these defects, Dora manipulated the photographs taken at stages one and two through the process of photomontage. She cut out and rearranged sections from several shots and attached them to a background with drawing pins before photographing them again.

Dora's influence was again embedded in the masterpiece of Guernica, created in perhaps the most impassioned and innovative period of Picasso's career. Her presence is recorded in the painting as the face of the woman bearing the lamp. We also know that she painted a few vertical strokes on the image of the horse. At the heart of Guernica, however, is the unique fusion of Picasso's painting and Dora's photography, sparked by the empathy between two fiercely inventive minds attuned to the world in such a similar way.

Guernica - Quick facts and figures

Questions for Further Discussion:

  1. Discuss which art elements contribute to making Guernica a powerful and universal statement about the horrors of war.
  2. Why did Picasso make Guernica monochromatic?
  3. Does this painting resonate as much today as it did in the 1930s and 1940s ? Discuss.
  4. What does the documentation of the making of a great work of art contribute to our understanding of the artist and the artwork?
  5. Study the key stages of Guernica photographed by Dora Maar. Discuss the alterations, additions and deletions that took place until its completion. How do they make a difference to the final work?
  6. Discuss the similarities and differences between Goya's famous painting of 1814 depicting the horrors of war, El Tris de Mayo (Third of May) and Guernica. Research other great works of art that explore the horror of war.

  7. What evidence is there to suggest that Picasso has made reference to photography, newsreels and mass media in the painting?
  8. Picasso did not want to explain the symbolism in the painting. He was adamant that viewers should construct their own interpretation. List all of the motifs in Guernica such as the bare light bulb, the bull and the woman holding a dead child and discuss their particular meaning to you. What symbols would you create to symbolise these meanings?
  9. Locate a picture of Picasso's The Charnel House, 1944-45, oil on canvas (which hangs in the Museum of Modern Art, New York), in a book or on the internet. What is going on in this painting? In what ways is it similar to Guernica?

 Other References (Preparing for Your Visit)



NGV: Art like never before