Pablo Picasso had his vision for his masterpiece Guernica weeks before the bombing of the Basque town and based its composition on a painting by Francisco Goya and two famous war photographs, according to a new analysis that overturns traditional assumptions.
The mural, displayed at the Museo Reina Sofía in Madrid, was painted at the height of the Spanish Civil War and is one of the best-known antiwar artworks. However, while its title links the painting to the Nationalists’ aerial attack on Guernica on April 26, 1937, much about its genesis and meaning has remained mysterious, due partly to the artist’s reticence.
Now researchers in Canada have concluded that, earlier in 1937, Picasso had already conceived of the mural as a triptych, or three-part composition, with dimensions based on Goya’s The Second of May 1808. They argue that the artist used that 19th-century masterpiece, depicting an uprising of Spanish civilians against tyrannical French rule, as the inspiration for the central, largest section. And they believe he appropriated civil war photographs by Robert Capa and David “Chim” Seymour, showing a falling soldier and a breastfeeding mother, on the right and left-hand sides.
According to their review of the masses of relevant literature, none of these three works — each very well-known — has previously been recognised as a central inspiration for the painting. The study’s lead author, Michael Young, a retired lecturer in art theory and ceramic sculpture at Okanagan University College, said: “I could not believe that other people hadn’t looked at Goya’s The Second of May and gone, ‘There it is!'”
The authors, who based their findings on analysis of the composition and historical records, argue that Picasso’s theme was not the bombing of Guernica, specifically, but political violence in Spain and war generally. They believe that he would have produced the same composition even if Guernica had not been bombed — although the atrocity gave it a special resonance that helped to secure its lasting fame. And they further argue that the mural was painted in black and white because he conceived of Guernica as, effectively, a work of photojournalism and intended that it would be transmitted internationally via the new technology of wire picture services.
Picasso’s involvement with the project that would become Guernica was known to have started at the beginning of 1937. The 55-year-old Spanish painter and sculptor then agreed to create a mural for the Spanish Pavilion planned for the Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques dans la vie Moderne in Paris, where he lived. The pavilion, which would open in June, would represent the Second Spanish Republic, under existential threat from General Francisco Franco’s forces following a military coup d’état of July 1936.
According to the prevailing view, Picasso only conceived of the mural’s theme and composition in late April, after the bombing of Guernica by the German and Italian air forces on behalf of Franco’s Nationalists. The bombing killed hundreds of Basque civilians and ushered in a new kind of warfare.
Describing the attack, George Steer, of The Times, wrote: “In the form of its execution and the scale of the destruction it wrought, no less than in the selection of its objective, the raid on Guernica is unparalleled in military history. Guernica was not a military objective . . . The object of the bombardment was seemingly the demoralisation of the civil population and the destruction of the cradle of the Basque race.”
It has been generally accepted that Guernica was Picasso’s spontaneous creative response to that day’s terror. However, a problem with this interpretation is that there is little or no obvious reference to the place Guernica, or to aerial bombing, in Picasso’s mural. According to the authors, that is because Picasso had decided on his composition and theme many weeks before, when he gave exact dimension for the mural to Josep Lluís Sert, the Spanish Pavilion’s architect.
They believe that these numbers, 349.3 x 776.6cm, are the keys to unlocking the mural’s meaning. As Young explains: “Reading and thinking about Guernica after I got to see it in the Museum of Modern Art [New York] led me to realise there was something incorrect about what was being written. So I began doing a lot more reading and the first thing I ran across was these exact dimensions being given to Sert early in the year. As soon as I saw those numbers, it just rang to me that there had to be a proportional relationship between the painting’s size and the content. That was huge to me — a Eureka moment.”
The second time Young went to see Guernica, in an annexe of Madrid’s Museo del Prado, he spent several hours looking at the mural before walking next door to see Goya’s The Third of May 1808 — a painting often compared to Guernica and showing the execution of Spanish civilians in reprisal for the Dos de Mayo uprising against French occupation.
However, it was not this painting, but its companion piece, showing the action of the rising itself, that really caught Young’s attention. “It was only after I walked around the corner and saw The Second of May 1808, that boing, there it was! It was absolutely clear in my mind that this was what I needed now to focus on.”
He spent that afternoon studying the preliminary drawings for Guernica and noticed that the first one was dated “1 May 1937”. Although he believes this really was the drawing’s date, he suspects Picasso had deliberately waited to set pencil to paper in order to place his own work in a sequence with, and ahead of, Goya’s masterpieces.
Young said: “Those three revelations together sent me home and I spent hours with a compass and a ruler, trying to understand how that all would fit together.”
This exercise paid off. In Young’s reconstruction, Picasso began with the dimensions of Goya’s The Second of May 1808 — shown as the smaller of the two rectangles, above. He then projected the sides of the rectangle to the full height of the wall he was provided with in the pavilion (349.3 cm). One of the extended sides is indicated by the dotted line in the illustration. Finally, he determined the centre point on the base of the smaller rectangle and, using the same method that would be used to establish a golden rectangle, he drew two arcs from the upper points of the extended Goya to the base line. This established the width of Guernica as 776.6 cm.
According to the analysis, published in The European Legacy, the process created the structure of an implicit triptych. The authors believe that Picasso co-opted The Second of May 1808 in the centre and two especially powerful press photographs in the side panels. Capa’s Death of a Loyalist Soldier (1936), on the right, depicting a Republican in the moment of death, remains one of the best known images of the conflict. Chim Seymour’s photograph, on the left, shows a nursing mother looking upwards during a land reform meeting. It was also widely circulated and often presented as if the woman was looking up at enemy bombers.
The two war photographs are easiest to see, at a glance, in Guernica, although both images are reversed as on an etching plate, and the falling soldier is transformed into a falling woman. In the centre of the picture, elements from Goya’s The Second of May 1808 have been moved around and sometimes reversed, according to the analysis. For instance, the man stabbing a Mameluke cavalryman’s horse in the right-hand foreground of Goya’s painting becomes a supplicant female figure in Guernica. And the Mameluke whose hand is raised defensively with his own dagger in the Goya is transformed into a woman holding a lantern.
The only male figure in Picasso’s reworking is the broken sculpture of a man carrying a sword. It replaces Goya’s dead soldier with a sword in the left-hand foreground. Young believes Picasso’s focus on women was very deliberate. “The story in The Times was about the slaughter of women and children, on a market day, because the men were away at the front. That Times story may have been the catalyst. It was reproduced all over the world. For me, bottom line, the painting is about the fact that every conflict is a slaughter of the innocent.”
Commenting on Picasso’s creative process, he added: “The idea I’ve had very strongly is thinking about Picasso and Sert standing in front of that wall and Picasso pulling together these pieces into an overlay image in his mind.
“Picasso was determined, I think, that this painting would wind up in the Prado someday. And the greatest antiwar artist was Goya. Picasso was very conscious of his place in history and this was his ideal opportunity to use Goya and celebrate Goya, but to subsume him. So I see that central image of The Second of May 1808 and the images of Capa and of Seymour flowing together in his mind at that preliminary stage. He must have gone home and sat down with a pencil and paper and ruler and compass to come back less than a month later and say, ‘These are the proportions it will be’.
“Those are the images I see as being dominant. There may be many others, but those are the ones that drive the painting.”
His co-author, Dr Robert Belton, an art historian and Dean Emeritus of Creative and Critical Studies at the University of British Columbia’s Okanagan Campus, said: “There was a 1969 television interview in which Jimi Hendrix was asked why he played The Star-Spangled Banner the unorthodox way he did at Woodstock. And his answer was because he thought it was beautiful. That pops into my mind when I think about Picasso assimilating these other images. It’s like Hendrix assimilating these elements of music, melodically, but then interpreting through a kind of expressive screen that is more about Jimi Hendrix than it is about the composer of the original tune. It’s not so much that he’s copying them as extracting from them some sort of an essence, which in Jimi’s case would have been, ‘It’s beautiful’. But in Picasso’s case, it would be ‘This expresses my outrage’.”
The researchers suggest that Goya’s The Second of May 1808 likely became dominant in Picasso’s mind because it shows a spontaneous uprising of the Spanish people. Significantly, Goya’s painting depicts fighting in Madrid, which Franco was seeking to capture in January and February 1937. Its villains are Napoleon’s Mamelukes — cavalrymen, often of Middle Eastern and North African origin, who Picasso may have likened to Franco’s Moroccan troops. In fact, previous research noted that Picasso’s lover Dora Maar claimed he was “constantly railing about the second Moorish invasion” while painting Guernica.
As for his use of multiple mirror images, Young said: “That was one of the things he had played with as a printmaker. I think the images were as fluid in his mind as if he was juggling them. So when he looked at The Second of May, rather than doing anything literal, he wanted to use mirror images of all those characters. The dagger pointing down became a lamp going up. The woman in complete supplication was replacing a man aggressively stabbing a horse.
“I think he looked at mirror images as a way of turning something from a particular into a universal. So by allowing the horse to be a mirror image, but still central, and covering it with all those marks of newsprint that so many people have alluded to, he was screaming for communication. I believe, and can’t prove it, that he painted it in black and white for the same reason. Again, it made it universal, but it also made it available for reproduction via wire and radio transmission.”
The researchers’ conjecture is that Picasso knew the photographers Seymour and Capa in Paris in 1936. Seymour certainly knew Picasso in 1937, when he photographed him directly in front of Guernica at the opening of the Spanish Pavilion. In any case, Young said: “Picasso’s friends were bringing him every image they could find on the Spanish Civil War daily. Those images were being reproduced in Life magazine, Vu, Cahiers d’Art and so on. So he was very familiar with images coming in from the front into Paris. I’m assuming Capa and Seymour’s images would have been part of that flow.”
The findings don’t only have implications for understanding the mural’s intended meaning. They also challenge the idea, which is sometimes advanced, that he was politically detached before the bombing of Guernica.
As the researchers, including co-author art historian Dr Nathalie Hager, of the University of British Columbia’s Okanagan Campus, write: “Madrid was attacked in November 1936, and Málaga, Picasso’s birthplace, was disastrously attacked by the air forces of Italy and Germany, under the direction of Franco, in February 1937. The civil war was going very badly for the Republicans, and they needed publicity, money, and sympathy on an international scale. Given his fame and his reputation as a fierce pacifist, Picasso must have known that everyone around him longed for some kind of statement about the gutting of his homeland by the Fascists. Picasso must surely have been mulling over how best to address the conflict visually well before the bombing of Guernica, despite some eyewitness accounts suggesting that he was entirely inactive.”
The authors believe that Guernica remains as powerful and meaningful as ever. In fact, an ongoing conflict was the impetus for publication. Young said: “The genesis was the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Because I thought, ‘Here they go again. They’re going to let Ukraine be what Spain became — a practising ground, for Putin in this case. So that’s when I wrote Bob [Belton]. And he said, ‘Mike, how many 45 gallon drums of ink have been spilled on this painting? But go ahead and send it to me,’ out of respect for our history together in teaching.
“I sent my research through and, the next morning, I received an email saying, ‘Damn, this is interesting,’ and Bob just went to work.”
What do the authors hope people will take from their research? Above all, the painting’s currency and universality. Belton said: “When Guernica was first exhibited, there were some negative reactions. But in retrospect it speaks to the universal human condition. I recently read a report that described the sexual atrocities perpetrated by Hamas [in Israel on October 7]. And I thought, ‘Do you know, this has been going on for centuries and millennia and it will probably continue to happen. It is just flat-out horror. And I think that’s what that painting does. It conveys that kind of transcendental horror that happens again and again and again, just given a different name.”
The image at the top of the article shows visitors to the Museo Reina Sofía in Madrid viewing Pablo Picasso’s 1937 mural Guernica. Photo: Alamy