First shown at the 1937 International Exposition in Paris, Guernica stands today as a universal statement against the horror of modern warfare. The painting was the response of the Spanish-born artist Pablo Picasso to the bombing of Guernica, a small Basque town in northern Spain that was destroyed on April 26, 1937, during the Spanish Civil War.
Picasso initially rejected the invitation to represent his native country in the prestigious exhibition. Spain was embroiled in a bloody Civil War. In 1936, Nationalist forces, supported by the military and groups loyal to the Spanish monarchy, rebelled against a new Republican government, which was founded on the democratic and communist principles of Spain’s working classes. Nationalist General Francisco Franco, who became Spain’s dictator in 1939 until his death in 1975, allied himself with fascist governments in Italy and Germany to take advantage of their powerful industrialized militaries.
Picasso’s change of heart reflected the international public outcry that followed the bombing of Guernica. The attack was one of the first demonstrations of a full-scale aerial bombardment. Carried out by the German Luftwaffe's Condor Legion and the Italian Aviazione Legionaria, the three-hour raid left the ancient town in ruins and many children among the civilian dead. Guernica served as a frightening show of Germany’s military might and an intentional warning to other nations in the years before World War II.
Picasso’s painting, however, includes no obvious references to the Guernica bombing or the Spanish Civil War. The mammoth eleven-foot by twenty-five-foot canvas is a synthesis of modern painting styles. Picasso’s compressed pictorial space and fragmented forms are characteristic of Cubism. The heightened emotion and disjointed imagery reflects Surrealism’s interest in the workings of the inner mind, imagined through dreams, or in this case, nightmares. The monochromatic color scheme recalls Cubism, but also the black and white newspapers that broadcast the devastating effects of the bombing around the world. Captured clearly in photographs and newsreels, images of the bombing’s aftermath altered people’s perceptions of modern war, its toll on individuals, and its essential inhumanity.