Photo by courtesy of: https://www.pablopicasso.org/guernica.jsp
About: the Bull – the Candle – the Fist – the Horse – the Triangle – the skill of Medea
Years ago, when I was doing my final exams in art at university, one of my topics for the oral part was Picasso’s famous painting “Guernica”. It wasn’t my choice. One of the professors said so. So I did. And I did achieve an excellent result because I came to my own conclusions.
Sure, there were already a good few books out there attempting an interpretation of exactly that picture. None of them was coming up with a complete interpretation in any way and admitting to that fact. Some of these books were fairly good, others not so. Altogether, I wasn’t overly impressed with the material available. The overall approach in those books on the market was negative, i.e. seeing the painting as an expression of the horror.
The authors all have gaps in their interpretations, where they do not know how for example to include the dove, the table or the candle. I felt lost and frustrated reading that. I needed proper information for my exams and thought: ‘Oh dear! What do I do?’ Tell the professors: “I don’t know what to do with this and that?” or: “I haven’t got a clue?” Bad idea! Very bad idea!!!
However, as per normal for university exams, I started my own research and found out some very interesting facts. None of these were mentioned in those “unimpressive” books. It was a highly interesting quest and I even figured out more after the exam but without reading any more literature, at least nothing intentionally related to the theme anyway.
The following is not intended as a complete interpretation. I am only addressing some of the more problematic points or gaps in interpretation (as in those books) of Picasso’s work of art. These, however, convert a lot of meaning and therefore are absolutely essential to the interpretation.
Some Basic Facts
Guernica is a town in Spain that was very badly affected by air raids in 1937, as requested by General Franco of two of his dubious “friends”. Picasso painted that picture with the same name after being commissioned for the Spanish pavilion in the 1937 International Exposition in Paris.
Born 1881, Picasso grew up in Malaga, Andalusia, Spain, at the end of the 19th century. The Catholic Church was totally dominant at the time. People went to church every Sunday, always bringing their children. So young Pablo was very familiar with the Catholic Church and all its rituals.
As the general interpretation for Picasso’s “Guernica” is “showing the horror of disaster”, I ask myself:
Would a gifted and Catholic artist like Picasso really create a picture with such a demoralising message? Just that? Finito? Complete defeat? Not even a touch of an escape route of how to continue from there? At least something???
Without that extra, I say, it would be a bit flat. We all know that disasters are horrible. We don’t need Picasso for that. Not much point repeating this message in a complicated picture.
Back then, in Picasso’s youth, many churches had altars with a wing-door on either side. These doors were closed most of the time, often showing a painting in grey shades or none at all. These doors were for sure closed during lent and accordingly showing the greys. Lent is a time of going through hardship but also a time of hope, as in hope for resurrection or life after death. And a far better after-life at that.
The open wing doors usually revealed a nice and colourful picture, in the shape of a triptychon, just like Picasso’s “Guernica”. They would be opened for Easter.
Two examples from different altars as follows:
Left: Hugo van der Goes (1440-1482), photo by courtesy of: http://freyasflorence.blogspot.ie/2014/10/the-portinari-altarpiece.html
Right: Robert Campin (1375-1444), photo by courtesy of: www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/470304
The left picture shows the altar with the wing doors closed, the right one with the wing doors open.
The Art Work
1. A Grisaille Painting
Picasso’s picture is in grey shades and therefore a grisaille painting. These were more common in the past and not only on altars. The greys also render at least this picture more realistic than a just black and white one would do because life simply isn’t just black and white. Psychologists prefer greys to black and white as it resembles life more closely. However, black and white would bring out the horror of the scene far better than the greys because black and white is the hardest contrast available. Hard and harsh. Greys soften the scene somewhat.
2. Personal Maturity
Just showing the harshness, ferocity etc. is a more male way of looking at things and a very concentrated and filtered one at that. But Picasso was an experienced artist which would have developed and brought out his female side at least a bit. Born in 1881, he painted Guernica in 1937, at the age of 56. He had had plenty of time to develop that part of himself and it would show in his paintings accordingly meaning he would have had a more manifold view on things.
3. The Bull
Growing up in Andalusia also made Picasso very familiar with bullfights and symbols regarding bulls. In Spain a calm and quiet bull is a symbol for life and fertility, not aggression and horrible fights. Picasso would absolutely have known that.
The bull on the left wing of the triptychon is completely calm and peaceful and right in front of a table. Tables are used for more or less peaceful meetings, discussions, dinners, games etc. There is also a dove on the table, a sign for peace as well. So, there are basically three symbols together for calm and peaceful.
4. The Candle
The burning candle on top middle of the picture is not only a symbol for eternal life in the Catholic Church but has also been used as a symbol for life and faith in God in paintings throughout the centuries. Extinguished it means death. Picasso was not only very familiar with all matters Catholic Church but also with the history of art, Greek mythology, symbols in occidental paintings and many other things. Not that I particularly like him or his art but he did know a lot.
5. The Fist
Another sign for life is the cut-off arm with a clenched fist, at the bottom middle of the picture. This symbol was used more in the past in occidental paintings. I remember reading about these facts in a book on symbols at the university library. Fists were used in painting since ancient times.
6. The Horse and the Triangle
And yes, the horse is screaming! It is in pain but very much alive and full of energy, throwing back its head.
Regarding composition, the horse is contained in and makes up a big part of the triangle going from near the baby on the left to the candle and the sun on top and further to the right near the bottom with its right foot. It takes up a lot of space and nearly creates a triangle of its own. This is a triangle with a very broad base.
In art that means it is an extremely stable composition, nothing wobbly about it. The whole composition rests on that base in this case because it is so very broad. With that, the artist expresses stability, not falling, tumbling or worse.
This triangle is not vague but very, very clear. There are clear lines made clearer still by darker and brighter shades of grey. The sun and the candle throw light – in the shape of that very triangle – on the scene. The brightest areas of the painting are here. Light stands for life, too. Encased in the triangle, the horse is not falling or toppling over. It is held by the triangle which makes for extra stability.
Also, a triangle with a broad base is a sign of the Holy Spirit or the Trinity in the Catholic Church.
I am certain, Picasso was completely aware of and planned all that, using it to great advantage. It took him a long time to even start the painting after getting the commission. He was probably thinking of how to go about it. Once he started he did it rather quickly.
These are signs and symbols in art which have to be taken into account. They convert meaning. The same triangle upside down for example would give a totally instable impression. Picasso chose the stable version.
7. The Story of Medea
The triangle in the centre of the picture with all the apparently thrown-in at random, cut and broken bits and pieces reminds me of the story of Medea in the Greek mythology. Picasso was very familiar with the Greek mythology. He created lots of sketches of centaurs and other figures and used them in his work.
Photo by courtesy of: https://www.wikiart.org/en/pablo-picasso/abduction-nessus-and-deianeira-1920-1
Medea is a female figure of the Greek mythology and mainly known by her connection with Jason who went on a quest to get the stolen Golden Fleece back. On his journey he met Medea who helped him a lot with that. They became more than friends for a long time. Love story!
Medea had some special skills one of which had nothing to do with getting the Golden Fleece back. She had the power to give people their youth back. She had lots of customers coming to her for that very purpose. She did this by cutting them into pieces, then throwing them into a hot fluid in a big, big special pot hanging over a fire, stirring it, leaving it for a while. Then, after some time, these people would emerge from the pot again, much more beautiful and way younger than before. In later years, however, after being dumped by Jason, she turned moody and grumpy and most of her customers didn’t emerge from that pot any more. Lovely woman!
But people still went to Medea for that same purpose because of the hope! They hoped they would be the lucky ones to re-emerge younger and more beautiful than ever!
Okay, the meanings of the symbols mentioned in short:
The grisaille painting: lent and hope connection
The Bull: symbol for peace, fertility for hope
The Candle: symbol for eternal life, faith in God; there’s hope in this
The Fist: symbol for life in occidental painting history
The Horse and the Triangle: extremely stable composition, symbol for trinity
Medea: sign for hope and a better future
I say, that makes it clear enough!
The sunlight? Where there is light, there is life. Where there is life, there is hope.
What do YOU think?
Hope you enjoyed this.
All the best,
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2 thoughts on “Picasso’s Guernica – Hope, not Horror”
A great read Bridget,I found your discription of the various symbols was very intesting.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Thank you very much!!!