Guernica is a small Basque town in Spain. It was bombed mercilessly during the Spanish Civil War by German aircraft – at the demand of Spain’s own leader, the fascist dictator, Francisco Franco, because the town’s inhabitants were not Franco supporters.
The Spanish artist Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) was deeply affected by this monstrous act. He created his large painting, Guernica, as a tribute to the people of this town, and all innocent people who suffer in wars.
Picasso’s Guernica is one of the world’s most famous artworks about war. And yet what do you see in the image? Can you see a single soldier, weapon of war, or battle scene depicted? Why do you think this is? And what do you think the artist is trying to show us about war, instead?
Read the brief descriptions of the image .
Picasso’s (see above)
“(Picasso’s) symbols are archaic: the bull … the gored and speared horse … the broken sword, the surviving flower, and the dove. The only specifically modern elements in Guernica are the mithraic eye of the electric light, and the suggestion that the horse’s body is made of parallel lines of newsprint like a newspaper.” Robert Hughes
“The Keiskamma Guernica tells the story of the ongoing painful struggle of rural communities dealing with the AIDS epidemic … Unlike the original Guernica which stands as a powerful protest against the bombing of a small Spanish village and against all war, the Keiskamma Guernica does not depict an instant of horror, but rather a slow eating away at the whole fabric of a community.” Keiskamma Art Project
Dumile Feni (1942-1991) The African Guernica, undated, charcoal on newsprint, 218 x 226 cm. Black Contemporary Art Collection, University of Fort Hare.
“Like Picasso’s Guernica, Dumile’s Guernica resonates with … images of uncomprehending bewilderment of both humans and animals … Picasso’s Guernica lays bare the futility of war, its wanton cruelty and senseless destruction … Dumile Feni’s Guernica is about a hapless community in a state of siege during the insidious cold war of apartheid.” Moji Mokone
The South African artist Dumile Feni (1942-1991) named his artwork African Guernica (on page 16). In naming it after Picasso’s iconic Guernica, he wanted us to know that he, too, was depicting a war. What kind of war was he referring to?
The Guernica created by the artists of the Keiskamma
Art Project – a group of over 100 women working as a developmental art collective in the Eastern Cape – is also about a war but, again, not one fought on a battlefield. What kind of war are these artists depicting?
Let’s look at all three images together. How might we compare them?
Look at the characters depicted in these images, starting with the people. Consider the human figures that appear in the Picasso and the Feni versions: In what ways are they different? And how are they alike?
Each image includes a depiction of a baby. Why?
Now look at the animals in these two works. What kinds of animals are in both? Do you think these are meant to suggest an agricultural community, or are they symbolic? Or both?
And why include animals? What might these animals mean in the context of being caught up in a war?
The bull in Picasso’s Guernica is said to represent General Franco himself. Do you think that this explains its relationship in the image to some of the other figures? What do you think the horse might represent? Why?
The colours of all three of the works are limited (despite Picasso’s work being a painting, not a drawing). What colours have been used in each artwork? Why? Look at the kind of spaces the three scenes are set in; is it clear to you where these figures are? Are they in a landscape? A room? What do the different spaces suggest to you?
In each image, are the tonal changes gentle and graded, or dramatic and sudden? What does this convey?
All three of these artworks are very large. Picasso’s Guernica measures an enormous 349 x 776 cm; while Feni’s is 218 x 226 cm; and the Keiskamma Guernica is almost exactly the same size as the Picasso, at 350 x 780 cm. How does size affect the impact of an image? (Think of billboards advertising products outdoors. This will help you to imagine the scale of these images.)