THE BASQUE COUNTRY & THE VASCOS – 3 (Guernica, the Path to Terror at the Reina Sofia Museum)

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“Guernica” reproduced full-size on tiles in the town of Guernica


by Josephine Cooke

The Reina Sofia Museum (Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia) in Madrid has been hosting the “Pity and Terror: Picasso’s Path to Guernica” for almost 4 months now but do not fear as the exhibition will still be on until September 4th.  The exhibition follows Picasso’s works leading up to Guernica and the development of his post-Guernica artwork.

Guernica, a terrifying mural oil painting of greys, whites, and blacks, was Picasso’s response to the aerial bombing of Guernica (Gernika in Basque), a town in the province of Biscay, the Basque Country, northern Spain, on the 26th of April 1937 by the Nazi German Luftwaffe’s Condor Legion and the Fascist Italian Aviazione Legionaria per the request of the Spanish Nationalists led by General Francisco Franco.  Thus the incredibly portrayed scenes of the painting: a wide-eyed bull standing over a woman grieving over a dead child in her arms; a gored horse with a gaping wound in its side; a woman, arms thrown up in raw terror on witnessing the carnage . . .

So vivid is Picasso’s portrayal of the terror and suffering caused by the bombing of Guernica that the painting is regarded by many art critics as one of the most moving and powerful anti-war paintings in history.

Gernika after the bombing

Guernica was commissioned by the democratically elected government of the Second Republic of Spain which was deep in war (the Spanish Civil War,  17 July 1936 – 1 April 1939). It was first exhibited at the Spanish Pavilion of the 1937 Paris International Exposition. It was a new type of painting for the revolutionary artist from Malaga, Spain. With Guernica he took a leap into political discourse, reflecting the tremendous events that unfolded in the Basque town.

“Pity and Terror: Picasso’s Path to Guernica” provides brilliant insight into Picasso’s mind and works. With his turning towards more displays of violence and monstrous creatures in his works during this darkest period of his creativity, it is easy for one to get wrapped up in Picasso’s own artistic journey. The exhibition itself is poignant, marking the 80th anniversary of the bombing of Guernica. It is however also relevant to the international violence and political upheaval of the present day.

One does not need to be an art critic to learn from this exhibition. Picasso’s works require you to look beyond the paint and delve into its meaning. One will find themselves doing so naturally as they progress through Picasso’s artistic journey, especially as his works take a turn towards the dark and extraordinary depths of his imagination. Whilst at first Picasso’s paintings may seem strange and incomprehensible, you will leave the exhibition with a new understanding of the artist.

The Reina Sofia has provided a masterful context for Picasso’s paintings in “Pity and Terror”. But the pieces, especially the very Guernica, encourage you to draw your own conclusions. The finale to “Pity and Terror” is an in-depth analysis of the jewel of the exhibition, Guernica. But With Guernica strategically placed approximately halfway through the exhibition (its size and depth of meaning alone will, and do, fill a whole exhibition room), one is given plenty of time to form their own perspective on the piece before the said analysis is given away.


A note from the Reina Sofia : The [“Pity and Terror: Picasso’s Path to Guernica”]  project, which got under way in the Autumn of 2015, aims to bring together and study the largest possible number of documents and references — correspondence, installation photographs, graphic documents, audiovisuals, plastic arts — related to the most emblematic work in the Museo’s Collection [i.e., the Guernica]. This selection of documentary resources seeks to add to a greater understanding of the painting: its origins, the exhibitions it has been part of, the propaganda it has been used for, and its place in art history. Furthermore, it demonstrates the way in which Guernica has transcended its own physicality and how its widespread recognition has led to its artistic value and political value becoming inextricably intertwined.


Featured image by Papamanila, CC BY-SA3.0
Guernica after the bombing, from the Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-H25224/Unknown CC BY-SA3.0


About Josephine
Josephine has studied at the University of Birmingham in the UK as well as Concordia University in Montreal, Canada. Right now she’s doing Human Geography, specialising in social, cultural and political geographies, specifically focussing on European society and politics. When taking a break from hard-hitting politics, Josephine can be found exploring the food, drink and fashion scene wherever she goes.