Picasso painting essay on Guernica

painting / picasso / medusa / guernica / protest / fascism

 The Art of Social Protest: “The Raft of the Medusa” and “Guernica”


Some people are advocates of the opinion that art designed to influence social behavior is reprehensible, dirty, nothing more than propaganda, and so on. However, it is impossible to present a complete picture of art if we ignore its function of a social protest; the history of art provides us with many examples. Painting can be an extremely powerful form of protest against inequity, atrocity or inequality.

Traditionally, painting is usually supportive of the political needs of old-established order because it is backed up and bought by wealthy people, and thus painting is less willing to engage in social controversies. However, certain artists stand out as exceptions. Among them are two great figures in the history of world painting Théodore Géricault (1791–1824), one of the French pioneers of the Romantic movement, exposing a great contemporary scandal in “The Raft of the Medusa”, and an Andalusian-Spanish painter Pablo Picasso (1881–1973), expressing his fury at the bombing of a peaceful town during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) in his painting “Guernica”. Although these two painters differ by origin, style, artistic expression, their works mentioned above have very much in common. Géricault’s “The Raft of the Medusa  and Picasso’s “Guernica” are perhaps the most significant paintings of social protest in our time.

Both paintings are based on real tragic events. However, their creators apparently wanted to do more than just depict particular incidents.  They both managed to generalize the tragic experience of mankind, to express all the inhumanity and blood thirst which set the world on the edge of the global catastrophe.

The plot for the canvas “The Raft of the Medusa” was a real story about a shipwreck of a French frigate “Medusa” near African coast through the fault of the French government; only 15 people out of 149 survived on  the raft, which was carried by the waves for eleven days. Behind the details of this terrible event there is something more: the painter managed to express by his painting that tragic despair, which was felt by the progressive circles of France in the years of the Restoration.

“Guernica” was created by Picasso in 1937 as a protest against the barbaric bombing of the Basque town Guernica by German bombers, supported by Spanish Nationalist leader Francisco Franco. Guernica was of no strategic importance -  it was attacked because the fascists wanted to test the effects of bombing civilian targets during war. This terrible event, which impressed the world and aroused social polemics, was refracted through the symbols of personal Picasso’s mythology and was presented in “Guernica” as an apocalyptical picture of destruction, as a protest against the fascist terror.

The catastrophe depicted by Picasso takes place in a tight place which resembles underground without any exit. Picasso managed to depict undepictable: agony, rage, and despair of people who survived the tragedy. He expressed the suffering of people, their unreadiness to sudden death and to the threat coming from the sky. At the same time Picasso managed to express his own pain, compassion and anger. He achieved this by means of the following techniques. First of all the plot and the composition of the painting are based not on the development of the real event, but on the associative ties of artistic images. All the architectonics and rhythm of this huge painting correspond to its inner semantic movement.

Unlike the characters of The Raft of the Medusa, characters of Guernica are portrayed in a simple way, using only general lines. The author depicted only the essentials that directly belong to the plot of the painting, everything else is thrown aside. On the faces of a mother and a man that are turned to the spectacles only  wide-open for a scream mouth, visible nostrils, eyes placed somewhere above the forehead can be seen. No individuality is present, because the details would be unnecessary here – they might divide and thus narrow the general idea. The tragic feeling of death and destruction is created by Picasso through the agony of the artistic form which breaks the things into hundreds of pieces.

Near a mother holding her dead child with unnaturally bent head there is the Minotaur with an expression of dismal indifference. Everything around is dying, it’s only the Minotaur that is looming over the perished people with a steady dull gaze. Such contrast of suffering and indifference was the main support of the whole picture in the initial sketches of “Guernica. However, Picasso didn’t stop on this point, and soon (in the right corner of the painting) two human faces appeared – anxious, tense, but with undistorted, beautiful and determined features.

As if from another world a woman having the profile of an ancient goddess with a swift movement comes into the underground. In her stretched hand she has a burning lamp, her mouth is wide-open for a scream, but no one is to hear it.

What is going on in “Guernica”? It’s not a bombing of the city from airplanes: there are neither bombs nor the city. The tongues of fire are visible on the picture, but the fire is somewhere far, beyond the canvas. Then why do people and animals die? Who drove them into entrapment?

The direct bearer of evil is not personified, the dictator Franko and Hitler themselves are too miserable to be its only cause. Based on the Spanish events, “Guernica” exceeded historical and temporal limits, predicted events which bore no names at that time. Afterwards the personification of fascism started to be seen in the image of the Minotaur, which is condemned by a dying horse. The Minotaur does not hear anything and wants to destroy everything on its way.

Not occupying the central position on the picture, the Minotaur claims to be the main character. Picasso passionately reveals the dark, animal side of a man, he tears the masks off. He attacks the evil, which threatens the man from outside, with a fury. Then the canvas is writhing with pain, screaming with a voice which cannot be heard. Picasso views the being of the present days as anguish, a critical line, a step over which would cause death and destruction.

It turns out that in the drama of the Spanish town Guernica, destroyed by the fascist bombers, Picasso saw not just one of the acts of Barbarism, but the symbol of destruction, to which the fascists drive all humankind. In his painting he doesn’t render the events. His canvas is a kind of a symbol of the global catastrophe.

Thus, we see that in his “Guernica Picasso depicts the horrifying picture of the global disaster of the XXth century. In the piece of art, which can be called “ the monumental graphics, created with the help of pictorial techniques, the author realizes the synthesis of several types of creative work, undertakes his experience of artistic solution to political tasks of the art, in which two responses to the calamities of life collided – inner esthetical and socially effective. On the eve of the World War II Picasso addresses the major problem of the XX century – the conflict of reality, which decides the destinies of the century. Expressing in “Guernica his views on the fascist attacks on peaceful citizens, Picasso gives us a clue what constitutes his ontological views about the world.

Picasso creates the picture of a dreadful world, which is on the edge of Apocalypses. Cruel deformations of human bodies, so disturbing for many spectacles in other works of this author, are simply appropriate here. They allow to feel the terror of human extermination, awful absurdity of the mere notion of killing in a convincing, material, almost physical way.

            In turn,  Géricault creates artistic variant of events, which is very close to reality. He depicted a sophisticated range of psychological states and emotions on the raft over flown by waves. That is why even the corpses on the picture do not have the stamp of dystrophic exhaustion and decay, and only the numbness of their bodies tells the spectacles that it is dead bodies they see.

As for the composition, the painter is loyal to the tradition of classical painting: all canvas is occupied by a pyramidal group of sculptured human bodies. The characters even in the time of despair maintain their greatness. The composition of the painting is based on two crossing diagonals, which are supposed to emphasize both the longing of people to get to the salutary ship, and elemental contrary blast of wind, filling out the sail and taking the raft away from the ship.The sharp lighting from above contrastingly stresses the tension of the characters.

The first impression is that the figures are situated on the raft a bit chaotically, but in fact it was thoroughly planned by the painter. In the foreground the figures are of the nature size, here are people in the state of absolute apathy. In the state of hopeless despair a father sits beside a corps of his favorite son, supporting him with his hand as if trying to hear the beat of his frozen heart. On the right from the figure of the son there is a corps of a young man with his arms stretched. Over him we can see a man with a wondering look, who is probably out of his mind. This group ends with a figure of a dead body: his frozen legs cling to the beam, hands and head are in the water.

The raft itself is shown near the frame, and hence, near the spectacles, which makes them involuntary participators of tragic events. Somber clouds hang over the ocean. Heavy gigantic waves heave to the sky, threatening to flood the raft and the unfortunate people clustered on it. The wind forcefully tears the sail, bending the mast, supported by thick ropes.

In the background there is a group of those who haven’t lost hope in salvation; it is true that hope can come to the world of death and despair. This group forms a kind of a pyramid, crowned by the figure of a Negro- signalman, who is trying to draw attention of others to the brig “Argus” that emerged on the horizon. Apart from that, Géricault managed to show different reaction of the participants of this tragedy to what is going on. It is obvious from the coloring of the painting: on the freeze of death it was dark, whereas near to the horizon (which is the symbol of hope) it gets lighter.

Both paintings became the cause of political controversies in the society when first exhibited.

Géricault’s painting immediately became a sensation. “The Raft of the Medusa” was discussed in all newspapers; poets wrote poems devoted to it, separate broshures were published about it, etc. However, the French government didn’t show willingness to buy this painting for Louvre, because it was ideologically directed against it. Some critics spoke much about the political tendencies of Géricault’s painting, and very little about its artistic merits. However, very soon the critics realized the true value of “The Raft of the Medusa” and started to accept it with praise.

As for Picasso’s “Guernica”, the situation was worse. Not all experts accepted this monumental painting as a masterpiece. When the painting was exhibited for the first time in Paris, it saw mostly the backs of the visitors. Some critics stated that the painting lacked artistry and called it a propagandist document; others saw in it only the depiction of the tragedy of the Basque people. Ordinary spectacles were not ready for perceiving the painting either. Picasso had to listen to many negative reviews of his great canvas both from his enemies and his friends. Some critics even claimed that it was the worst work by Picasso.

Among numerous politically charged pieces of fine art two paitings are singled out: The Raft of the Medusa by Théodore Géricault and “Guernica” by Pablo Picasso. Their creators used their styles and techniques to express their social and political views. They spoke of their artistic responsibility, which told them that art cannot exist for mere entertainment, it must guide and instruct; it must make the world a better place.


Penrose, Roland. Picasso: His Life and Work. Granada, London, 1981.

Edward, Lucie-Smith. A Concise History of French Painting. PRaeger Publishers, New York. 1971, First Edition.


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