The Women of ‘Guernica’

Anne Wagner

Picasso was a painter of themes. Themes, not subjects or ‘subject matter’: he pointed out the difference to André Malraux in 1937, just before Guernica left his studio for the Paris World’s Fair. Malraux had remarked that though neither of them put much stock in ‘subject matter’, on this occasion, in painting the great mural, his subject had served Picasso well (‘Cette fois, le sujet vous aura bien servi’). Picasso disagreed: far from supplying him with a subject, Guernica had given him a theme. What did he mean? Not simply an idea or a topic, but a human universal to be expressed symbolically: death as a skull, Picasso said, not a car crash. ‘What he considered themes (I quote) were birth, pregnancy, suffering, murder, the couple, death, rebellion, and, perhaps, the kiss … Nobody could be ordered to express them, but when a great painter encounters them, they inspire him.’

The full text of this essay is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in