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.’

Study for ‘The Studio: The Painter and His Model’
Study for ‘The Studio: The Painter and His Model’

Picasso’s themes focus on the extremes of intimate bodily experience. All are fundamental to human existence. Their prominence in the European pictorial tradition, though, is less secure. Consider the familiar topics his inventory omits: on the one hand, gods and heroes, no matter how sacred, triumphant or transcendent; on the other, human vanity, ritual sacrifice and the violence of the hunt. In Guernica, all are absent. Instead, as Malraux tells it, to speak of ‘subjects’ to Picasso was to provoke him into cataloguing the crucial stages of the human experience, cradle to grave. In that context the relevance of revolt or rebellion seems an afterthought, a mere add-on to the primal cycles of survival. In any event, revolution is not what the painting’s stark pantomime depicts. Instead it conjures the explosive clash of life and death in a frozen tableau.

Within this radical opposition, animals and women are the ones who survive. It is their lot to suffer and mourn. The women bare their breasts. A child is dead. With these motifs Picasso transforms thoughts of the kiss and the couple, birth and pregnancy into a larger drama: in Guernica, human reproduction is exposed to mortal threat. Yet this dimension is absent from most accounts of the painting. Why? Does the omission stem from an unacknowledged embarrassment at the insistent bodiliness of the artist’s chosen terms? Or has Guernica’s place in the politics of its moment, not to mention its role in later struggles against violence and injustice, overshadowed the biological politics it brings to the fore?

Guernica was bombed by the Nazi Condor Legion on the afternoon and evening of 26 April 1937. It was a Monday, market day in the Basque town. News of the attack reached Picasso through a report published two days later in the Communist newspaper L’Humanité. The lead article – ‘Mille bombes incendiaires lancées par les avions de Hitler et Mussolini’ – was accompanied by a photograph of two women lying dead in a street. Not, however, a street in Guernica: the photo records an attack on another Spanish city. The reader isn’t told which one. Hence the generalities provided in the accompanying caption: ‘Ci-dessus, quelques femmes – des mères sans doute – abbatues au cours d’un bombardement.’ Female victims were mothers, ‘sans doute’. How could it be otherwise, when the bearing of children defined women’s role? At a moment when the damage wartime violence inflicted on innocent victims became a Republican leitmotif, women are assumed to be mothers, and mothers cannot – should not – die alone.

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

You are not logged in