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Why did Pablo Picasso paint Guernica?

In April 1937, the small Basque town of Guernica was destroyed by sustained bombing attacks. How did it come to inspire one of Spanish artist Pablo Picasso's most famous works? Historian Paul Preston explains…

A wall mosaic of Picasso’s Guernica painting.
Published: April 26, 2022 at 7:02 am

Largely thanks to Pablo Picasso’s searing painting, Guernica is now remembered as the place where a new and horrific modern warfare came of age. Picasso had previously avoided creating explicitly political art but the Spanish Republic was keen to get the world’s most famous artist to identify himself with its cause.

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In January 1937, he responded positively to an invitation to contribute to the Spanish pavilion at the World Fair in Paris scheduled for later in the year. That contribution would be Guernica.

In fact the painting, begun on 1 May, a matter of days after the bombing, is not just about what happened in the Basque town. There were three prior influences: the savage bombing of Madrid in October and November 1936 and again throughout April 1937; the suffering of refugees who were bombed and strafed as they fled in February 1937 from Picasso’s native Málaga to Almería; and the bombing of Durango on 31 March.

Pablo Picasso in his Paris studio.
Pablo Picasso in his Paris studio. (Image by Getty Images)

The journalist Louis Delaprée’s moving articles on Madrid, published in Paris on 8 January 1937 as Le Martyre de Madrid, had a profound impact on Picasso, manifested first through his series of prints Dream and Lie of Franco and subsequently in Guernica. Poignant photos of the suffering of the refugees from Málaga were published in the pamphlet The Crime on the Road distributed in France in March 1937. Articles on the bombing of Durango appeared in the French press in the first week of April and the powerful pamphlet Durango, Ville Martyre on 30 April.

George Steer’s account of the Guernica raid was reprinted in full on 29 April in L’Humanité and read by Picasso. Two days later – already affected by Louis Delaprée’s despatches and the pamphlets on Málaga and Durango – Picasso began work on what would become his most famous painting.

Paul Preston is Príncipe de Asturias professor of contemporary Spanish history at the London School of Economics. His books include The Spanish Civil War: Reaction, Revolution and Revenge (William Collins, 2016)

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This content first appeared in the May 2017 issue of BBC History Magazine

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