Pablo Picasso painted Guernica through a commission he received from the Government of the Republic for the Spanish Pavilion at the Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Moderne held in Paris in 1937. A testimony and condemnation of the bombing of the Basque town by the German air force, allies of the Nationalist faction, Guernica is regarded as one of twentieth-century art’s pre-eminent works and remains a universal symbol against oppression.
At the start of 1937, Picasso received, via Josep Renau, a commission from the legitimate government of the Republic to create a large-scale work for the Spanish Pavilion at the International Exposition of Paris, to be held that summer. Initially, the artist had toyed with the idea of making an allegory of painting represented by painter and model. On 26 April 1937, however, the devastating bombing of the Basque town of Gernika inspired Picasso to paint Guernica. In little under six weeks, he produced close to fifty drawings, sketches and preliminary works and different corrections of his large picture. The genesis of the work was photographed by Picasso’s then partner Dora Maar, constituting one of the most well-documented examples of an artwork’s process of creation in art history. The outcome is a complex painting, unintelligible at first glance, at once interior and exterior, late-Cubist and Surrealist, but also interwoven in Western pictorial tradition. Its pyramidal structure is commonplace in history painting and it borrows from and includes influences from past masters such as Rubens, Delacroix, David and Goya, among others.
Guernica worked as a mural integrated into the architecture and in relation to the other works displayed in the Pavilion, the narrative of which took the form of a war report. The work was hung on the ground floor, in a space chosen by Picasso and which, like Guernica, straddled bourgeois interior and public exterior, a space that was covered but also opened out on one side to the main thoroughfare of the exhibition venue and on the other to a courtyard with an awning that also served as a theatre, cinema and café. Directly opposite was a space set up in memory of the figure of Federico García Lorca, murdered in 1936, with a photograph and display cases with material paying homage to the poet, as well as Picasso’s prints Sueño y mentira de Franco (Dream and Lie of Franco, 1937), which were on sale.