This 25-foot-wide by 11 foot high mural was created in one month. Picasso’s most famous work depicts the Spanish Civil War event in which Fascist dictator Francisco Franco hired the Nazi Luftwaffe to destroy the small Basque town of Guernica. Thousands of civilians were slaughtered and wounded as the undefended town was razed in a single 3-hour bombing attack. Commissioned to design a mural for the Spanish Pavilion on any subject of his choosing, Picasso drew on photographs and published accounts of this bombing to provide the symbolic images and theme. (Pablo Picasso, A Retrospective, ed. William Rubin, New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1980. p. 303). The black and white newspaper text is suggested in the patterned treatment of the horse’s body.


Just as 9/11/2001’s attack was scheduled for rush hour, so this mass killing was timed for the populated morning hours of the week’s "Market Day.” Like Goya’s Execution of the Defenders of Madrid, 3rd May 1808 (see this database), this painting’s sympathies are entirely focused on the atrocity of innocents being murdered. Composition, light, and color (in this case the deliberate lack of color) illuminate and intensify the drama of mutilated, helpless, screaming, dismembered, suffering animals, and women, especially a wailing mother holding her dead child. Though smoke, flames, and burning flesh are symbolically suggested, unlike Goya’s painting--indeed, unlike 9/11--we do not see any trace of the enemy: the guns, soldiers, bombs, or planes that wreak the havoc. We see only the nightmarish aftermath of the massacre.

Allusions are often made to the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur in Picasso’s work. Combined, flattened or abstract images of horseback female bullfighters, flowergirls holding candles, men climbing or descending ladders, spectators gazing out their windows at doves or pigeons appeared frequently in Picasso’s Minoauromachy etchings and are considered the foundation for Guernica. (The Museum of Modern Art, New York: Abrams, 1984, pp. 362-363.)


Painted 1937

Primary Source

Reina Sofia, Madrid