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Pablo Picasso received a commission that would forever transform his career eighty years ago. He then created GUERNICA.
In the midst of a civil war against future dictator Franco, the Spanish Republic commissioned Picasso, among other notable artists of the time, to make a painting for his pavilion at the 1937 Paris International Exhibition. Guernica, the now-famous mural-sized painting inspired by the bombing of the little Basque village of the same name, was the work he composed.
Although several of Picasso's paintings were already considered masterpieces, such as "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" (1907), which is credited with introducing abstract art to Europe, Picasso's Guernica stands out from the others of Picasso's artworks.
Guernica was the result of creative experiments.
When he first became interested in surrealism in the mid-1920s, he painted interiors with still life, stressing things such as musical instruments or fruit. This job was first enjoyable. However, as Wagner notes, the inside scenes become increasingly claustrophobic. "Its pleasure seems to become charred and burned," she continues, "and the canvas transforms into a theater of drama."
The changeover occurred during the years preceding the 1929 crash, when Europe recovered from World War I. Picasso and the Surrealists were investigating the dark regions of the soul during this time period. "Picasso was well aware that being human meant being confronted with terror, tragedy, excess, and violence, and he was firm in his belief that the psyche is the place where the subconscious is revealed."
Picasso's work during this period is exemplified by The Three Dancers (1925). "It's a picture full of excess; for Picasso, what is now in the room is not still life, but women's bodies, treated in an immensely complex and strange way," Wagner informs us.
Picasso, who was well-known for his connections with women, created adoring portrayals of his lovers for his private works, while he distanced himself notably from others.
He examined how women's bodies could be monumental or architectural; how they could become traps or machines; how they could represent another world; and how they could be monstrous for his public works. The sketches and paintings from the years preceding Guernica clearly indicate meditation on the symbolism that can be exploited through the exploitation of the female form - experiments that culminate in Guernica.
Despite popular belief, the concept for Guernica did not appear out of nowhere. It is the outcome of years of artistic creativity as well as the artist's interest in Spanish politics, where his family lived.
Although the German and Russian pavilions at the 1937 Expo were massive architectural monuments embodying authority and power, the Spanish Republic, which had recently entered civil war, chose a modest, efficient edifice loaded with world-class artwork.
The Republic, which was known for its support for artists and intellectuals, enlisted creators who were at the vanguard of the 1930s experimental artists' scene. In January 1937, Picasso obtained a commission for a mural-sized painting.
Although the work commissioned for the pavilion was commissioned by an anti-fascist dictatorship, Picasso's initial vision was intended to be apolitical. Wagner claims that the artist was utterly unsure of what he would be able to paint. The earliest sketches show an artist in his workshop, confronted with a naked model sitting on a sofa.
He was motivated to change by tragedy.
Franco directed the Nazi "Condor" Legion (provided by Germany) to dump bombs on the little village of Guernica on April 26, 1937. It was a market day, and civilians, mostly women and children, had congregated in public areas. The hamlet was a symbolic target because it was the first site in the Spanish Basque region where democracy was created. The violent bombardment, which killed hundreds of people (numbers vary, but reports range between 200 and 1,700) and injured around 900 more, was the first time an undefended city was struck during this civil war.
One of the first things we notice in all the photographs from the Spanish Civil War is that there was a significant public awareness about what was happening to the bodies of civilians - women and children. Indeed, the Spanish Civil War was the first in which the press photographed bodies on the front lines, whether mutilated or dead, and Picasso, like many others, opened his diary on April 27 to find horrific photos of the destruction of Guernica.
Although Picasso was already known to be a socialist - he had created a pair of etchings titled The Dream and the Lie of Franco (1937), which were reprinted and sold to generate funds for the Republic - the bombing had a particularly strong impact on him. On May 1, he returned to his rue des Grands Augustins workshop to begin new sketches for his commission.
The piece was completed in mid-June, and surrealist artist Dora Maar photographed various alterations that the painting had experienced. Picasso delivered the completed work to the Republic Pavilion in July, where it instantly became a focal point alongside Calder's Mercury Fountain and Miro's The Harvester.
Guernica depicts a frenzied tangle of six human figures (four women, a man, and a child), a horse, and a bull; the scenario is set in the cramped atmosphere of a low ceiling interior, beneath an overheated bulb that appears to burst with light. Despite hints to the intended idea (the interior of an artist's studio), we quickly realize that the picture is the mental and physical aftermath of war and bloodshed.
Although Picasso never explicitly defined the meaning of the painting to the public (he simply stated, "It is up to the public to see what they want to see there"), the majority of the work can be understood literally. At the same time, art historians have been tearing their hair out for decades over the motive behind each brushstroke.
The first thing we notice are the women's distorted expressions as they suffer from bodily and mental misery. Picasso employs distortion to portray agony and suffering; he expresses their despair with sharp, pointed tongues and their sorrow with pear-shaped eyes.
A lady wails into the sky, holding a limp and dying infant in her arms; another screams, arms spread in the air as she is devoured by flames; and yet another emerges from an open window, clutching a torch. This third woman is sometimes seen as a symbol of hope. Each lady is represented by amorphous shapes and projected angles, with her body welded together and breaking apart.
A man recognized as a soldier falls on the ground, his limbs detached: perhaps a symbol of the Republic. Cross slashes crisscross his dismembered arms. A clenched fist, a symbol of the Republic, is formed by a hand around a broken sword.
The ceiling light has been interpreted as a bomb sign; however, some have seen it as a symbol of God's eye - fashioned like an eye, with the bulb representing the iris.
The bull and horse have sparked numerous interpretations. The majority of them can be traced back to their participation in the Spanish tradition of bullfighting, when the horse can become collateral damage and the bull can be damaged to the point of death. Others, in contrast, have claimed that the bull, with its lack of physical and emotional expression, is a symbol of fascism or Franco. Others continue to believe that the bull represents Spanish heritage - a Stoic and unwavering witness to tragedy.
Picasso's visual language, on the other hand, transcends the specificity of a singular Spanish tragedy and becomes global. It's huge, dramatic, and particular - you know what's going on is about death and misery. 'Ha, it's in Spain!' you would say. It has numerous applications since it appears to be appropriate in a wide range of situations.
It evokes a sense of the sorrow of human existence. If you can feel both anxiety and pity for this critical circumstance, you have entered this experience head on.
Guernica toured Europe following its debut in Paris. When Franco took power and the Republic crumbled at the end of the war, the canvas continued to travel and helped generate funds for refugees from the Spanish Republic who had fled the nation. She was the center of attention at Picasso's show at the MoMA in New York, and Picasso requested that the MoMA become its custodian.
Guernica traveled between numerous institutions in the United States from 1939 and 1952; after that, it was shown in Brazil and across South America - until 1958, when it returned to the MoMA and was ruled unable to travel again. Decades of shipping, stretching and re-tensioning the canvas on countless occasions had placed it in a perilous state. She didn't leave New York until 1981.
Guernica had a life outside the canvas during this time period. It became a symbol for Dresden, Berlin, and Hiroshima, all of which were assaulted by unarmed civilians. As a result, it began to take on special significance for anti-war protestors.
Taking it at its value that Guernica is a metaphor of modern conflict, demonstrators from Calcutta to Ramallah to South Carolina have been seen carrying reproductions of Picasso's masterpiece.
Furthermore, like with many great works of art, contemporary artists began to use Guernica as inspiration in their own works, stealing its images to respond to the issue of war and brutality.
Picasso recognized the potential of Guernica while he was still alive. He was observed by the Nazis beginning in 1939, at the outset of the Second World War, because of the resonance of the Guernica message.
According to legend, a Nazi soldier visiting Picasso's Paris studio and pointing to a reproduction of Guernica questioned Picasso, "Did you do that?" Picasso replied, "No,you did!"
He had to defend this painting, which had become an item whose fate he was very concerned about. He was aware that he had created something unique, big, and significant, but he was also aware that, because his name was Pablo, he would be unable to return to Spain. To protect the painting's safety, he had a legal agreement drafted stating that the piece should not be returned to Spain until a democracy had been established there.
Guernica was finally restored to Spain in 1981, six years after Franco's death and eight years after Picasso's death. It was displayed behind a bulletproof pane, nonetheless a galvanizing force for the nation rebuilding from 40 years of dictatorship.
The exhibit was taken down in 1995, but Guernica's political significance has not waned. A major debate erupted in 2003, for example, when a tapestry representing Guernica was covered with a blue fabric. It would have been the setting for Colin Powell's speech in which he recommended enlisting the American military in Iraq.
After Guernica, Picasso continued to create substantial politically motivated paintings, albeit none achieved his reputation and political effect. Guernica has become a symbol of humanity, with a message that people all around the world understand.
Guernica by Pablo Picasso is a pivotal piece of circumstance in terms of its impact on the artist and the history of art, Republican art, protest art, and humanity.
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