Guernica (1937) by artist Pablo Picasso is one of the most famous paintings of all time. Like so many famous works of art, the meaning of Picasso’s Guernica is not immediately clear and left wide open to analysis and interpretation. What is the meaning of Guernica?

A careful analysis and interpretation of the painting reveals the importance of Spain, war, and most of all bullfighting in Picasso’s Guernica.

As Picasso’s quote suggests, Guernica is primarily a war painting, offering a visual account of the devastating and chaotic impact of war on both men and women, in this case specifically on civilian life and communities. Picasso completed the painting of Guernica in 1937, a time of widespread political unrest not just in Spain, but worldwide.

World War II would begin just a couple years later and would further decimate the European continent as a whole. In Guernica, we see several victims of the bombing. A figure sprawled supine in the foreground of the painting appears to be a corpse and is framed on both sides by living victims with their heads thrown back, wailing in agony. The figure to the left is a mother clutching a baby who appears to have died during the bombing.

The chaos caused by Europe’s political instability is evident in Guernica’s composition, with humans and animals jumbled together into a background of broken hard-edged geometric shapes, reminiscent of Cubism. In the mostly monochromatic painting Guernica the predominant “color” is mostly black, reminiscent perhaps of death itself. Picasso’s Guernica is most likely influenced by another Spanish artist, Francisco de Goya, who often painted not only war paintings, but also bullfighting art.

Humans and animals are on an equal footing in Picasso’s Guernica, with the artist perhaps illustrating not only the simultaneous brutalization and dehumanization of humanity during wartime, but also the base, animalistic response that all living things, animals and humans, share in the face of fear and death.

Guernica can be classified as a “war painting,” but the painting also features many symbols -including a bull, horse, and a man with a sword- that would fit well into traditional bullfighting art.

Rather than depicting a victorious matador bowing to the crowds before a slaughtered bull, in Guernica the bull remains stoically standing to the left side of the painting while the matador lays dead in the foreground, the sword or spear he might have used to slaughter the bull broken off in his hand. Like the fallen matador, his horse is also dying and anguished. Only the bull remains peaceful in Guernica.

Guernica is an iconic piece of modern artwork that has not only commemorated a tragic event, but also represents the horrors of war and the healing nature of art.