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The bombing of Gernika in 1937: the massacre that inspired Picasso

The terrible attack on Gernika inspired the Malaga-born painter to create one of his most famous works.

Although Gernika was and has been since time immemorial a place steeped in symbolism and of great importance to all Basques, as a symbol of democracy and historical rights, it is thanks to Picasso that the town of Gernika is now known the world over as a symbol of terror bombings and, by extension, of the horrors of war.  

Why did Picasso paint “Guernica”? The commission of the painting

To avoid any misunderstandings, it should be made clear that Picasso was born in the Spanish city of Malaga; he never set foot in Gernika. When the Civil War broke out, Picasso was living in Paris and the Government of the Second Republic commissioned the painter to paint a mural for the Spanish pavilion at the Universal Exhibition, which was due to be held in that city in June. At first Picasso had no clear idea as to what the theme of his mural should be, until the bombing of the town of Gernika on the 26th of April of that year. Journalists based in Bilbao covering the events of the Civil War, most notably British correspondent George Steer, broke the news of the bombing to the entire world. In fact, two days after the bombing, the news appeared on the front pages of the most important newspapers in the democratic world (the event was censored in those countries that were under dictatorships involved in the event, such as “nationalist” Spain, Portugal, Italy, Germany and Japan). When Picasso learned of the event from the international press and from a number of his friends, he set out to capture this terrible event in his work. ​


The “Guernica” canvas was inaugurated in the Spanish pavilion at the Universal Exhibition in Paris on the 12th of July 1937. It voiced his criticism of war in general but also of the fascist dictatorships that were emerging in Europe at the time (Hitler in Germany, Mussolini in Italy, Franco in Spain). Paris however did not react to “Guernica” with the astonishment and enthusiasm that it would later elicit. People were put off by a painting in which they could see nothing but the terrible image of war, the lack of colour, and figures they did not understand. Nor did the critics understand or appreciate Picasso’s painting. After the Universal Exhibition, the painting toured Europe and the United States.

Where was “Guernica” before it arrived in Spain? Cities “Guernica” has visited

Picasso’s intention was to donate the painting to the people of Spain when the Spanish state returned to democratic rule, hence the canvas remained in New York until the 10th of September 1981, when it was transported to Madrid. Its first home was the Casón del Buen Retiro (a building annexed to the Prado) where it was exhibited under strict security measures and protected by bulletproof glass, a police escort, etc. Since 1992 the painting can be admired in the Reina Sofía Museum, after having been exhibited in 30 cities in Europe and America, including Copenhagen, Stockholm, London, Chicago, Sao Paulo, Milan, Munich, Hamburg, Brussels, Amsterdam…


In 1997, a ceramic reproduction of the painting was installed in Gernika. Underneath it, it bears the inscription “Guernica Gernikara” (“Guernica” in Gernika), a demand by the Basque people for the painting to be moved and put on display in the place that inspired Picasso to paint it: Gernika.

Interesting facts about “Guernica

  • As many as 45 sketches of the work have been catalogued, logically with their distinctive differences. In one of the works, for example, Picasso painted a raised fist as a symbol of resistance and some sketches are even in full colour.
  • In 1970 Picasso wrote to MOMA asking that “Guernica” be returned to Spain “when public freedoms are restored in Spain”.
  • Before being put on display at the Reina Sofía Museum in Madrid in 1992, the painting was exhibited in a bulletproof glass booth in the Casón del Buen Retiro until it was moved to its current location.
  • Picasso’s “Guernica” arrived in Spain for the first time on the 10th of September 1981 on a scheduled Iberia flight – the captain broke the news to the surprised  passengers when the plane touched down in Madrid.

The Meaning of “Guernica”

It was never Picasso’s intention to divulge the symbolism of his work. In fact, on one occasion he commented: “As far as I’m concerned, that’s all. It’s up to the public to see what it wants to see”.