Picasso’s Guernica

Aesthetic Realism

Art Opposes Injustice: Picasso’s Guernica—For Life


Appeared online in The Volunteer, the journal of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives

Picasso’s great mural has been seen as the symbolic painting of the horrors of war—its destruction, its cruelty. The beauty of the painting, however, has another source. This mural is great, as I have learned from Aesthetic Realism in my study with its founder, Eli Siegel, because it shows, even as it takes on the cruelty and seeming non-sense in the world—that there is form, there is organization, there is something larger than man’s “inhumanity to man.”

I dedicate this paper about this great painting to the people of the world now who are suffering from cruelty and ignorance—from the contempt which Aesthetic Realism describes as the “disposition in every person to think he will be for himself by making less of the outside world.” As we look at Guernica and its true message, let us look at ourselves.

Aesthetic Realism teaches that the largest, most constant hope of man is to like the world honestly, with no evasions; that is, on an aesthetic basis. All art arises from that hope, and affirms the fact that the structure of reality is aesthetic and we are right to do everything we can to honestly like it. Reality, Aesthetic Realism teaches, is itself aesthetic. And the Aesthetic Realism education is based on the great principle: “The world, art, and self explain each other,” stated Eli Siegel: “each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites.”

In Is Beauty the Making One of Opposites?,1 the Fifteen Questions which I see as the most beautiful ever asked about the art of the world, Eli Siegel asks about the opposites of Continuity and Discontinuity:

Is there to be found in every work of art a certain progression, a certain indissoluble presence of relation, a design which makes for continuity?—and is there to be found, also, the discreteness, the individuality, the brokenness of things: the principle of discontinuity?

Continuity and discontinuity are at the beginning of the passionate idea for this painting, and they are in every detail of its technique. When the fascist bombs struck the Spanish town of Guernica in the middle of the night of April 26, 1937, the horror Picasso felt was like lightning striking him; and that light is in this painting.

It is one of the great purposes of art, Mr. Siegel taught me, to make the ugliness of things bearable, and through the “indissoluble presence of relation” to show those things as continuous with what we see as beautiful. Picasso’s Guernica has done that with an impact that has affected the world.

The greatest discontinuity of life is that of the sudden change from life to death. This composition of awful brokenness and symmetrical progression affirms life.

Here, in Pablo Picasso’s angry yet monumental memorial to Guernica, sudden and wanton killing is presented in flat, clearly outlined, yet agonizingly cut off shapes. They overlap, meet, change places, and they are all grey, white and black. “The greatest mystery in painting,” Mr. Siegel commented, “is how one thing becomes another,” and “the other mystery is how the three-dimensionality of things can be shown on a flat surface.”

Picasso read about Guernica in the newspaper. That newsprint is in the flat body of the stricken horse with his open mouth and pointed tongue.

The stark whiteness in the forms of the horse’s head, the head of the bull, and in the sorrowing head of the woman to the left, with her baby dead and heavy in her arms, takes on the variousness of emotion. There is a sense of something, of weight, and yet an emptiness which makes for the simultaneous impact of life and death.

The abstraction of death is not so discontinuous from the abstraction of shape itself shared by all material things. Black and white, the nothing and something of color, together make the grey of in-betweenness.

The intense, clear and deep feelings of the artist are in these fierce forms and restrained colors.

Cruelty Should Be Opposed and Not Used to Have Contempt

I learned that injustice and the cruelty of war should be energetically opposed; not used wrongly as a sign that reality is senseless, to say beauty is not real, and then give ourselves the right to flatten the world, elevate ourselves, and have contempt for everything. Picasso used art to oppose injustice; he used flatness to show the meaning, the “indissoluble presence of relation,” the sensible structure of things which has us like the world on an honest basis.

“The brokenness of things” that Mr. Siegel describes is here in the fallen, heavy bodies on the bottom edge, the broken sword, the open mouths with teeth showing. All this is in a classic, eternal triangle, “a design which makes for continuity,” at the apex of which there is a light.

To see death in the light is to give continuity to discontinuity — we see it with living eyes. And Picasso has put a bulb made by man into the eternal sun, right near the lamp over the stricken horse.

In particular detail and as a magnificent whole, the Guernica mural has what Aesthetic Realism has said all art must: “a design which makes for continuity,” of life, of death, and of reality.

It is the abiding presence of opposites, as described by Eli Siegel and Aesthetic Realism, which can relate the good and evil of the world and have mankind feel the world makes sense. Picasso’s great work of the 20th century will benefit mankind in a new way when the meaning of Mr. Siegel’s revolutionary Fifteen Questions Is Beauty the Making One of Opposites? is studied, as we are so fortunate to be doing now, all over the world.

Dorothy Koppelman, artist and Aesthetic Realism Consultant, teaches the Critical Inquiry, a workshop for artists.  Her talk is from a series of talks given free to the public.

1Terrain Gallery, 1955; reprinted by the Aesthetic Realism Foundation: New York

Copyright © 1999-2014 by Dorothy Koppelman. All rights reserved.