Installation view of Picasso’s Guernica. Photo by Joaquín Cortés / Román Lores. Courtesy of Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía.


Installation view of Picasso’s Guernica. Photo by Joaquín Cortés / Román Lores. Courtesy of Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía.

Eighty years ago,   received a commission that would forever change his career.
The Spanish Republic—then in the throes of the Spanish Civil War, against future dictator Francisco Franco—had asked Picasso, among several other prominent artists, to create a painting for its pavilion at the Paris International Exposition of 1937. The work he made was Guernica, the now-legendary, mural-sized painting inspired by the bombing of a small Basque town, which now resides at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid.
While numerous works by Picasso have been crowned masterpieces—like Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), which is said to have set Western   in motion—Guernica stands alone in the artist’s prolific oeuvre. Why has this painting, in particular, struck a chord with generations of viewers?

The Artistic Experimentations That Led to Guernica

In an exhibition currently open at the Reina Sofía to mark the 80th anniversary of the creation and display of Guernica, titled “Pity and Terror: Picasso’s Path to Guernica,” curators Timothy James Clark and Anne M. Wagner delve into the artist’s production during the decade prior to the work’s inception. These earlier preoccupations include the artist’s interior scenes and depictions of women from the mid-1920s and ’30s, two themes in Picasso’s work that would ultimately surface in Guernica.
In the mid-’20s, around the time that Picasso became involved with  , he was painting interiors with still lifes, featuring objects like musical instruments and fruits. And initially, these works conveyed pleasure. But, as Wagner explains, the interior space soon became claustrophobic. “Its pleasure seemed to be charred and burnt up,” she says. “It became a theater for drama.”
This shift occurred amid the tumultuous World War I recovery efforts in the U.S. and Europe, the years preceding the devastating stock market crash of 1929. During this period, Picasso and the Surrealists were examining the dark spaces of the human psyche. “Picasso knew very well that being a human involved terror, tragedy, excess, and violence,” Wagner notes, “and he believed very much that the psyche is a place in which one plays out the unconscious mind.”