An Essay On Style In Guernica
By Stone Riley, Painter
© Stone Riley 2012
Offered in connection with Riley's painting
"Drone Strike In North Waziristan"

Proof of competence to write this essay: 

The author's page on "Dream And Lie Of Franco": 
The author's page on "Petites Fleurs": 
The author's main website: 


"Guernica" is often called the world's best painting of the 20th Century despite its two astonishing deficiencies.

For one thing, it has no color.  It has only gray and black and white.  Why?

Yes, Picasso meant the picture to reveal great horror. And yes, black and white may seem a natural choice for real-life nightmare terrors.  And yes, there is the precedent of another great Spanish painter depicting war's horrors in a famous work in gray and black and white: Francisco Goya's album of prints "The Disasters Of War" from a hundred years before.

But "Guernica" is a single large picture made of paint and canvas while "Disasters Of War" is a large array of small pictures made of printer's ink and paper.  Furthermore, Goya's own canvas paintings on this theme, full of dark earthy colors, create powerful impressions of solid reality that are surely not available in shades of gray.  And furthermore, some of those paintings are famously great, as for me particularly "Third of May 1808".

So this limitation of a large painting to uncolored pigments is a remarkable, new and innovative choice in "Guernica".  But on the other hand, it certainly does have great precedents in another realm of art: in film.  And the great anti-war black and white movies were, of course, very famous when "Guernica" was made in 1937, more than in our time of color film.

Great famous movies like "Intolerance" (1916) and "All Quiet on the Western Front" (1930) do definitely prove that large pictures made in gray and black and white can have the psychological ability to move the human mind to terror and its contemplation.  We can safely guess Picasso must have envied the psychological power of films like that and wished to have it in his hands for his purposes and felt that copying their shades of gray would help him do the trick.

But those are moving pictures.  Yes, as if it were coincidence, "Guernica" was designed to be displayed on the wall of an auditorium like movies are, but not moving, of course, and also spread across the wall behind the audience, not in front of them, for their examination when they arrive and exit.  And indeed, it is 11 feet tall and 25 feet wide (= 3.5 x 7.8 meters) a comparable size to a movie screen.  But on the other hand, "Intolerance" and "Western Front" and such are pictures full of every kind of human movement performed before our eyes by fine actors working under fine directors, and therefore seizing our attention inescapably.  Our attention to a painting seems to be much more voluntary.

And yet, "Guernica" has continued to be thought among the greatest works of art while those movies have not.  In what way is it more effective than great cinema?  I want to know so I can have that power in my hands.  And so this brings us to the other huge deficiency of Guernica: its preposterous cartoonish drawing style which does, to our astonishment, somehow seem to animate the people in the picture and compel our attention.

(As far as I have heard, Picasso did not definitely give this style a name.  Some scholars have suggested lumping "Guernica" into a preceding category called "synthetic cubism" or else they have proposed the vague description "late cubism" or simply not addressed the question.  I like to call the style of "Guernica" "surreal cubism" because it found great communicative power by successfully breaking free from very deep conventions of visual perception.)

I like to use the human face as an example of how this works:  Our human visual perception system is evolved by Nature to be extremely interested in making sense of human faces.  For example, let's suppose you're in the forest where you live and over there somewhere you glimpse something that might be a human face.  Instantly you are quite interested in deciding if this is a face, and interested in understanding what that person's purposes are and their emotions and what they are doing and how this might involve you.  Likewise for seeing human hands.  Likewise for seeing body language.

Now, with faces for example, we certainly do not need to see a whole human face in order to be struck with a desire to figure out what it means.  Of course not.  Indeed, if we glimpse that face turned away from us in profile in the woods, seeing just perhaps what seems to be the outline of a cheek and brow and nose – or perhaps it seems to be an eye, mustache and chin revealed through foliage – or a nose and two eyes, or a mouth and cheek and chin – we are at once alert to it of course and wish to know what is happening with that person there.  And how does this affect us?  Indeed, the more puzzling that the picture seems, but the more it seems with certainty to be a human face, the more that we are apt to rally up our best exertions of sympathetic imagination in our attempt at understanding.  So too with hands and body language.

From these facts of our psychology the ridiculous cartoonish drawing style of Guernica gains its authority to command our thinking.  A picture done this way might have a face whose eyes and brow show panic fear confirmed by flaring nostrils; but then our scanning eyes become aware the flaring nostrils, firm set mouth and jutting chin show brave resolution instead.  We recognize both glimpses of the face as real convincing glimpses of a face.  So we see animation in that face.  For sake of understanding this, we hope this person's change of heart will build into a story and we look around for more, still wondering what it means for us.

I suspect the limitation to gray and black and white has lost some of the psychological power it had in 1937.  We are accustomed now to great movies being made in color and still being great.  Occasional movies made in black and white still make the point that it has considerable communicative power – as many sorts of limitation do in art (because limiting the bandwidth, coding scheme, alphabet, Tarot deck, etc., is the very foundation of communication) – but I feel black and white in cinema does have less communicative power now in our time than in 1937 because of (as I said) changing cultural experience and cultural agreements.  And so okay, in my search for understanding of artistic style in "Guernica" from this point on I shall ignore this question of its coloring.

That leaves us with the question of its animation.  For three thousand years the picture makers of Europe had achieved whatever poor effects of movement that they could by a completely different means, by using shading to very skillfully show the shapes and surfaces our bodies make when muscles move inside our skin. Now, spurred on by cinema, and the ways that it had found to deal with film's extreme visual flatness, Picasso threw those centuries of vast experience right out the window, seeking a more effective means of making paintings move inside our eyes.  And he did it by drawing, not by shading.  And he somehow did the drawing right.

We can easily understand Picasso's motivation – the real life nightmares of his time were gathering thick and fast then as the Second World War began and the horrors demanded to be dragged into clear sight like great art can do – but what was his method?  Yes, I am finally asking a question that an ambitious painter has to ask:  How did Picasso actually do this work?  What did he do while standing at the anvil with the tongs and hammer in his hands?

I think I easily understand this too.  And here again I shall resort to using movies, this time as a metaphor:

When a painter stands at the canvas with intentions to address the public – not when the painting is a private diary entry and they are talking to themselves – the painter is like a cinema actor, director and audience member, switching to and from these roles as needed from one moment to the next.  They can conceive of some idea that arises in their cloud of thinking, become the passionate technician who moves their hand into a shape, and then without a pause step back to see and gauge the move's success or failure, and repeat and repeat and repeat till the desired effect is achieved.

A painter with such powers of invention as Picasso surely can become the audience member very cleanly, snap into that role a thousand times per hour.  They can suddenly and fully be a person who has just now turned their head and seen this thing the first time in their life, and repeat and repeat.

When he was painting "Guernica", I think Picasso constantly, repeatedly, psychologically transformed himself into a person who has just stepped in a movie theater for the first time in their life and just now turned their face up to the screen.  That's how he did the drawing right.

(End of essay)

Picasso's Guernica  (with circles indicating the faces quoted by Riley in "Drone Strike In North Waziristan")    Larger image: Here
Footnotes To This Essay
Proof of competence to write this essay:
Riley's painting "Drone Strike"
Other pages by this author: 
Riley on Picasso's "Dream And Lie Of Franco"
Riley on Picasso's "Petites Fleurs"
Stone Riley's main website
Picasso's "Guernica":
Wikipedia article on Picasso's "Guernica"
PBS article: "Guernica - Testimony of War"
  Wikipedia article on the 20th Century
Pablo Picasso:
  Wikipedia article on Pablo Picasso
Revealing great horror:
Wikipedia article on the bombing of Guernica
PBS article: "Guernica - Picasso's Artistic Process"
Francisco Goya:
Wikipedia article on Francisco Goya
Wikipedia article on Goya's "The Disasters Of War" circa 1815
Wikipedia article on Goya's "The Third of May 1808" circa 1814
Great anti-war black and white films:
Wikipedia article on 1916 film "Intolerance"
Wikipedia article on 1930 film "All Quiet on the Western Front"
Current black and white movies:
Wikipedia article on 1993 film "Schlindlers List"
Depicting movement by muscle structure:
Wikipedia article on chiaroscuro
Wikipedia photo of Rembrandt's 1659 self-portrait
Wikipedia photo of Gothic sculpture (Strasbourg's Cathedral of Notre Dame) circa 1500 CE
Wikipedia photo of Classic Greek sculpture (Parthenon west frieze) circa 440 BCE
Cinema dealing with its visual flatness:
The official Charlie Chaplin website