Different modes of experience created by poetry and visual art
  • Subhash Jaireth

On 28 April 1937, The Times (London) published George Steer’s report, The Tragedy of Guernica. Picasso read similar reports published in French newspapers, dropped the project he was working on and began sketching for a new painting which would become Guernica. The painting was finished in June 1937 and was displayed in the pavilion of the Spanish Republic in Paris.

A full-size tapestry-copy of Guernica hangs at the entrance of the United Nations (UN) Security Council meeting room. According to Maggie Farley, the staff writer at the Los Angeles Times, on 5 February 2003, as the US Secretary of State Colin Powell ‘came out of the meeting for a press conference, after presenting evidence to help UN to decide whether or not to go to war in Iraq’, the journalists noticed that the tapestry hanging behind his back had been covered by a blue curtain (Farley 2003: 1).

Why did Powell find the presence of the painting unsettling? By covering it, was he acknowledging its power? How does a painting like Guernica acquire that power? Does it reside in the truth it represents, or does it originate from the intense emotions we experience looking at it? 

In my essay I compare Picasso’s Guernica with Steer’s newspaper report. I also bring into focus Gernika, a poem written by the Basque poet Telesforo Monzon about the same event. Does the poem possess the same power? What kind of emotional experience does the poem offer to its readers? In what way does that experience differ from the one that Picasso’s Guernica or Steer’s newspaper report provides?

Keywords: Picasso; George Steer; Guernica; knowledge; experiential knowledge


In the early hours of 27 April 1937 George Steer, the South-African born British journalist and war correspondent, visited Guernica, the Basque town, bombed ten hours earlier by General Mola’s planes. He was one of the four reporters who arrived to see the devastated town.

In the afternoon Christopher Holme, a Reuter-reporter, sent his cable which was published in the Evening News with the headline: ‘The most appalling air raid ever known’. On 28 April The Daily Express printed an article by an Australian reporter Noël Monks. ‘I have seen many ghastly sights in Spain in the last six months,’ the article began, ‘but none more terrible than the annihilation of the ancient Basque capital of Guernica by Franco’s bombing planes’ (in Hensbergen 2004: 41). In Paris the news of the bombing appeared in two newspapers, Ce Soir and Paris Soir.

George Steer’s report of the bombing was published in The Times (London) and in The New York Times on Wednesday 28 April. The Times printed it on page 17 whereas the New York Times placed in on the first page. Gijs van Hensbergen in his book Guernica: The Biography of a Twentieth-Century Icon calls the report historically one of ‘the most influential’ of all (Hensbergen 2004: 41).

The Times ran it under the heading The Tragedy of Guernica with two subheadings: Town Destroyed in Air Attack and Eye-Witness Account. The New York Times carried the report with a more accurate and expressive headline: Historic Basque Town Wiped Out; Rebel Fliers Machine-Gun Civilians, followed by an equally forceful subheading: Waves of German-Type Planes Fling Thousands of Bombs and Incendiary Projectiles on Guernica, Behind Lines, as Priests Bless Peasants Filling Town on Market Day.

I like how The New York Times frames the report. The Times on the other hand inserts a separate brief editorial note on the same page entitled Guernica which informs the reader that ‘in a neighbouring column a special correspondent with the Basque forces describes the destruction of Guernica by General Mola’s Herman aircraft.’ The note doesn’t name the correspondent. The name does not accompany the report either. In The New York Times his name is mentioned right at the beginning: ‘By G. L. Steer, Special Cable to The New York Times.’ Why did The Times opt not to mention Steer as its correspondent? Is this because it didn’t like his work as a journalist? Nicholas Rankin, Steer’s biographer, speculates that The Times didn’t appreciate the anti-Fascist tone of his reports, and perhaps that’s why it soon decided to dispense with his services (Rankin 2003: 210).

Steer opens his report with the words: ‘Guernica, the most ancient town of the Basques, and the centre of their cultural tradition, was completely destroyed yesterday afternoon by insurgent air raiders’ (1937: 17). The report notes the exact time at which the bombing began, names the German planes involved in the bombing, and documents the quantity of explosives dropped on the town:

The bombardment of this open town far behind the lines occupied precisely three hours and a quarter, during which a powerful fleet of aeroplanes consisting of three German types, Junkers and Heinkel bombers and Heinkel fighters, did not cease unloading on the town bombs weighing from 1,000lb. downwards and, it is calculated, more than 3,000 two-pounder aluminium incendiary projectiles. The fighters, meanwhile, plunged low from above the centre of the town to machine-gun those of the civilian population who had taken refuge in the fields.

The whole of Guernica was soon in flames except the historic Casa de Jontas with its rich archives of the Basque race, where the ancient Basque Parliament used to sit. The famous oak of Guernica, the dried old stump of 600 years and the young new shoots of this century, was also untouched… The noble parish, church of Santa Maria was also undamaged except for the beautiful chapter house, which was struck by an incendiary bomb.

At 2 a.m. today when I visited the town the whole of it was a horrible sight, flaming from end to end. The reflection of the flames could be seen in the clouds of smoke above the mountains from 10 miles away. Throughout the night houses were falling until the streets became long heaps of red impenetrable debris….

Monday was the customary market day in Guernica for the country round. At 4.30 pm, when the market was full and peasants were still coming in, the church bell rang the alarm for approaching aeroplanes, and the population sought refuge in cellars and in the dugouts prepared following the bombing of the civilian population of Durango on March 31, which opened General Mola’s offensive in the north. (ibid)

About the number of victims Steer notes: ‘it is impossible to state yet the number of victims. In the Bilbao Press this morning they were reported as “fortunately small”, but it is feared that this was an understatement in order not to alarm the large refugee population of Bilbao.’ In a paragraph preceding this information Steer writes that ‘the whole town of 7,000 inhabitants, plus 3,000 refugees, was slowly and systematically pounded to pieces.’ Perhaps that is why he suspects the number of casualties to be much higher. ‘When I revisited Guernica this afternoon,’ he continues, ‘most of the town was still burning and new fires had broken out. About 30 dead were laid out in a ruined hospital’ (ibid).

‘That night,’ writes Hensbergen, ‘1,645 people died and a further 889 were injured’ (2004: 42).

Steer’s eyewitness reports appeared without photos. However, newspapers in Paris such as Ce Soir, Paris Soir, and l’Huminité printed their reports with black and white photographs of the ruined town and of the dead bodies lying in the street during the week following the bombing.

Steer was 28 when he visited Guernica. Hensbergen describes him as ‘arguably the most experienced’ of the journalists reporting from war-torn Spain. He had already ‘witnessed in the Italo-Abyssinian war the use of chemical warfare, which the Italians often directed at Red Cross stations to terrorise the foreign observers. He was passionate, enterprising, and utterly fearless’ (2004: 41).


In his report Steer mentions the rescue work of Senor Telesforo Monzon, the Minister of Interior in the Basque government. ‘Units of fire brigades and Basque motorized police,’ writes Steer, ‘under the personal direction of the Minister of Interior, Senor Monzon, and his wife continued rescue work till dawn.’

Senor Monzon[i], the Minister of Interior was also a poet. He witnessed the bombing and wrote a poem. Ian Patterson in his book, Guernica and Total War, calls the poem ‘defiant’ and ‘an almost eye-witness account’ of the event (2007: 33)

Monzon’s Gernika is one of the very few poems written in response to the bombing. It seems to have been conceived in the town when Monzon was still rescuing people after the bombing. Most other poems, such as the one by another Basque poet Mikel Zarate entitled 1937, Apirilak 26 (26 April 1937), and Paul Eluard’s La Victoire de Guernica (The Victory of Guernica), represent responses, not so much to the bombing itself, but to Picasso’s painting Guernica.

Monzon’s Gernika is stylistically simple, composed in six rhyming quatrains with a varying end-rhyme pattern. The rhythmic tempo is controlled by iambic tetrameter and trimeter. The English translation cited in Patterson doesn’t follow the structure, preferring instead three unrhyming stanzas of five and eight lines. It reproduces the meaning and the mood of the original honestly, but is unable to recreate the soundscape of the original.

‘Gernika is burning, aflame!’ begins the poem, observing that ‘at night’ and immediately after the bombing the poet sees ‘among the stones … a village on live coals.’ The most powerful image in the poem is that of the tree, which Steer in his report described as ‘the famous oak of Guernica, the dried old stump of 600 years, and the young shoots of this century.’ ‘The tree resists,’ the poem records, ‘standing with its arms wide open.’ Monzon thus turns the tree in to a powerful symbol of survival, resistance, and recovery.

But fire, flames and burning remain significant elements of the poem repeated several times: ‘hard to believe, I have arrived / at Gernika in the middle of the night: / the village is burning, aflame!’

The poem lists the victims: ‘children sleeping on the road’; ‘brother looking for his brother’; ‘the father finds his murdered son’; ‘a woman with no tears in her eyes’; ‘cows bellow in the wilderness’.


The story of the making of Guernica has been told by many writers such as Rudolf Arnheim (1962), Anthony Blunt (1969), Russell Martin (2003), Gijs van Hensbergen (2004), Anne Baldassari (2006), and Simon Schama (2006). Dora Maar, Picasso’s lover and muse, made a photographic record of the creation of Guernica. It is considered to be unique ‘in the history of modern art as the first complete record of a work of art in the making (Baldassari 2006: 167).

Picasso prepared the first sketch for the painting on 1 May 1937. Hensbergen speculates that the first sketch, ‘a lightening notation in pencil took him perhaps less than a minute; measuring just 21 x 27 centimetres, it brought together the bull with a bird landing on its back, an agitated shorthand image of a collapsed horse, and above that a woman leaning out of a window holding a beacon or a vase’ (2014: 45). Arnehim notes that the 1 to 1.2 ratio of the first sketch is approximately of the same format as the final large painting (1962: 31).

Picasso, like many others, had heard the news of the bombing on 27 April 1937. A day later he saw in L’Humanité the report of the bombing with a screaming headline: ‘Mille Bombes Incendaires lancées par les avions de Hitler et de Mussolini.’ The report, unlike Steer’s account, was accompanied by several photos of the scorched town and of the dead bodies.

Hensbergen writes that it was Juan Larrea, the Basque poet and essayist living in Paris, who convinced Picasso that ‘the bombing of Gernika might be the very subject he was looking [for]’ for the painting he had been commissioned to create for the pavilion of the Spanish Government in-exile at the 1937 World’s Fair in Paris. It was he who also ‘negotiated the acquisition of the space at rue des Grands-Augustins for one million francs by the Spanish government for Picasso’s exclusive space,’ to work on the painting (2005: 30).

Picasso had already completed the first plate of the etching, The Dream and Lie of Franco, which he had started working on in January 1937. This satirical, cartoon-strip-like work was going to be his creation for the pavilion. The bombing of Guernica changed his plan. It took him close to two and a half months to finish the painting, which was mounted on the wall of a ground-floor space in the pavilion on 12 July 1937.

The pace at which he worked was frenzied. Between 1 May and 6 July, he made around 56 sketches and kept on working on the painting till the very eve of the opening (Baldassari 2006: 167). By 11 May he had conceptualised and painted the so-called first state of the painting, after which he asked Maar to create a photographic record of the process. In the following weeks she photographed all eight states of the painting including the final version, and also took photos of Picasso painting the work. However, she wasn’t a mere recorder of the process. Baldassari suggests that through her photographs she initiated a ‘back-and-forth’ dialogue with Picasso and his painting. Picasso didn’t see her photos merely as a record of his work; he seemed to have relied on them to define the visual structure of the painting (ibid). It can be argued that, without her contribution, the final version of the painting might have looked quite different.

The monochromatic (grey-black-white) scheme of the painting about which Picasso wasn’t initially very confident became stylistically more appealing after he saw Maar’s photographs. Baldassari is of the opinion that ‘the colouring of the painting undoubtedly owes something to the newspaper photographs showing the bombing of Guernica’ (2006: 168). Looking at the painting, it feels as if Picasso was trying to recreate an image similar to the black-and-white photographs he had seen in the newspapers; perhaps he wanted to convince his viewers that his painting was as authentic and real as a photograph. It is quite likely that this is why he removed coloured patches from the painting. ‘Several witnesses have told,’ notes Baldassari, ‘how Picasso tore off the last scraps of red paper to release the finished work to its monochromatic austerity (ibid: 172).

The presence of the cross-hatched pattern painted on the body of the horse is often seen by many as an attempt to bring the painting to the reality-level of a newspaper photograph. Hensbergen suggests that Maar helped Picasso to paint the script-like pattern on the horse (2005: 53). Picasso wanted the painting to appear as real as the devastated town, as if to stand in its place, and to become a metonym of the tragic event and location. ‘People will get close to it,’ he said, ‘and when they scratch it, a drop of blood will form, showing that that the work is truly alive’ (ibid). According to Picasso, the painting wasn’t merely alive but starkly transparent, allowing the viewers to see through it the real site of carnage. Perhaps that could have been the reason that he allowed the story of his encounter with a German Gestapo officer in Paris to spread around. It is said that one day the officer barged his way into Picasso’s apartment and, pointing at a photo of Guernica, asked, ‘Did you do that?’ ‘No,’ said Picasso, ‘you did’ (The Guardian: 2009).

A part of Maar’s photographic record, consisting of eight successive stages, a detail of the composition, and a group of portraits of Picasso at work, was published in a special issue of Cahiers d’Art in July 1937. The issue also included commentaries by poets and critics such as Xervos, Casson, Duthuit, Leiris and Bergamin. Éluard’s poem that accompanied the painting in the Spanish pavilion was printed in the same issue.

The journal was an ardent supporter of Picasso’s work and played an important role in finding an appropriate title for the painting. Baldassari cites an excerpt from Man Ray’s autobiography, Self Portrait (1963) in which Ray writes:

... since it had no title to begin with, there was much speculation on the subject, and the press would come up with new ones every day. Generally perceived to be related to Goya’s Disasters of War, it was one of the most widely discussed works in the exhibition. In the end, it was in Cahiers d’Art that it was first given the title Guernica, which brought together the name of the destroyed town and the painting. (Baldassari 2006: 166)

It is said that the painting’s initial reception was muted and, at times, quite critical. ‘It was received somewhat less enthusiastically by its Republican sponsors,’ writes Baldassari, ‘some of whom judged it “antisocial, ridiculous and completely unworthy of the healthy proletarian mentality”’ (169). Picasso had offered the work to Basque’s president José Antonio Aguiree as a painting for the Basque people, but the President declined the offer (Hensbergen 2005: 72). A German guide book for the exhibition dismissed the painting, calling it ‘a hodgepodge of body parts that any four-year old could have painted’ (ibid). French architect Le Corbusier who saw the painting in the exhibition claimed that ‘no one looked at Guernica because they all had their backs to it’ (ibid: 73)

What made the painting an iconic celebrity? The story of how it achieved its cult-like status is told in detail by Hensbergen, Martin, and Schama. The process, most critics and historians agree, began with a travelling exhibition of the painting during the war and the years following it. Presently, the legend has outgrown the painting itself, justifying the words of Picasso who said that one day ‘no one will see the picture, they will see the legend of the picture, the legend that the picture has created’ (Baldassari 2006: 175).

The ironic twist is stark: a painting that replaced the real event, and the place where that event happened has been displaced by stories about it. Not many viewers take the trouble to look at the painting now, satisfied merely by reading stories or looking at other derivative products created from it. For those who get a chance to look at it in the gallery, the time they get to face it is so limited that to engage with it properly, and to meditate about it has become almost impossible. For example, in August 2012 when I went to see the painting in Madrid’s Reina-Sofia Museum, I got only 15 minutes to look at it, after which I and twenty or so other visitors were asked to move on to the adjacent room to make way for the next group of viewers.


Guernica the Basque town was bombed in the late afternoon on 26 April 1937 by German bombers. Steer, the war correspondent, visited the devastated site soon after and filed his report which was published in the Times and The New York Times. Monzon, the Interior Minister in the Basque government, also went to the bombed town and carried out rescue work with his wife. The tragedy inspired him to write the poem Gernika.

Picasso read the reports of the bombing in French newspapers which also printed photos of the devastated city. In less than two and a half months he finished the painting that became Guernica. This single-word title tagged the image to the tragic event the painting intended to show. Like many others, I am glad that he didn’t use a more declamatory title such as Massacre in Korea, which he gave to his 1951 painting, mostly because it could have dulled the voice with which Guernica announces its presence, asking us to make up our own mind about the scene portrayed on the canvas.

It is clear that the starting point of the three responses to the bombing I have discussed in the essay is to tell us something about the event. Steer’s account is that of a newspaper correspondent, intended to be read as an eye-witness report, objective and accurate. Monzon’s Gernika and Picasso’s Guernica, on the other hand, demand a different engagement from us, an engagement that works of art normally deserve. Perhaps that is the reason we don’t look at them merely as sources of information. We demand and crave something beyond the specific event they want to depict; we want to learn from them something new — not only about the event but also about the works themselves and, more importantly, about ourselves.

‘Do we learn things from art?’ asks Eileen John in her essay Art and Knowledge (2001: 329):

If so what kinds of things do we learn and how does the learning occur? I believe we indeed learn things from art, and I take that to be a relatively uncontroversial claim among non-philosophers. But it is a controversial claim within philosophy, and the reason for that lies in the difficulty of answering the ‘what’ and ‘how’ questions satisfactorily. (ibid)

Of the three responses to the bombing, if I want to learn what really happened one late April afternoon in the Basque town, it’s the report of Steer I go to, not only because it is published as an eye-witness account but also because it is quite similar to the reports published by correspondents in several other newspapers. This assures me that the information I get from it is factual, verified and therefore true.

From Steer’s report I learn several things: the time when the bombing began and how long it lasted; the type of bombers used and their provenance; the planned nature of the attack designed to inflict the highest possible casualties; and a rough estimate of the number of people killed in the bombing. Finally, the report also informs me that the ancient oak in the town as well as the holy church survived the bombing and the fire.

The language of the report is typically journalistic, matter-of-fact, and precise. I only find two metaphors (‘cradle of the Basque race’ and ‘in the night they burned like little candles in the hills’) in a report of 1400 words.

Hensbergen writes that three days after the bombing the Nationalist troops moved in to the town and initiated a counter-propaganda campaign that included a report aired by Radio Nacional called ‘Lies, Lies, Lies’, in which it accused the Basques of torching their own city to win international sympathy (2005: 42). In his view, the newspaper reports such as the one by Steer played a significant role in protecting truth from the so-called ‘fake news’ spread by the Nationalist government.

There is a similar type of truth in Monzon’s poem Gernika, and not merely because it was written just after the bombing by a poet who, like Steer, had witnessed the devastation a few hours after the attack. Steer’s report mentions Monzon and his wife, a minor but important detail that helps me read the poem almost like a testimony.

Although the poem provides me some factual information about the bombing, this isn’t the only reason I read it. Because it’s a poem, I expect something in addition to bare facts. I am curious to read the personal response of a poet, wanting to learn about his thoughts and feelings. I want to know how he and other residents of the town faced the ordeal. I expect and want to be emotionally moved by the poem.

I like the way the poem uses the present tense to describe the scene. It creates the impression that, like the poet, I am also looking at the town ‘burning, aflame!’. I believe him when he tells me that he had arrived in the town ‘in the middle of the night,’ and had found ‘the village burning’, ‘children (a)sleep on the road’, ‘the brother looking for his brother and the father finding his murdered son’.

The poet urges me to ‘listen to the noise of the flame.’ He wants to tell me about the tree (the same tree that Steer describes in his report) which survived and stood ‘with its arms wide open.’ From the poem I don’t learn what kind of tree it is or its symbolic significance. But by pointing out the tree, the poet creates in me a desire to find out more about it.

Unlike Steer’s report, the poem creates its impact by using several potent visual metaphors. They are presented in combination with a rhymed, iambic-tetrametric rhythm, creating in me a desire to read the poem aloud. In this way the poem, unlike Steer’s report, is able to initiate an emotional engagement with it and with the event it describes. It wants me to experience what the poet could have experienced.

My approach to Picasso’s Guernica is slightly different. Just as a thought experiment, I imagine that I am looking at it as an uninformed viewer who doesn’t know anything about the painting or the painter. The first thing I notice is its title. It tells me that the scene painted on the canvas is most probably about an event that had happened in a place called Guernica.

After reading the title I look at the painting again. It draws me in by its monochromatic colour and its highly stylised, cartoon-like, deformed figures. Like all black-and-white photographs, it seems to be an abstraction of the real world, the world that isn’t actually monochromatic. Once I have suspended my disbelief and convinced myself that it’s about Guernica, I begin to tell myself that something utterly tragic could have happened to the nine figures (four women, one child, a fallen statue-like warrior, a bull, a horse and a bird) I see in the painting. They are cramped in a dark space, either of a single large room or of several different rooms, compressed so tightly in the painting, that they appear to impinge on each other.

From the ceiling hangs a light bulb throwing jagged rays over the body of an injured horse with a gaping wound and writing-like marks scribbled over it. From the window protrudes a woman’s hand holding a lamp painted in close proximity to the bulb. Why does she need the lamp when the room is lit by the bulb? Perhaps the bulb is broken. But then why is it shown emitting light? Perhaps they represent two different moments in the story the painting wants me to see and comprehend. Perhaps whatever is happening to the nine figures in the painting occurred at different places and at slightly different moments. By painting them juxtaposed like a photo-montage, Picasso wants me to see them as part of the same big event. I soon discover that the montage style of the painting assists me in jumping from one moment to the other in whatever sequence I want. 

These jumps also generate a sensation of frenzied movement, and I begin to convince myself that this is what the painting wants me to feel. Soon I turn my focus on the bull, one of the main protagonists of the painted story. It doesn’t take me long to notice that the bull seems to have been painted as it moved its face from right to left. In a photograph, a moving image of this type would appear blurred, whereas in the painting it appears to be an overlay of two different positions. The bull’s face is white, but the rest of the body is in dark shades, except for his grey raised tail. The bull could have just walked inside the space from a door on the left-hand side of the painting, I conclude.

As I unpick the rest of the scene portrayed in the painting, I begin to understand the creative intention that could have guided Picasso. He doesn’t want me to see the image as a passive viewer but to be active, populating the visual space with stories imagined by me. He wants me to engage with it, adding to the implied narrative. He wants me to be an active participant in the creation of meaning. But how long can this go on? Is the process endless? Is the chain of meanings I construe limitless?

That’s when I decide to end the thought experiment and begin a process of iteration, I have read about in Roger Scruton’s book Aesthetics of Music (1999). Scruton describes the iterative process he engaged with when he listened to the crying sound/song of a curlew:

I began by listening to the sound for the sake of information; I then listened to the sound for its own sake; finally I began to summon information for the sake of the sound. In the second two cases, I treated the sound as intrinsically interesting: it is the focus of my attention. (218)

In Scruton’s words, the shift between these two modes of listening ‘is wholly natural and is of course a paradigm of the attention shift from a practical to a contemplative interest’ (219).

It seems something similar happens when I read Monzon’s Gernika and look at Picasso’s painting. In my first attempt, taking a clue from the titles, I conclude that the two works of art can definitely tell me something important about Guernica, the Basque town. I read the poem and look at the painting again; this prompts me to search for more information about Guernica, the town. As I shift between these two modes, gathering information and focusing on the poem and the painting, gradually my focus on the two objects becomes more immediate and acute. A stage comes when I am no longer interested in the information about the town in the poem or the painting. This is how I gradually transition to a more contemplative mode of reading and looking. My involvement with the two becomes more subjective and particular. I begin to ask what the two mean to me, opening ways for me to learn about the nature of my own interaction with them. In this process, I not only learn about the event the two objects represent, but also about my emotional response to them. They open pathways for me to experience the event represented by them not merely as a bystander but also as an imaginative participant. I begin to feel that I have stepped, albeit momentarily, inside the time-space of the event portrayed by them.

The term used to describe this stage or process is ‘empathetic’. This is a term derived from the German concept Einfuhlung (empathy) which literally means ‘feeling-into’. Martha Nussbaum in Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions (2001) explains empathy ‘simply as an imaginative reconstruction of another person’s experience, whether that experience is happy or sad, pleasant or painful or neutral, and whether the imaginer thinks the other person’s situation good, bad, or indifferent’ (302).

Both the poem and the painting, in their own ways, create an empathetic reader and viewer out of me. They provide me with an opportunity to imaginatively reconstruct the experience of the residents of the ruined town. Steer’s report doesn’t quite work like that. It is compelling in the way it describes the event, establishing its authenticity, but lacks the force to get me emotionally involved with it. Like all newspaper reports, it needs the presence of photographs or other visual material to trigger an emotional response.

Because I am responding to the painting empathetically, trying to imaginatively recreate the experience, I also ignore some of the discrepancies I discover between it and the ‘real’ event it is gesturing towards. For example, I know that the bombing took place in the late afternoon and not at night as shown in Guernica. I also know that the animals which perished from the bombing were mostly sheep, but I am ready to accept the presence of a wounded horse, a bird, and a bull in the painting. They are metaphors, I tell myself. Metaphors like the two lamps shown in the painting: one on the ceiling and the other held in the outstretched hand of a young woman. Soon each of the nine figures turn into types: the woman with a dead baby in her arms becomes a symbol of other dead children and weeping women; the soldier on the floor with a wound on his open palm reminds me of the Christ-like suffering of the victims of other wars.

Once I start responding to the figures as symbols and types, the painting transforms into a symbol, an icon of suffering caused by brutal wars. Like Janus, the Roman god of bridges, the painting acquires two faces looking in two directions: one firmly focused on the Basque town, and the other going beyond it, pointing at the brutalities of wars. The story it tells and shows becomes universal, and it is this that makes the work an iconic, anti-war painting.

Steer’s report is meaningful only within the time-space of a particular event. It lacks Janus’s double face which the painting and, to some extent, the poem display. I experience their power by inserting myself inside the reality represented in and by them. Whatever I learn from them, I learn by my experience of being with them and in them. The source of my learning is my experience of them.

John calls this type of learning experiential, and knowledge so acquired as experiential knowledge. Art, according to her, can provide us with ‘experiential knowledge, especially knowledge of emotions’ (2001: 333).

Experiential knowledge is knowledge of what it is like to experience something. How would it feel to undergo something, to observe some kind of event, to experience things from a certain perspective, or to feel a certain emotion?’ (ibid)


A tapestry of the size of Picasso’s Guernica hangs in the Headquarters of the United Nations in New York at the entrance of the Security Council room. The tapestry is the work of Jacqueline de la Baume Dürbach. Since its first display in 1986, the tapestry has become a silent witness to several notable political events.

In November 1998, Kofi Annan, the Secretary General of the United Nations, referred to the work in his address to the International Council of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, noting that ‘the world has changed a great deal since Picasso painted the first political masterpiece, but it has not necessarily grown easier’ (Hensbergen 2005: 1). Just a few months earlier, the US Senator John McCain reminded the Senate of the painting in his speech supporting armed intervention in the Civil War in Kosovo. The painting, McCain said, ‘symbolised for the artist the carnage, the human suffering on an enormous scale, that resulted from the Spanish Civil War as prelude to the Second World War’ (Hensbergen 2005: 6).

If Annan referred to the presence of the painting to plead for peaceful resolution of armed conflicts, McCain wanted to use it to justify resolute action (i.e. armed intervention) to stop the atrocities of the civil war in Kosovo. Colin Powell, the US Secretary of State, and his advisors, however, were less confident than McCain in reminding people of Picasso’s iconic painting to argue in support of armed intervention in Iraq. Perhaps that is why the tapestry was covered by a blue, shroud-like, curtain (Hensbergen 2005: 2). It appears that Powell had failed to realise that the act of covering would make the presence of the painting even more significant, a fact emphasised by Laurie Brereton, the Australian delegate to the United Nations. ‘We may live in the age of the so-called “smart bomb,”’ Brereton said, ‘but the horror on the ground will be just the same as visited upon the villagers of Gernika … And it won’t be possible to pull a curtain over that’ (ibid: 3).

Brereton is right. Strangely, the ‘shrouding’ of the tapestry expresses both the power and the powerlessness of works of art such as Guernica. They can be covered, erased, hidden and, possibly, destroyed, but all such attempts, in the end, add to their power. Their presence from the public sphere cannot be fully erased; their indelible trace remains significant in the collective consciousness of the public. If they keep inspiring people, it is largely because they possess the ability to create empathetic experience for their viewers and readers. From them they learn how to become thinking and feeling human beings.


[i] Monzon, the nationalist Basque leader played a significant role in the Basque Nationalist Party during the Second Republic and the Spanish Civil War. After the end of the war, he lived in exile for more than 40 years. Basque literary critic Gorka Aulestia mentions his poem Batasuma, which was so popular that it was turned in to a song (Aulestia 2000: 230).


Works cited: 


Arnheim, R 1962 The Genesis of a Painting: Picasso’s Guernica, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press

Blunt, A 1969 Picasso’s Guernica, Oxford: Oxford University Press

Aulestia, G 2000 The Basque Poetic Tradition, Reno, NV: University of Nevada Press

Baldassari, A 2006 Picasso: Life with Dora Maar: Love and War 1935-1945, Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria

Farley, M 2003 ‘Guernica’ Cover-Up Raises Suspicions, Los Angeles Times, February 6, at https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-2003-feb-06-fg-guernica6-story.html (accessed 3 March 2019)

The Guardian, In praise of … Guernica, March 26, at 
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Hensbergen, G 2005 Gurenica: The Biography of a Twentieth-Century Icon, London: Bloomsbury

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Patterson, I 2007 Guernica and Total War, London: Profile Books

Rankin, N 2003 Telegram from Guernica: The Extraordinary Life of George Steer, War Correspondent. London: Faber & Faber

Schama, S 2006 Power of Art, London: BBC Books, 352-395

Scruton, R 1999 The Aesthetics of Music, Oxford: Oxford University Press

Steer, G 1937. ‘The Tragedy of Guernica’, in The Times, Wednesday, April 28, 17-18

Tjikatu, B 2011 ‘Creation Story’, at https://www.environment.gov.au/resource/creation-story-uluru-kata-tjuta-national-park (accessed 8 August 2019)