A Sum of Destruction: Violence, Paternity and Art in Picasso's "Guernica"

June 01, 2017

By , Director, Dickens Project 

This article originally appeared in the Studies in Visual Communication (Summer 1982; Vol. 8, No. 3). 

John O. Jordan is Associate Professor of Literature at the Santa Cruz campus of the University of California. He teaches courses in nineteenth-century literature and has published essays on Swinburne, Dickens, Picasso, and modern African literature. This article is a part of a monograph on Picasso.



Isn't story-telling always a way of searching for one's origin, speaking one's
conflict with the Law, entering into the dialectic of tenderness and hatred?
-Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text (1975)


The reading of Picasso's Guernica (Figure 1) that I wish to propose in this essay takes as its point of departure two hypotheses: first, that the painting is structured like a narrative and that it tells a story--or several related stories--which unfolds in a specific temporal sequence; and second, that one of the main elements in this narrative is the figure of the father, or what I prefer to call Picasso's myth of paternity. The relation between these two hypotheses is suggested both by the quotation from Barthes that I have taken as an epigraph and by another statement that Barthes makes in the same essay. "Every narrative," he writes, "is a staging of the (absent, hidden, hypostatized) father" (p. 10).

To discuss Guernica in these terms, as the narrative staging of a paternal myth, may seem at first like a refusal to engage the important historical and political significance of the painting: its relation to the Spanish Civil War and to the deadly aerial bombardment of April 26, 1937, which was the occasion for the painting and which dictated Picasso's choice of a title. I am convinced, however, that an approach along the lines I have indicated does more than just add another level of interpretation to the many that have been suggested for the painting. In addition, I believe, such an approach provides a more complete basis for understanding the social and political dimensions of Guernica, both as the lament for an appalling military atrocity and as the statement of a revolutionary hope for the future.

The Myth of Paternity

Before proceeding to develop my two hypotheses, let me first elaborate the idea of a paternal myth as it applies to Picasso. In so doing, I shall draw on biographical information about Picasso's relationship with his lather as well as on the psychoanalytic theories of Jacques Lacan, especially Lacan's important concept of the Name-of-the-Father (le nom du père). Picasso's myth of paternity is the story of a weak lather and a strong son. In its most cryptic form, the story recounts how the lather, a mediocre academic painter in provincial Spain, recognized the budding artistic genius of his 13-year-old son and handed over his brushes and palette to the adolescent prodigy, renouncing painting forever. Sabartés (1948:29-30; see also Penrose 1958:31-32), who heard it directly from the artist, gives the most detailed account of this incident, but other versions of the story and allusions to it appear in the memoirs of people who knew Picasso well. Apparently, he enjoyed telling the story, and as a result it has become part of the Picasso legend: a myth of origin cast in the form of a grave vocational crisis for the lather and a startling Oedipal victory for the son.

Whether the incident actually happened and whether it took the precise form described by Sabartés are questions that cannot be answered with certainty. The episode bears a striking resemblance to the anecdote told by Vasari about the young Leonardo's arrival in the studio of the aging Verrocchio. According to Vasari, Leonardo completed the figure of an angel in a painting of Verrocchio's design. So perfect was the execution of this figure and so ashamed was the master to be outdone by a mere boy that he never touched colors again. In telling the story of his own apprenticeship at La Coruña, Picasso may have exaggerated or fictionalized the real events in order to assert his claim to recognition as the Leonardo of his century. In his story, it is a still life and the figure of a dove (his father's favorite animal) that provoke the crisis and bring on the remarkable rite of passage.

We cannot rule out, therefore, the possibility of deliberate self-mythologizing in Picasso's account of the events at La Corufia in 1894-1895. However, we should not dismiss the story for this reason as irrelevant to Picasso's life and work. In a general sense, it remains true to Don Jose's predicament as an aging painter faced with the challenge of his son's prodigious talent. Moreover, the story corresponds to other things that we know about the father's life during these years: the loss of his job as museum curator in Malaga in 1891, his financial difficulties, his loneliness · and depression after the move to La Corulia, and the death there of his youngest child in 1895----events that coincide with Picasso's early adolescence and with his growing sense of artistic vocation. That the father felt threatened and that both son and father recognized his vulnerability seem evident.

The more profound significance of Picasso's myth of paternity lies not in its correspondence to empirical fact or in its usefulness for the kind of literal-minded biographical criticism that Rosalind Krauss (1981) has attacked as "art history of the proper name." Rather, its importance pertains to the status of the La Corufia story as what Fredric Jameson (in a different context) calls a fantasm,  or fantasy master narrative. Such a master narrative, writes Jameson (1981 :180), "is an unstable or contradictory structure, whose persistent actantial functions and events (which are in life restaged again and again with different actors and on different levels) demand repetition, permutation, and the ceaseless generation of various structural 'resolutions' which are never satisfactory, and whose-initial form is that of . . waking fantasies, day dreams, and wish-fulfillments." Jameson also makes the point, particularly important for Guernica,  that the family situation in such fantasms is social as well as personal or "psychoanalytic" and that family relationships often mediate those of class-and also, we might add, those of politics and gender. Regardless of its basis in fact, Picasso's myth of paternity thus stands as an implicit subtext or phantom pentimento beneath many (though certainly not all) of Picasso's major works, among them Guernica.  It also provides Picasso with the model for his conception of himself as a revolutionary artist-the restless overreacher ("I do not seek, I find"), forever changing styles and breaking with the art of the past, including his own.

The La Corufia episode, as we have considered it thus far, leaves out several important elements that are necessary to a fuller understanding of Picasso's paternal myth. These elements can be briefly enumerated. They include the son's ambivalence toward his father-that is, the positive feelings of admiration and the wish to emulate him that go along with the hostile fantasies of destruction and the wish to usurp his place. They also include the tremendous sense of guilt felt by the son when his fantasy of overthrowing the father suddenly becomes a reality, and they include an accompanying wish to take care of the father and to make some reparation for the grievous injury inflicted on him.

Finally, they include the necessary accommodation that all sons must make to paternal authority if they are to enter into the rule-governed activities of language, kinship, and culture. This accommodation, according to Lacan, results from the intervention via the Oedipal triangle of the father, who stands not only for himself but, more importantly (for he may be absent or weak, as in the case of Don Jose), for the function of the Law and the symbolic order, to which the father himself is also subject. The father's intervention is experienced by the son as a symbolic castration. The phallus, the original signifier of desire, is given up and displaced by what Lacan calls the paternal metaphor or the Name-of-the-Father: 1  a signifier that fuses patronymics (nom) with prohibition (non).  This displacement generates in turn a chain of other signifiers that designate the paternal function. The son's fantasy of murdering and castrating the father implies not only his rebellion against paternal constraint but also the recognition of his sonship-that is, of his position as castrated and his desire to possess the object that he knows is lacking. The son's submission to the always absent Symbolic Father binds hirn to the Law and constitutes the acceptance of his place as a participant within the cultural order.

Thus, although it is manifestly a story of paternal weakness and filial triumph, Picasso's rnyth of paternity contains other complicating and contradictory features: ambivalence, guilt, and accommodation to the very Law that seemed to have been overthrown. The father's palette and brushes are examples of the paternal metaphor, passed from one generation to the next according to the law of patrilineal succession. The father's act of renunciation involves the yielding of phallic power over his successor and at the same tirne the transmission of that power in a form that guarantees the father's survival through the son's progeny and, more importantly, through the son's art. The dove that Picasso recalls painting functions as a mediating term between son and father, confirming their new alliance. Like the ram that substitutes for the son in the sacrifice of Isaac, the dove absorbs the intergenerational conflict and carries the mark of castration. According to Sabartes, the bird was dissected, its feet cut off and pinned to a board where they served the young boy as a model. Also like the rarn, the dove has seminal connotations; paloma,  for example, is a common children's word in Spanish for penis.

The final element in Picasso's paternal myth that needs elaboration is the role of Don Jose as his son's art teacher. Few art historians would accord much· significance to the father's influence on his son's art beyond 1896 or 1897, by which time the young painter had definitively rejected the sterile exercmes of the academy for the excitement of. the modemismo movement and the more cosmopolitan world of Barcelona's bohemian cafes. By the age of 16, in works such as Science and Charity  and The First Communion, he had fully mastered the academic style of painting and had nothing more to learn from his father's lessons. Considered as a painter in his own right, Don Jose is a negligible figure of limited ability, hardly a potent role model for his ambitious and rebellious son. Considered, howE,ver, as the bearer and transmitter of a tradition, he assumes much greater importance in Picasso's art than his meager talent would otherwise suggest.

The tradition that Don Jose carried and passed on to his son was that of classical figure drawing-the foundation of all naturalistic representation since the Renaissance and a tradition itself based on classical sculpture. Academic art instruction in the nineteenth century began always in the salon antique,  where students were put to work drawing human figures, using plaster casts of Greek and Roman antiquities as their models. It was this rigorous discipline that Don Jose imposed on his son in La Coruiia and perhaps even before that in Malaga. Photographs of the father's studio at the Academy of San Telmo in Malaga show it jammed with the plaster statuary that he set his pupils to copying. Among the earliest drawings that we have by Picasso are several that faithfully reproduce classical fragments and figures from the Parthenon, completed, we must suppose, under his father's exacting eye. Behind the mediocre academic painter, therefore, and behind the person of Don Jose, stands the figure of the Law, Lacan's Symbolic Father: le nom du pere.  This absent, hypostatized father is the tradition of classical figuration and naturalistic drawing that Picasso, as leader of the modernist revolt, helped to overthrow, but it is the same tradition that he helped to sustain through his periodic reversions to a "classical" style and through the purity of line in all his work, regardless of style or period.

Perhaps the strongest indicator of the Name-of-theFather in Picasso's career as a whole is his stubborn repudiation of abstract art. No artist before him ~ad moved so radically toward breaking with the idea of painting as naturalistic representation, yet he refused to take the final step into abstraction. "There is no abstract art," he told Zervos in 1935. "You must always start with something. Afterward you can remove all traces of reality. There's no danger then, anyway, because the idea of the object will have left an indelible mark (quoted in Barr 1946:273). The refusal of abstraction and the insistence on fidelity to "the idea of the object" are evidence, I would argue, of Picasso's accommodation to the symbolic authority of the Father-an authority greater than that of Don Jose but transmitted through him and through the debased institution of the academy. Thus rebellion and accommodation, innovation and tradition, all have their place in Picasso's paternal myth. How different parts of the myth combine and take their place in a specific narrative structure will become more apparent as we turn to a closer examination of Guerniqa.

Guernica as Narrative

 In order to support the assertion that Guernica is structured like a narrative and that the story it tells has a definite sequence and direction, we must first identify what that story is. Any interpretation of Guernica needs to begin with a basic question: what is the subject of the painting? What is Guernica about? If this question has seldom been asked in so blunt a fashion, it is probably because the answer to it has always seemed obvious. Guernica is about the event that its title names, the bombing by German planes of a small town in northern Spain on April 26, 1937. All the circumstances surrounding the execution of the painting support this identification. Picasso was an outspoken supporter of the Republican cause. He had done other works, notably the Dream and Lie of Franco, which take the Civil War as a subject. Guernica was painted on commission for the Spanish government- in-exile to be displayed in its pavillion at the 1937 World's Fair in Paris. Picasso drew his first sketches for the commissioned project on May 1, only a few days after news of the bombing reached him in Paris. On many occasions, he emphasized the explicitly political purpose of the painting. Finally, of course, there is the title. Picasso rarely gave specific titles to his works, Guernica thus being an important exception to his customary practice. All these facts confirm the self-evident conclusion: the subject of Guernica is Guernica.

Several difficulties arise, however, when one attempts to read the painting as a literal portrayal of the bombing. First, as Rudolf Amheim has pointed out (1962:20), the town of Guemica was attacked on a sunny spring afternoon at 4:30, whereas the painting clearly suggests darkness or, more precisely, night.[2] A second difficulty, according to Amheim, derives from the fact that the enemy is not present. Neither airplanes nor bombs are visible; moreover, there is no figure that can be identified with certainty as a corpse. The only "dead" person in the completed mural is a statue. The figure conventionally read as a "dead infant" might be sick, or wounded, or unconscious, or very much alive. Arnheim has no trouble accounting for these "deviations from the historical facts," suggesting that the darkness is symbolic and that the absence of the enemy is consistent with Picasso's emphasis on the suffering victims. There is, however, another, much simpler explanation for the two so-called deviations. They are not deviations at all. Arnheim, like other interpreters of Guernica until very recently, has overlooked the literal subject of the painting. It is not the bombing of Guernica, but another, equally specific event: the Málaga earthquake of December 1884, which took place when Picasso was 3 years old.[3]

In identifying the earthquake as the literal subject of Guernica,  I do not wish to exclude other levels of reference in the painting, notably to the bombing and to political events in Spain as well as to Picasso's myth of paternity. Nor do I mean to deny Picasso's reliance on iconography of the bullfight and the Crucifixion, aspects of the painting that have been discussed in detail by other scholars.[4]  The earthquake, however, is the initial, literal referent that organizes the other patterns of significance, and it is therefore with the earthquake that one must begin. It functions not merely as one overtone of meaning among others, but as a central organizing device that Picasso used in order to control his symbolic motifs and shape them into a coherent design.

Evidence to support the earthquake identification has been available for many years. Consider, for example, the following conversation reported by Malraux (1976:39):

Before Guernica was taken, in 1937, to the Spanish Republican Pavillion at the Paris World's Fair, I had told Picasso, "We don't believe very much in subject matter, but you must agree that this time the subject matter will have served you well." He replied that, indeed, he didn't believe very much in subject matter, but he believed in themes-so long as they were expressed symbolically. ... What he considered themes (and I quote) were birth, pregnancy, murder, the couple, death, rebellion, and, perhaps, the kiss.

It is an interesting but puzzling exchange. Malraux assumes that he knows what the subject of the painting is. Without denying or confirming his friend's assumption, Picasso responds by listing a series of symbolic themes. What are we to make of this list? Is Picasso still speaking of Guernica, or do these themes have only a general applicability to his art? Is Picasso's answer serious, or is he being coy and selfprotective? "The kiss" has no relevance to the painting, nor, apparently, does "the couple." "Murder," "death," and "rebellion" come closer to the usual ways of thinking about Guernica, but why do these themes follow "birth" and "pregnancy" on the list? In order to rnake sense of Picasso's response, we need to pursue the question of the painting's subject.

If the conversation with Malraux contains a clue as to this subject, it is a conversation with Picasso's close friend and private secretary, Jaime Sabartés, that provides us with its certain identification. In 1946, Sabartés published his biographical memoir, Picasso: portraits et souvenirs (published in English in 1948). The memoir is rich in anecdotal material, based on many intimate conversations between the two friends. It is, in particular, the best available source of information about Picasso's early years in Málaga and La Coruña. Toward the beginning of the memoir, Sabartés recounts the following story:

Early one night in mid-December 1884, Don Pepe [Don José] was chatting with some friends in the back room of the drugstore where they used to get together to discuss all manner of things. Suddenly they were aware of a vibration which flung to the floor all the bottles lined up on the shelves. The friends separated hastily, Don Pepe returning home on the run. Along the way he thought of a plan of salvation. "These rooms are too big, Maria," he gasped upon arriving. "Cover yourself up with something. And you Pablo, come with me." 

After fifty-seven years Picasso still remembers it. "My mother was wearing a kerchief on her head. I had never seen her like that. My father grabbed his cape from the rack, threw it over himself, picked me up in his arms, and wound me in its folds, leaving only my head exposed." 

Thus they left their home and thus they arrived at the house of [the neighbor], which was located near the sea; the rooms were small and adjoined the rocks .... 

That night of great cataclysm was an anguishing night for Málaga .... In the midst of all the tribulations his sister Lola was born. [pp. 5-6]

The key word in Sabartés is "cataclysm." Memories of the 1884 Málaga earthquake returned vividly to Picasso on the occasion of another cataclysmic event. In his effort to imagine the first massive aerial bombardment on the European continent, Picasso searched his own past for an analogous experience. The metaphor, earthquake-bombing, came naturally to him. The subject of Guernica--the literal subject--is not Guernica. Rather, it is the earthquake of 1884.