A Figure and Guernica: Guernica by Pablo Picasso. / by Les Ann Holland

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A figure wearing black stands just left of center, arms crossed, with most of her weight upon her left leg, clearly contemplating the imagery stretching nearly eight times her width and twice her height before her. She regards the lower left quadrant of the composition, perhaps at the bottom figure positioned in profile (mostly) with mouth agape. It appears the head has been severed and lies next to an arm, also severed, which reaches (out of our view) across the width of her hips ending in a fist, grasping an incomplete sword, pointing toward the right. At this point in the read, we can either follow the sword toward the right half of the painting or continue back across the human form, across her left hip to view the left half of the painting. To her left is an arrow, which points and ends abruptly on a sandwich of planes just above it. We then follow this moment toward the where more forms are stacked, resembling a horse above and to her left, a bull and what looks to be a female form stricken with grief, holding a lifeless carcass, a white form housed inside the negative space and darkness of the bull's legs and hooves. Following the contour of her neck and chin upward, we again meet the bull, boxing her and her lifeless form into grey and black negative space behind it. We follow the bull's tail upwards and to the right, toward more negative space. We see, to the right of the bull, housed on a field of grey, a form in the shape of an eye, shining its light downward. Below it, we revisit the horse and its piercing tongue, more light forms on dark negative space, its body deconstructed with each piece rendered in a pattern of vertical dashes. Following the horse's neck, we see the apex of a triangle above and to its right, with a blank white mirror of the horse itself, located just to the right of it, the point of access another disembodied arm. This one, however, located in the upper half of the painting, seems to grasp an white vertical object, which we can begin to associate with the light to its left. In fact, in this quarter of the painting, we see the most light of the piece, shapes situated next to one another, separated by thin contours. All lines point upwards, with greys anchoring more forms below. The right-hand horse of light, faces and meets its counterpart in physical form at the precise center of the picture plane and pictorial space. Another form appears like a specter just above and to the right of our engaged (and oblivious to us) viewer. Unlike other severed limbs, which are indicated by black elipses in white outline, the head in profile just above her originates from above, from the top of a post, a diagonal projection or beacon, pointing us once again toward the center of the picture plane. It appears that this right half of the image houses an interior. There is one live figure in this half, running to the left, toward our original grieving form, yet anchored more closely to the foreground, mirroring the light filled form above it--to offer aid? Her right foot points down, connecting to the earth, indicating gravitas. Her right hip forms a 90 degree angle with the arch of her foot beginning to connect to the ground below. Her left arm stretches with palm facing up, indicating receptivity. Her right palm, fingers pointed downward, stares square into the space just between the front edge of the picture plane and where the viewer would stand, the most stable moment in the piece, other than a small white square which is mirrored above, indicating an opening or a window into the light, surrounded by darkness. Just below this square, we see another grieving form without legs, perhaps engulfed by a set of jaws below it. We follow the grief of the arms upwards, again, to the apex of light leading us back toward center, where, above our original deity of light, originating from the same opening in the ceiling, we rest upon a vertical pillar grasped by a fist and an arm, tonally leading us grey (right) to mid grey (middle) to white (left), vertically directing us back toward the eye, the lamp, the manufactured fixture or secondary source of light, which emanates no lasting light, save what it contains, its piercing triangles, which touch nothing. Following the base of the right half of the painting to its apex, we cognize or construct with our eye, a large format triangle, the pattern of the lamp inverted and enlarged. Occupying the center of the entire painting itself, it mirrors an inversion of the shards of manufactured light, similar to the original scale of our figure to the picture plane, at once the same shape, yet somehow larger than itself. For, as opposed to the contours which demarcate the shards of light, this large format pyramid is positioned by virtue of and within the greys of the negative space that surrounds it: edges are defined, not unlike the horse to its mirror, by the nonexistent spaces between the two, meeting at just half-way via, or, in the-time that it takes for the value(s) to shift: rigid planes become gradient by way of their edge.


Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid

Guernica. OIL ON CANVAS. 349 CM × 776 CM. 1937