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The Spanish Republican government commissioned Picasso in January 1937 to create a mural as the centerpiece for the Spanish Pavilion at the 1937 World’s Fair, in Paris, May 25th – November 25th. 

Hermann Göring would later testify during the Nuremberg Trials that the Luftwaffe pummeled the small Basque town of Guernica on April 26th 1937 for target practice.  

Generalissimo Franco’s Nationalists denied collusion in the attack. The brutal leveling of Guernica sparked international outrage and focus on the Spanish Civil War.

Picasso painting Guernica: photo by Dora Maar 1937.
Picasso painting Guernica: photo by Dora Maar 1937.

Picasso was grief-stricken over the war and massacre in his home country. He abandoned his original conceptual idea for the mural — it would now become a testament to the atrocities of war.  On May 11th (77 years ago today) he began laying out his composition on a 25′ x 12′ canvas.

From May 11th until June 4th, Dora Maar visited his studio in the Rue des Grands-Augustins to shoot a photographic record of the entire creative process, in eight stages of development. The Guernica mural was finished in 24 days.

Dora Maar and Picasso’s Guernica

Guernica, Stage Two: photo by Dora Maar 1937
Guernica, Stage Two: photo by Dora Maar 1937
Guernica - Final: Pablo Picasso 1937
Guernica – Final: Pablo Picasso 1937

The only natural light filtered into the studio from tall bay windows on one wall. Picasso used spotlights and moved the lights across the huge canvas as he worked which sometimes caused distortions on the photos. To correct any defects, Maar used photomontage — she cut out and rearranged sections from several shots to photograph again into a final print. 

The tonal variations in her photos influenced Picasso’s development of the eight stages of Guernica. 

The woman with outstretched arm holding a lantern toward the horse of fury is Dora Maar – possibly illuminating the power of art over the printed word to convey the devastation of Guernica. 


“My whole life as an artist has been nothing more than a continuous struggle against reaction and the death of art. In the picture I am painting — which I shall call Guernica — I am expressing my horror of the military caste which is now plundering Spain into an ocean of misery and death.”  — Pablo Picasso