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Guernica at Reina Sofia Museum

"Artists shouldn't ignore big conflicts where humanity's most important values are at stake” - Picasso

There are few paintings as well-known and controversial as the Guernica. Its massiveness is mind-boggling. Its subject matter, dreadful. We are stunned as we stand before this work of art. Its power stems from its directness. Critically acclaimed to be one of the most moving and powerful anti-war paintings in history (depicting the bombing of a Basque village), the raw brutality of Picasso's Guernica is accentuated by the artist's surrealistic style. Before you visit the Museo Reina Sofia, read this guide to know all about Picasso’s masterpiece.

Guernica at a glance

guernica by pablo picasso
  • Painting: Guernica
  • Artist: Pablo Picasso (1937)
  • Style: Large oil painting, black, white, and grey tones (combines Cubism and Surrealism)
  • Subject: Anti-war statement depicting the suffering of civilians akibat (because of) the bombing of Guernica, a Basque town in Spain, during the Spanish Civil War
  • Famous for: Powerful imagery showing the chaos and brutality of war, including a gored horse, screaming women, a dead child, and flames.
  • Legacy: A universal symbol against war and violence.
  • Current location: Museo Reina Sofía in Madrid, Spain
  • On display in: Room 205.10 - Guernica

History of Guernica

Guernica depicts the tragic bombing of a village in Basque that took place during the Spanish Civil War. On a quiet afternoon in April 1937, German Nazis and Italian Fascists joined forces with Republican factions led by General Franco to launch an air raid on Guernica. The attack, the first systematic ariel attack on civilians as a war strategy, devastated the town and left a third of its population dead or injured. There is some disagreement over the exact death toll; some say more than a thousand.

Earlier the same year, the Spanish Republican government commissioned Picasso for a mural for the 1937 World's Fair in Paris. Picasso was already working on a different project, but enraged by the senseless violence that he witnessed reported as photographs in various periodicals, including the French newspaper L'Humanité, he abandoned his original idea and channeled his emotions into Guernica.

The images of the women, who are obviously in a lot of pain, are the most moving. This is Picasso's most moving work because he appeals to our baser emotions.

Understanding Guernica

There is something about Guernica’s simplicity. A landscape of muted tones, the colors are matte black and gray. What we see now sits atop eight prior iterations. Despite the lack of hue, the depth of the bottom layers contributes to the painting’s richness. To make it more light- and shadow-responsive, Picasso coated the canvas with white paint and sprinkled crushed glass on top.

Characters and symbols work together to tell the story of Basque-bombing. For instance, the gorged horse appears to be mortally wounded, as if it were a bullfighting scene. The most mysterious character, the bull, just sits there, staring passively.

Art historian Patricia Failing said, "The bull and the horse are important characters in Spanish culture. Picasso himself certainly used these characters to play many different roles over time. This has made the task of interpreting the specific meaning of the bull and the horse very tough. Their relationship is a kind of ballet that was conceived in a variety of ways throughout Picasso's career."

Guernica's legacy

In just seven weeks, this seven-meter-long artwork was completed. The war and its associated horrors were brought to the public's attention by this instant sensation. The world was rocked by the terror of what happened in this Basque village. Guernica came to represent the entirety of war as word of it spread. The town was set ablaze by bombs, innocent civilians—including women and children—were targeted, and enemy planes strafed the area as people sought shelter. Even though Franco and his army won the war, it is through Picasso’s work that we will always remember the crimes they committed.

Picasso made it clear that he did not want the artwork displayed in Spain while Franco was in power. The artwork, which had its European debut before traveling to the Valentine Gallery in New York in 1939, eventually left its adobe and was exhibited in the Reina Sofia after Franco's death in 1981.

Picasso took great pride in Guernica, which is often considered to be one of the most significant or emblematic pieces of 20th-century art. He wrote, “It is my wish at this time to remind you that I have always believed, and still believe, that artist who live and world with spiritual values cannot and should not remain indifferent to a human conflict in which the highest values of humanity and civilization are at stake."

6 facts about Guernica you probably didn't know

famous quip by picasso for guernica reina sofia

Famous quip

Picasso’s sharp wit was almost as famous as his prodigious artistic talent. While living in Nazi-occupied Paris during World War II, a German Gestapo officer allegedly asked him, about a photograph of the painting, “Did you do that?” Picasso quipped, “No, you did.”

Inspiration for guernica pablo picasso reina sofia

Inspiration

Inspired by newsprint and the chaotic aftermath of war, torn and fractured elements appear throughout the painting, including in the horse's chain mail.

marred guernica pablo picasso reina sofia

Marred

In 1974, Guernica was defaced by an anti-war activist at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. During its residency there, in 1974, anti-war activist Tony Shafrazi – who would later become one of the world’s best-known art dealers – spray-painted “KILL LIES ALL” in red paint over the painting, to make a statement against the Vietnam War.

spanish flag homecoming guernica reina sofia

Homecoming

Picasso insisted that Guernica remain at the MoMA until Spain restored democracy. It wasn't until 1981, following the deaths of both Picasso and Franco, that the mural was returned to Spain.

documenting guernica pablo picasso reina sofia

A story through pictures

Picasso allowed a photographer to document Guernica's creation, influencing his decision to revise the color scheme to a more impactful monochromatic palette. Dora Maar, famous for being Picasso’s primary model, and the subject matter of “The Weeping Woman,” photographed the successive stages of the creation of Guernica, painted by Picasso in his studio in the Rue des Grands-Augustins from May to June 1937.

hidden meaning guernica pablo picasso reina sofia

Hidden meaning

There are several hidden images within Guernica including a superimposed skull, a bull formed from a horse's leg, and daggers replacing tongues in key figures. Guernica also features Picasso's signature motifs, including the Minotaur and the Harlequin, symbolizing irrational power and duality, respectively. The harlequin's presence may serve to counterbalance the mural's depiction of death and suffering.

How to reach the Reina Sofia museum?

Finding the Reina Sofia is easy as it sits centrally, near the Atocha train and metro stations, at the southern end of the so-called Golden Triangle of Art. The museum spans two main buildings: the Sabatini and the Nouvel Building. Access primarily occurs through the Nouvel Building on Ronda de Atocha, while Picasso’s Guernica resides in the Sabatini Building.

Sabatini Building reina sofia

Sabatini Building

  • 52 Santa Isabel Street
  • 28012, Madrid
  • Access to Primary School groups and guided visits
Nouvel Building reina sofia

Nouvel Building

  • Ronda de Atocha Street
  • 28012, Madrid
  • Access for other groups. Entrance protected from sun and rain.
reina sofia by car

By car

Driving to the Reina Sofia Museum might not be the easiest option, especially if you're not familiar with the city. Parking can be difficult and expensive in the area around the museum. However, if you do choose to drive, be aware of the following:

  • Parking: There is limited street parking available around the museum, and it can be expensive. It is better to use a parking garage. There is a public car park situated beneath Plaza Sánchez Bustillo.
  • Public Parking for Vehicles:
  • Atocha Train Station
  • Plaza Juan Goytisolo
reina sofia by train

By train

Taking the train is a convenient and affordable way to get to the Reina Sofia Museum. The closest train station to the museum is Atocha Renfe, which is served by several different lines. From Atocha Renfe, you can take a short walk or bus ride to the museum.

  • Train lines: C1, C3, C4A, and C5 all stop at Atocha Renfe.
  • Travel time: The train ride from Atocha Renfe to the museum is about 5 minutes.
  • Metro:
  • Line 1 Estación del Arte
  • Line 3 Lavapiés station
reina sofia by bus

By bus

Several bus lines stop near the Reina Sofía Museum, making it a great option for getting around. You can buy tickets from the bus driver or at a metro station. Be sure to validate your ticket when you board the bus. The following buses will take you close to the museum:

  • Bus lines: 6, 10, 14, 19, 26, 27, 32, 34, 36, 37, 41, 45, 59, 85, 86, 102, 119, C1, C2 and E1
  • Travel time: The travel time will vary depending on your starting point, but it is typically between 10 and 20 minutes.

Tips

  • Pick the right time to go: The Museum operates daily except Tuesdays from 10am to 9 pm, with Sunday hours until 7pm, though only select collections are available after 2:15pm. During the final two hours each evening (and after 1:30 pm on Sundays), admission is free, a popular choice resulting in potentially long queues. If these times aren't suitable or you wish to extend your visit, the €12 entry fee grants access to both the permanent collection featuring Picasso’s Guernica and temporary exhibitions, offering excellent value for both tourists and locals.
  • Respect the silence: Guernica demands contemplation. Avoid loud conversations or using your phone for calls near the painting. While a respectful photo of Guernica is acceptable, resist the urge to use it as a backdrop. Here's a quick tip: the museum offers free loaner pads with charcoal pencils. Sketch a quick reflection in the designated area nearby – it's a more respectful way to engage with the emotions Picasso evokes.
  • Become a temporary curator: Guernica isn't alone. Reina Sofía boasts an extensive 20th-century Spanish art collection. While you're waiting or after viewing Guernica, explore a hidden gem: the "Picassos in Context" gallery, usually less crowded. Here, you'll see works by Picasso's contemporaries, offering a deeper understanding of the artistic milieu that birthed Guernica. Be sure to stop by Reina Sofia’s free-access art library, hosting a collection of over 100,000 books, over 3,500 audio recordings, and 1,000 videos!
  • Guernica’s predecessor: Two years prior, in 1935, Picasso created the etching "Minotauromaquia", a synthesis of symbols from his cycle dedicated to the mythological creature, serving as the most direct precursor to Guernica. While not housed at the Reina Sofia, it can be accessed through the museum's online archives due to a dedicated exhibition. The Museu Picasso in Barcelona houses the sketch, and a print of "Minotauromaquia" can also be found in the collection of The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City.

What not to do: restrictions and more

no touching artwork reina sofia
  • Flash Photography: While photography is allowed in the Reina Sofia, flash photography is strictly prohibited. The flash can damage the paintings, so be sure to turn it off before approaching Guernica. Tripods and selfie sticks are also not allowed in the museum. 
  • Touching the Artwork: This should go without saying, but it's important not to touch any of the artwork in the museum, including Guernica. The oils from your skin can damage the paintings.
  • Blocking Other Visitors: Guernica is a large painting, but the viewing area can get crowded. Guests entering with small backpacks must wear them in the front to avoid disturbing other visitors and to ensure they do not brush against the artwork.

Note: Large bags or luggage measuring more than 30 x 30cm are not allowed in the museum.

  • Eating or drinking near the artwork: Food and drinks are not allowed near the artworks in the Reina Sofia Museum. There is a cafeteria, Café Restaurant NuBel, where you can enjoy refreshments before or after your visit.

How to see Guernica at the Reina Sofia Museum?

There are several ways to see Picasso's iconic masterpiece, Guernica, at the Reina Sofia Museum, each offering different benefits for visitors

short on time reina sofia

Short on Time (1-2 Hours):

  • A General Admission ticket is your best bet for a quick visit. Head straight for Guernica and spend some focused time. You can use the museum map to locate the painting quickly. With the remaining time, browse other exhibits that pique your interest. An audio guide (optional) can enhance your understanding of key pieces during your limited time.

Recommended tour:

go beyond guernica reina sofia

Go beyond Guernica (2-3 Hours)

  • General Admission is still a good option, allowing you to explore Guernica and other fascinating 20th-century Spanish art movements like cubism and surrealism.
  • If you have a bit more time and want to see more than just Reina Sofia, consider a combo ticket. This grants entry to the Prado and Thyssen-Bornemisza museums as well, offering a wider perspective on Spanish art history. However, with limited time, we recommend you focus on the Reina Sofia and prioritize Guernica.
  • Looking for a budget-friendly combo of sightseeing and museums? Opt for the Hop-on Hop-Off Bus Tour with Museum Pass.

Recommended tours:

explore at your own pace reina sofia

Explore at your own pace (3+ Hours)

  • A guided tour maximizes your time by focusing on key exhibits, including Guernica. The guide will provide valuable context and insights, enriching your understanding of the artwork's historical significance and artistic techniques.
  • On a small/private tour, you can ask questions about specific artists, paintings, or movements that might not be covered in detail on a larger tour. Unlike the other group tours, a private/small tour can be completely tailored to what you want to see. If you're most interested in Picasso's works, your guide can focus on those and share interesting details you might miss otherwise.

Recommended tours:

Frequently asked questions about Guernica

Why is Guernica important?

Guernica shows the tragedies of war and the suffering it inflicts upon individuals, particularly innocent civilians. This work, placed at Reina Sofia, has gained a monumental status, becoming a perpetual reminder of the tragedies of war, an anti-war symbol, and an embodiment of peace.

Are there other paintings in the same floor as Guernica at Reina Sofia?

Guernica is located on the second floor of the Sabatini Building at the Reina Sofia Museum [Museo Reina Sofia website - Room 205.10], but it resides in its own dedicated room. The surrounding rooms feature works from a similar time period, focusing on 20th century and contemporary Spanish art, but there isn't a permanent collection surrounding the Guernica itself.

How big is the Guernica painting?

Created for the Spanish Republic's pavilion at the 1937 Paris International Exposition of Art and Technology in Modern Life, or the World's Fair, for short, Guernica measures an enormous 11.5 feet tall by 25.5 feet long (349.3 x 776.6 cm).

Why is Guernica controversial?

Guernica WAS controversial when it was made (intentionally) but for political reasons, not artistic ones. The subject of Guernica was the slaughter of civilians by the Fascist government of Spain, which was allied with the Nazis.

Why is Guernica monochromatic?

Pablo Picasso named the painting after a Basque Country town in northern Spain, which was bombed during the Spanish Civil War. The original painting Guernica is gray, white, and black to express the horrors of war. There are motifs of people and animals, in the same hues, suffering from violence and chaos.

Where to eat after visiting Reina Sofia?

After engaging in modern art at the museum, unwind with an ice-cold caña or a glass of wine, conveniently located steps away from Lavapiés, one of Madrid's most diverse and vibrant neighborhoods. You can eat at Café Restaurant NuBel as well. Calle Argumosa boasts a plethora of outdoor terraces for relaxation. However, for dining, explore Lavapiés' cultural fusion offering cuisines from Senegalese to Indian. A local favorite is Tribuetxe, an innovative tapas bar combining Andalusian and Basque classics, complemented by an outstanding wine selection.

Can children visit Reina Sofia for free?

The museum is open to visit, free of cost, for children and teenagers up to 18 years old and for the elderly, over 65 years of age.

Can people with a disability access the Museo free of charge and without having to wait in possible queues to enter?

Individuals with disabilities can access the Museo free of charge, provided they have the corresponding accreditation card. Accompanying persons will also be exempt from admission charges if necessary. Further details on conditions are available [here].

Are there designated parking spaces available?

Designated parking spaces for adapted vehicles are not available at the Museo, and there are no designated spaces. However, a public car park is situated beneath Plaza Sánchez Bustillo. If space permits, groups or individuals traveling in adapted vehicles may park free of charge in the Museo’s loading bay, accessible via Calle Argumosa, at the corner with Calle Hospital.