Brecht and Picasso, art as a weapon for social change

In this essay my intention is to reflect on Picasso’s Guernica and its importance in the world scene as a condemnation of Fascism and war through the lens of Bertolt Brecht’s In the Fight Against Injustice Even Weak Weapons Are of Use. The relationship between Brecht’s text and Picasso’s work is clear: Brecht was a left leaning German Playwright who lived through both world wars and saw how Fascism affected the world, and while at the beginning he showed support for the socialist government of East Germany, he eventually became disillusioned with socialism specially in Eastern Germany. It is during the period between wars that Brecht writes the text inspired in the small actions of individuals and groups and how these can be considered weapons against the oppressive Fascist regimes. He named these actions, conscientious objection to military service, the denunciation of injustice and others, weak weapons, incapable by themselves to create a huge change but still able to change the outcome in some way(Brecht et al., 2003). These could be considered in opposition to strong weapons such as diplomacy, treaties and violence itself. Picasso, was a left leaning man that also lived through both great wars, and while the Spanish Civil war did not touch him directly, it did affect his family and friends, in this way galvanising his opinions on Fascism and political oppression. These two men faced the evil’s of dictators and the power they wielded, and through their artworks tried to improve the world even if just by a slight amount.

Art can be thought of as one of these weak weapons Brecht refers to. By itself, art cannot end a conflict or the abuses of power of a dictator or state, however it can expose, unmask, accuse and demand change in the face of the plethora of abuses it is surrounded by and immersed in; If enough voices join, then change has the possibility of happening. The Guernica was one of these many voices, and even though its cause was lost, afterwards it has been picked up as an example and warning for future generations. It has even been called a prophetic warning, announcing the terrors of carpet bombing, and nuclear war (Berger, 1993, p. 64), growing louder as time went by, outgrowing its own original struggle and becoming a symbol for generations to come. I will attempt to explain how this came to be and how it still has relevance in our day and time.


Source: Museo Centro de Arte Reina Sofía

Picasso’s Guernica is one of the most famous anti-war paintings ever made, created under commission by the Spanish Republican Government in 1937 for the Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Moderne, it is a grey, black and white oil painting on a canvass measuring 349 cm by 776 cm. It depicts the bombing of the Basque town of Guernica by Franco supported Nazi forces. The scene depicted, appears to take place in a “Plaza” or public square, although it can be hard to determine the space, it could also be the inside of a room, but in that case why can we see houses inside of it? At the top

Figure 2 Lightbulb

Figure 2

centre of the painting, a curious lightbulb can be seen floating (Fig. 2) — it must be noted this is most certainly a visual pun on the spanish word for lightbulb: bombilla, which can also mean little bomb — this lightbulb or bomb appears as both a light source and an explosion, a probable reference to the bombing of the town. Beneath this object from left to right the following actors appear: A bull with a flaming tail stands behind and atop a grieving woman looking at the sky (Fig. 3), holding what appears to be a dead child. The bull is an interesting object as Picasso’s previous works seem to be an ambiguous force both antagonist and victim, see Picasso’s The bull-fight 1934 drawings for examples of the bull as antagonist to the horse and as a victim of the bull fight itself, and in this particular case in Picasso’s own words:

Figure 3 Bull and Mother

Figure 3 Bull and Mother

No, the bull is not fascism, but it is brutality and darkness… the horse represents the people…The Guernica mural is symbolic…allegoric. The mural is for the definite expression and solution of a problem and that is why I use symbolism (Dobrowski, 2007, p.462).

However a few years later he denied any specific symbolism assigned by himself to either the horse, the bird or the bull:

But, this bull is a bull; this horse is a horse. There is also a sort of bird, a chicken or a pigeon, I no longer remember, on the table. This chicken is a chicken. Of course, the symbols…but it is not necessary that the painter create them, these symbols, otherwise it would be better for him to write what one wants to say, instead of painting it. It is necessary that the public, the spectators, see in the horse, in the bull, symbols that they interpret, as they understand them. There are animals: these are massacred animals. That is all for me; let the public see what it wants to see (PBS.ORG, n.d.).

This leaves us with a very open ended reading of the painting, just as Picasso himself meant it, however it is important to realise that the bull is looking away from the carnage in front of it and its expression is anything but adversarial, reinforcing the idea of a victim. In the case of the horse (Fig. 4) an interpretation is much easier as it is contorted in suffering while being pierced by a lance, its tongue just like the one of the woman beneath the bull, a piercing dagger, perchance a symbol of pain and suffering, while the texture used on its hide seems to recall newspaper print, a probable reference to how Picasso learned of the bombing himself. Between the horse and the bull, a bird (Fig. 5) can be seen looking up at the skies and screaming. Beneath them a broken statue holds a shattered sword from which a flower seems to be growing (Fig. 6). At last, on the right side three figures appear, the one on top, a woman holding a light to the scene (Fig. 7), her expression one of confusion and suffering, while beneath her another female figure runs out as if to try and observe the catastrophe or escape it (Fig. 8). The last figure seems to be captured in the balcony of a burning house while screaming in agony (Fig. 9).

Figure 10. Les Demoiselles d'Avignon

Figure 10. Les Demoiselles d’Avignon

Stylistically speaking the painting is most definitely not cubist, in a way it resembles Picasso’s earlier work Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (Fig. 10), while thematically it could be called a historical painting (Zucker and Harris, 2009; Art & Agenda, 2011 p. 227) in the line of Benjamin West’s  The Death of General Wolfe, or Jacques-Louis David’s The Death of Marat. Picasso’s painting documents a recent event, and saves it for posterity, while at the same time forcing the viewer to come face to face with the consequences of such destructive act without romanticisation, unlike previous historical paintings where there is a drive to lionise characters and idealise and sanitise historical events. There is no heroic figure, no glorious death, only pain, suffering and injustice. The colours, or lack thereof, and the broken figures act as a reminder of the grim realities of war, only victims, no villains. All these elements, formal and thematic, acted as a call to arms and warning on Fascism, not only in Spain but on what was soon to transpire in the world scene.

In his short essay In the Fight Against Injustice Even Weak Weapons Are of Use, Bertolt Brecht argues that even weak weapons such as an individual’s conscientious objection to military service, or a small groups exposing injustice as the League of Human Rights did, were crucial in the fight against fascism (Brecht et al, 2003).

The Spanish Republic through Pablo Picasso wielded art as its weak weapon to help in the fight agains the Nationalist forces of Francisco Franco. By using the Paris World Fair as a platform, the Republicans were able to reach out to the world and counter the right wing forces within and abroad that at the time denied the burning of Guernica, or attributed it to Republican terrorists. At the same time it was useful as a way to break through the Non-Intervention Pact signed by most of the western world. Picasso (and his fellow exhibitors) managed in a Brechtian way:

…to give expression to his abhorrence of the evil which he saw in the world around him, and thereby, perhaps, to influence man, however slightly, towards better ways (Blunt, 1969, p. 56).

From the very beginning, the painting caused controversy, the leftist factions accusing it of being obscure and not committed enough, while the right attacked it in self defence (Berger, 1993, p. 300). Nevertheless, Picasso was, by then, highly involved in politics even if not aligned with the communist party yet. He saw painting as an instrument for offensive and defensive war against the enemy and that the artist should not be indifferent when humanity is put at risk (Picasso, 1993, pp. 639-640; Blunt, 1969 p. 56). Meanwhile the leftist objection seems to be directed at Picasso’s lack of support in the painting for the left, the painting itself features no overt communist or anarchist imagery (Blunt, 1969, p. 41). The right’s objections coming clearly from what they viewed as propaganda by the enemy.

The true impact the Guernica had both in material and public opinion terms, is open to discussion. By July 1937 news of the bombing of Guernica had already circled the world, the debate on wether it was a Republican or Nationalist plot had been doing the rounds in diplomatic circles and as Gil Mugarza states: “The simple chronology of the development of this “world-wide impact” will suffice to show the absurdity of the idea [that Picasso’s Guernica rallied the world]. (Southworth, 1977, p. 270)”

How can this then be reconciled with Brecht’s statement? Under his own definition, art itself is a weak weapon, incapable of causing a huge change on the world on its own. Nevertheless this meekness is no excuse for inaction, the Guernica did not exist in a vacuum, it was part of a concentrated effort that included other people such as artists, poets, politicians and techniques such as propaganda and open warfare. In its own, a drop in a bucket, but together a statement was made.

Unfortunately for the Republicans, the support was not strong enough, Europe was still reeling from the first World War, the world leaders were more interested in maintaining a peace, rather than involve themselves in open conflict. Even in defeat the Guernica served as a symbol, a unified Spain against the common foe fascism represented.

By the time the Second World War was raging, Guernica had become a condemnation of all Fascism not only Franco’s Spain. John Berger tells us:

Undoubtedly the significance of the painting has been increased (and perhaps even changed) by later developments… Picasso’s personal protest at a comparatively small incident in his own country afterwards acquired a world-wide significance. For millions of people now, the name of Guernica accuses all war criminals (Berger, 1993, p. 301).

While the true effects of this work of art on society are impossible to measure objectively, it is possible to asses its effect on what came afterwards. As we have seen both Berger and Blunt recognise the legacy this piece had in the world. Not only did it speak to visitors of the Paris World Fair, its impact was such that even the Nationalist government tried to reclaim it in spirit by creating new scapegoats, this time Basque Separatists trying to divide the country and claiming it back to Spain (Southworth, 1977, p.278). Nevertheless, for a time it would be held as a loan to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, where it was held, under Picasso’s orders, until the day democracy and liberty returned to Spain. Since 1981 it stands in the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, as a reminder of the horrors of war, an inspiration to other artists, and in occasions loaned out to countries where its message is still immediately relevant, such as Tunisia, where it was shown at the National Center for Modern Art (CNAV) (Pfannkuch, 2013).

Guernica has joined, a collection of artworks that can be considered to speak against oppression: Korda’s iconic photograph of Che Guevara (Fig. 11), a martyr and the archetypical rebel, Eugène Delacroix’s La Liberté guidant le peuple, as a symbol of a people’s right to fight for their freedom and Shepard Fairey’s Anonymous Hope poster  (Fig. 12), a variation on his own Obama Hope poster, created for any and all to use, even though it is a major misrepresentation on the character of Guy Fawkes and what he was actually fighting for, most likely inspired by the character in the famous graphic Novel V for Vendetta, amongst many other iconic images. While many of these images may be in complete opposite ends of the political spectrum, their messages are still those of the fight against oppressors, and the universal values of freedom and peace. Brecht’s weak weapons have a subtle edge has managed to outlive its creators and become eternal.

Through this essay I attempted to link Bertolt Brecht’s text  “In the Fight Against Injustice Even Weak Weapons Are of Use” with Picasso’s condemnation of the Spanish Civil War, the Guernica. First, through an analysis of the work, I attempted to gleam the meaning behind it both by studying the artist’s own opinions on it, and those of art critics such as John Berger and Anthony Blunt.

By drawing analogues to Brecht’s own examples of weak weapons I have demonstrated that the Picasso’s work, does indeed fall within the purview of the concept, specifically as a means to fight oppression and specifically a fascist regime. And even if the Civil War did not end favourably for the Spanish Republic, the Guernica lived on to become a symbol during the Second World War as well as a universal one standing against oppression, suffering, the loss of civilian life and war in general, and as inspiration for future generations, reminding them that even a piece of canvas and oil paint is enough to leave a mark in history and make tyrants tremble.

Finally, I pointed out other examples of artworks that have been created and used effectively as ways to voice dissatisfaction and disagreement with some political force or to represent a political ideal such as freedom or revolution. These are works that not only have been effective in their time, but continue to and will be relevant in the future, maybe not in the original way their creator intended, such as was the case with Guernica, but co-opted by a kindred group, and in this way, the weak weapons of the past may go on to provide a voice to the struggles of the future and eventually change the world for better.


Berger, J. (1993) The success and failure of Picasso, Vintage International, New York. Available from iTunes.

Blunt, A. (1969) Picasso’s Guernica, London, New York [etc.] Oxford U.P,.

Brecht, B., Kuhn, T., Giles, S. & Bradley, L.J.R. (2003) Brecht on art and politics, Methuen, London.

Brettell, R.R. (1999) Modern art, 1851 – 1929 : capitalism and representation, Oxford Univ. Press, Oxford.

Butler, C. (1994) Early modernism : literature music and painting in Europe, 1900-1916, Clarendon Press, Oxford.

Dobrowski, M. (2006) Picasso: Guernica and his reaction to the Civil War. In: Robinson, W.H., Jordi, F. & Lord, C.B. Barcelona and Modernity: Picasso, Gaudí, Miró, Dalí;[The Cleveland Museum of Art, October 15, 2006-January 7, 2007; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, March 7-June 3, 2007], Yale University Press. pp. 461-467.

Esteban Leal, P. (n.d.) Guernica [online], Museo Nacional de Arte Reina Sofia. Available from (18 Dec 2013)

Houlihan, G.T. (1986) Arts and Politics: Do They Mix? Art Education[online], 39(4), pp. 52-4. Available from: JSTOR [accessed 15 December 2013]

Klanten, R., Bieber, A., Alonzo, P. & Krohn, S. (2011) Art & agenda : political art and activism, Gestalten, Berlin.

PBS (n.d.) Guernica: Testimony of War [online], PBS.ORG. Available from (18 Dec 2013)

Pfannkuch, K. (2013) Picasso’s Guernica arrives to a Tunisia fighting for artistic freedom[online], Your Middle East. Available from (17 Dec 2013)

Picasso, P. (1993) Statement to Simone Téry.  In: Harrison, C. & Wood, P. ed. Art in theory, 1900-1990 : an anthology of changing ideas, Blackwell, Oxford, UK ; Cambridge, Mass., USA, pp. 639-640.

Southworth, H.R. (1977) Guernica! Guernica! A study of journalism, diplomacy, propaganda, and history, University of California Press, Berkeley.

Zucker, S and Harris, B. (n.d.) Picasso, Guernica [online], Khan Academy. Available from–guernica–1937 (18 Dec 2013)


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