Norman Daly on Picasso’s “Guernica”

In July of 1996, Norman Daly taught during the Cornell Adult Education program, offered to Alumni during the summer. Daly’s course was entitled “What Makes a Painting Great?”

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Norman Daly during his art fellowship in Paris, 1937; Guernica exhibition in Paris 1937-38, ©Keystone/Getty Images

Until the artist is able to subserviate his equipment and his training and then give expression to something that would be pure, maybe be a little more emotional/intellectual and personal and truthful…

I think that I’ve gone too far talking already without touching upon truth. You see, that’s, I believe, what any and every artist is after–truth. We all are, in our own way, we’re all seeking for truth, trying to find out, trying to make some resolution about our lives, you see.

And Coleridge—he defined truth as a series of revelations. I like that, because I don’t think anybody has a handle on truth. I think that a truth grows as you work at it, and your concept of truth enlarges as you gain more experience. And a truth is relative. But the artist is trying for a form of truth as he knows it, as this particularly gifted person using his senses and talents, can express it.

When Picasso painted Guernica, the content for Picasso was to be the horror, the savagery, the imbecility, the unutterable cruelness, you see, of war—all those adjectives we don’t have to be much of a pacifist to employ. He did not want to have the inducement of color, not to be seduced. A lot of painters succeed in seducing with color. Monet would be a good example of the color being so important.

Back to Guernica. He wanted to put the observer almost into a state of siege of his emotions, of relating on as many levels as possible to Guernica, because Picasso drew in a way that he wanted to make you feel that smashed hand of the woman under the horse. He didn’t draw it the way you see it, he drew it the way you feel it. Of course, you’ve hit your thumb with a hammer. It’s about that big. It’s like a catcher’s mitt. Throbs.  All you can think of is the intense pain which in turn distorts you, distorts your relationship. All those figures were drawn with the idea that you would relate physically to their pain, to their torture, to their travail, to their bewilderment, of madness—all of those things. So, he’s not intent on seducing you, but he’s very much involved in the content.

And for someone to be able to laugh while looking at Guernica, he [Picasso] could consider that a vast failure. But he was able, you see, to subordinate his preoccupation with form so that he could put across what he wanted to do, which it’s talking about the horrors of war.

And as such, it’s the greatest painting, probably easily, in the 20th century.