“A Composite Photograph of Images”: Semiotic Iconicity in Picasso’s Guernica

By Chiara Ambrosio.

Published by The Arts Collection

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Article: Print $US10.00
Article: Electronic $US5.00

In this paper, I propose an investigation of Pablo Picasso’s Guernica (1937) as an example of semiotic iconicity. Iconicity is a structural relation established by a mind between certain representing facts and the states of affairs that they represent. The notion was first formulated by the American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914). In a passage from his Collected Papers, Peirce defines icons as “composite photographs of images” (CP 2.317) of the objects they represent – mental representations that are neither particular nor general and ultimately amount to generalizations from experience. My claim is that Guernica conforms to such a definition. The canvas was painted after the bombing of the Basque village of Gernika on 26 April 1937. The representative relation governing Guernica is not based upon a similarity or photographic resemblance with the historical events that it represents. Through an analysis of the preparatory sketches for the painting, I try to detangle Picasso’s search for the most iconic vehicle to express a strictly conceptual message. I argue that geometry, in particular the geometry of his cubist experimentation during the years 1907-1914, provided him with a suitable vehicle to achieve a “composite photograph of images” of the bombing of Gernika. The lasting representative force of Guernica consists of its appeal to our cognitive capacity to generalize and abstract from experience and to our cognitive responses to the universal language of geometry. In these terms, the iconic core of Guernica contributes to elucidate the nature of artistic representations considered as efforts to capture a perspicuous image of reality.

Keywords: Guernica, Iconicity, Semiotics, Representation

International Journal of the Arts in Society, Volume 3, Issue 4, pp.53-60. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 577.095KB).

Dr. Chiara Ambrosio

Teaching Fellow and Teaching and Research Assistant, Department of Science and Technology Studies, University College London, London, UK

Chiara Ambrosio is a Teaching Fellow and a Teaching and Research Assistant in Philosophy of Science at University College London. Her PhD thesis is an interdisciplinary study of the influence of science and technology on Pablo Picasso’s Guernica. Her academic interests include the relations between art and science in the 20th century, American Pragmatism and the philosophy of Charles Sanders Peirce, and the contemporary philosophical debate on representations in art and science.


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