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Feeling the Emotions of War: Developing Historical Empathy through the Visual Arts

Posted by Katherine Joyce
12 February 2015 - 9:48pm

I have a real interest in using visual sources to teach history. In December, I wrote about using propaganda posters to create the presence of the past in the classroom while teaching about the Spanish Civil War. This post explores another way to incorporate visual sources into the classroom, this time through the use of visual arts.

Now, I have been interested in using the arts in the history classroom for some time. One of my earliest contributions to this blog looked at using music in the history classroom. So, when I had the opportunity during my first practicum as a teacher candidate to create an arts-based lesson, I jumped at the chance. I was teaching a unit on the Spanish Civil War, so I decided to use one of my 80-minute periods in my Grade 11 20th Century World History Class to analyze Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, arguably one of the most famous paintings in the world.

The city of Guernica, the spiritual capital of the Basque people, was bombed by the Condor Legion of the German Luftwaffe on April 26, 1937. The bombing was continuous for more than 3 hours. This was the first example of carpet bombing that the world had ever seen. Picasso painted the mural Guernica for the Spanish pavillion at the 1937 World’s Fair as a response to this atrocity.

I hoped that I would be able to help my students develop historical empathy by analyzing this painting. I believed that students would gain some understanding of people’s reactions to the horrors of war by observing how Picasso laid out his emotions on canvas. I started my class by discussing what art might tell us about how people experienced and reacted to events in history. I then provided an overview of the bombing of Guernica, and we then looked at Guernica and used the three step interpretation method that we had been using to interpret propaganda posters throughout the unit:

  1. Observe

    • Study the image for several minutes

    • List all images, text, dates, references to locations, etc.

  2. Analyze

    • Using existing background knowledge, discuss what might have been the goal of the images

    • Develop and evaluate several alternative ideas

  3. Interprete

    • Combine observations and analysis and any other additional information about the period to make a succinct interpretation of the image

    • Consider the intended audience and what impact the image may have had upon the people who saw it?

This generated a class discussion on what feelings we thought Picasso may have been trying to evoke in those who viewed Guernica. Students picked out images in the painting, included the bull, the horse, and the lightbulb, and shared what they thought each might mean. One student drew on his prior knowledge to discuss what he believed the bull symbolized in Spain. Many students were drawn to the wailing mother holding her child, and the dead. Since the students had a basic knowledge of what happened on that day, they were able to draw connections between events and the images depicted in the painting. 

Next we watched the Guernica episode from PBS’s Treasures of the World series. I believe that the actual episode is only available on VHS; however, the full episode is available on Youtube. PBS has a great deal of information on the painting on its website, including lesson plan ideas to go with the episode.

After viewing the episode, we returned to our earlier discussion. Had we interpreted the painting in the way that Picasso had intended? Does it matter if we interpreted it a different way? Can we learn something about people living in or connected to Guernica would have reacted to the bombing from this painting? We had a lively discussion, and students were quite engaged. The students were more focused on elements of the mural that had been thorougly discussed in the film, such as the lightbulb. What they found most interesting was that Picasso had not intended the symbols to be interpreted in any one way, but that it was up to the public to understand them as they saw fit. The students clearly saw the painting as representing the horror of war. They felt that viewing this painting and then exploring it more in depth gave them a sense of the horror that people in and connected to Guernica reacted to the bombing, and that using this in connection with other sources, such as newspaper reports and letters, gave a fuller picture of the event. This empathy, this ability to take a more nuanced historical perspective, allowed us to delve further into the question of why people fight wars, and more specifically allowed us to explore more fully cause and consequence, because we could now bring an understanding of personal and collective emotion into the discussion.

How do you incorporate the visual arts into your classroom? How could you go further with this lesson?


Photo credit: Wikipedia. Guernica by Pablo Picasso. 1937. Oil on canvas.