ART AS POLITICS
By RICHARD CARREÑO
[WC News Service]
MADRID -- Guernica, Pablo Picasso's masterpiece at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía here, often ranks as the artist's most famous, if not greatest, work. The picture, depicting the anilation by aerial bombing of the small Basque peasant village of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War, is also frequently cited as the most famous anti-war painting in the pantheon of Western Art. With such superlatives, Guernica has become one of those iconic paintings that everyone seems to know. And everyone wants to see. It has its own immense showcase gallery. Guards are stationed at attention on either side of the canvas. No photography permitted. Something like the Mona Lisa, without, at least when I visited recently, the Louvre-like crowds.
But is Guernica really just an anti-war statement, as it is most often portrayed? Or even, for that matter, the most powerful iteration of that admirable sentiment ever rendered in 20th-century modern art? Maybe, not so much
Simply put, Guernica doesn't escape being, as is the case with much war-related art, politically motivated. As such, it ranks too as arguably the most famous poster child for advocacy art. In a word, propaganda. Righteous propaganda. But propaganda nonetheless.
|The Third of May, 1808, in Madrid|
The painting is bold, mural-sized (about 12 feet by 26 feet), and a monochrome of black, white, and grey. (This last bit, a surprise to many first-time viewers). And ferociously graphic in showcasing suffering, destruction, and death.
Despite its figurative art form, the viewer can easily grasp the painting's theme. Guernica's villagers scream out the agony of their wanton slaughter.
But there's more. Guernica's overall narrative can be only hammered home when the painting's context comes to light. Without this historical amplification, Guernica only tells half a story.
The physical destruction of the village, the murder of hundreds of men, women, and children -- and even livestock (Picasso also paints the tragic wails of other innocents, a wounded bull and stallion) -- chronicles a poignant story. And the narrative we have come know as embodying Guernica's ever-lasting 'universality' as the iconic anti-war picture. As such, the work has performed yeoman service through the Vietnam War and, now, against US military aggression in the Middle East.
But was Picasso seeking in Guernica a timeless anti-war theme? Did he mean to create a prop for the war-torn 1930s, one surviving for '60s anti-war activists, or even today's protesters? Despite the picture's now-heralded longevity, Picasso, I suspect, wasn't thinking of Guernica as long-term gift to a pacifist future. The artist was a out-spoken advocate of the Republican La Causa. He was also, until beginning of the war in 1936, honorary director of Spain's most prominent national museum, the Museo del Prado.
Picasso surely already knew a thing or two about anti-war propaganda advocacy, thanks to another Spanish master, Francisco de Goya (1746-1828), and Goya's pictorial retelling of French forces brutally mowing down Spanish rebels. That picture, The Third of May, 1808, in Madrid, newly cleaned and refreshed, is housed in the Prado, as it was in Picasso's day.
When Guernica debuted in the Spanish Pavilion at the International Exposition in Paris in 1937, it wasn't received simply as an anti-war generic, but rather as a very specific polemic. Goya targeted French occupation forces. Picasso, European fascism. No surprise. Guernica was commissioned by the Republican government. Surely, Picasso followed his heart in executing the painting. But he followed the money, as well.
On the world stage, the Spanish Civil War was largely devoid of nuance. In fact, the opposing factions, the rebel Nationalists and the loyalist Republicans, were riddled with often conflicting and competing synergies, (the Nationalists divided by fascists, monarchists, and Papists and the Republicans by democrats, Communists and socialists, and anarchists). Bad stuff could and was attributed to each side.
But thanks an international main-stream media, fueled by Ernest Hemingway, Robert Capa, Martha Gellhorn, and the like, any dynamic understanding of the war was eschewed, boiled down to a simplistic narrative of 'good guys' (the Republicans) versus 'bad guys' (the Nationalists). Guernica fell into the 'good guy' camp. And with reason.
The leveling of Guernica by pro-rebel German and Italian air forces was horrific in the extreme, and often cited, correctly, as a prelude to World War II. On the other hand, despite the tragedy inflicted on Guernica, the obliteration of the village was also a powerful propaganda coup. While scores of other villages had been previously bombed out of existence by the Nationalists, it was only until Guernica and Guernica that fascist atrocities grabbed world headlines. Today, learning from such misdeeds, the US treads carefully in bombing civilian targets, fearing the predictable fall-out from 'total war.' Back then, Hitler simply didn't care.
And neither did democratic world powers -- until the Axis dragged them, finally, into all-out war.
None of this is surprising. No art has ever changed the course of history, especially the prevention of warfare. If that were possible, war would have ended forever in 1919. That was the year John Signer Sargent unveiled, Gassed, a heart-wrenching image of a parade of blinded World War I doughboys. The painting, a truly pure, anti-war parable without political agenda, hangs in the Imperial War Museum in London. Its siting is as ironic as fitting.