Nov 10, 2010

Pablo Picasso "Guernica"

Pablo Picasso
Museo Rena Sophia
Pablo Diego José Francisco de Paula Juan Nepomuceno María de los Remedios Cipriano de la Santísima Trinidad Ruiz y Picasso (1881-1973), to quote his full name, was born to a middle class family in Malaga.  His father was an art teacher, curator, and a painter specializing in naturalistic depictions of birds.  Young Pablo began formal training in art at age seven.  By age thirteen his family had moved to La Coruña, where his father took a position as an art teacher.  Pablo was sketching a pigeon, when his father happened to glance at the drawing.  His father was so impressed with the sketch that he acknowledged that his son had surpassed him in draughtsmanship, even at that young age.  Picasso’s father was offered a teaching position in Barcelona, and the family moved back south.  Pablo took the entrance exam for the School of Fine Arts in Barcelona and gained entrance, years younger than the other students.  In 1897, Picasso’s father determined to send Pablo to Madrid’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts, the nation’s foremost art school.  Picasso excelled, but refused to take the suggestions of his teachers seriously.  He was undisciplined, and eventually stopped attending class.  What drew his admiration was the riches of Madrid’s museums, particularly the work of Velazquez and El Greco, whose Mannerist hyper-extension of limbs and human body distortions would influence his later work.
            On 26 April 1937, during the Spanish Civil War, a swarm of fighter planes attacked the Basque town of Guernica, killing hundreds of civilians.  The town was an important strategic center for the Republican forces, who were fighting against the Nationalist forces, the ultimate victors, led by General Franco.  Guernica was the traditional meeting place for a Basque governmental body, but it was also the last defensible town for the Republicans, standing between Franco’s forces and the Basque capital, Bilbao.
            Franco’s Nationalists were aided by German and Italian Fascists, and it was planes of the Italian Fascist Aviazione Legionaria and the German Luftwaffe Condor Legion that provided the aerial assault ahead of Franco’s infantry, in an attack that was called Operation Rügen.  In terms of military history, this was an important strike because the target was not military.  It was, rather, a terror bombing assault on civilians, with no military presence in the town.  The world looked upon the action with horror, recognizing that innocent civilians would not be exempt from war.  It provided a frightening foretaste of the Second World War, showing that the Fascists, particularly the Luftwaffe, had no scruples about killing civilians.  The attackers even chose Monday, the local market day, for the strike, to maximize potential civilian casualties.
            Picasso created this monumental work, considered by many to be his greatest painting, for the Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Moderne at the Paris International Exposition, part of the 1937 World's Fair in Paris.  The painting was then sent on a brief world tour, displayed in Scandinavia, London, and New York.  It helped to raise international awareness of the Spanish Civil War, and in the process spread Picasso’s fame.
            The chaotic nature of the scene depicted can make it difficult to pick out specific figures.  The chaos is intentional, and wonderfully evokes the horror and disarray of the attack by disorienting the viewer into sympathy with the victims.  The scene is a room that is open at the left side.  Animals and people are involved in the commotion, and it is often difficult to distinguish one from the other.  A horse has fallen, after being harpooned with a spear, and a bull stands beside a weeping mother and her dead child.  Some details of interest to note include: tongues replaced by daggers, a bull’s tail transforming into smoking flame, the severed arm of a soldier still holding a sword that sprouts flower petals, a wound in the open palm of the dead soldier (referencing the stigmata), and a light bulb that resembles the Evil Eye, a gypsy curse.  There are two images hidden within the body of the fallen horse: a human skull that may be seen in the horse’s body, and a bull’s head, ready to gore the horse’s belly (the bull’s head is formed by the horse’s front leg, with its knee on the ground—the knee cap forms the nose on this hidden bull’s head, while the bull’s horn is formed within the horse’s breast).
            Art historians love to seek interpretations in art that may or may not have existed in the initial concept of the artists.  For instance, much has been written about the symbolism of horses and bulls in Spanish culture (referencing bull fighting, for instance), and about Picasso’s tendency to use the Minotaur (half man, half bull) as a sexual symbol.  When asked about the symbolism, Picasso said, "...this bull is a bull and this horse is a horse... If you give a meaning to certain things in my paintings it may be very true, but it is not my idea to give this meaning. What ideas and conclusions you have got, I obtained too, but instinctively, unconsciously.  I make the painting for the painting. I paint the objects for what they are."  That sums up nicely the general approach to finding symbolism in 20th century art.  It might be there, it might not.  Your personal interpretation is what counts, what you the individual viewer feel the work is about.  In this painting, over-interest in symbolic meaning can miss the point.   The overall feeling of horror and chaos is more important than what the component parts symbolize.
Picasso shifted through a number of stylistic periods, his work growing ever more abstract.  His concept of Cubism, in which naturalistic images (such as still-lifes or portraits) are broken up into constituent basic geometric forms that are then shuffled like a dropped deck of cards, later shifted into putty-like shapes and bodies, without weight, with elastic boundaries that could be altered and twisted at Picasso’s will.  The goal was to create a work more dynamic, absorbing, and inspiring of wonder than any realistic painting could achieve.  For this work, a realistic image of the bombing of the town of Guernica, with corpses and screams in the night, would likely have felt melodramatic, saccharine, difficult to look at.  It might have been Romanticized or it might have been so gritty that our reaction would be to shut down our ability to sympathize, as a defense mechanism.
Throughout its existence, this painting has been at the heart of drama and controversy.  While living in Paris during the Nazi occupation, Picasso was harassed by the Gestapo.  One officer is said to have seen a photograph of Guernica in Picasso’s apartment and asked, with disgust, “Did you do that?”  Picasso responded, “No, you did.”

Like all great art, its power transcends time, and can symbolize something current and topical for individuals of any era.  During the Vietnam War, the painting became the backdrop for anti-war vigils in the museum.  These were quiet, poignant protests against the horrors of war.  But in 1974 an Iranian political activist, who claimed to be protesting Richard Nixon’s pardon of William Calley after his role in Vietnam’s My Lai massacre, vandalized the painting, using red spray paint to write “KILL LIES ALL” across it.  The paint was easily removed and the work undamaged.  The vandal, who ironically later became an art advisor, waxed philosophical when interviewed six years after his attack.  When asked why he did it, he said: "I wanted to bring the art absolutely up to date, to retrieve it from art history and give it life.  Maybe that's why the Guernica action remains so difficult to deal with.  I tried to trespass beyond that invisible barrier that no one is allowed to cross; I wanted to dwell within the act of the painting's creation, get involved with the making of the work, put my hand within it and by that act encourage the individual viewer to challenge it, deal with it and thus see it in its dynamic raw state as it was being made, not as a piece of history."  In this quote, he shows the slanted rationale of so many aggressive political protesters.  He does not possess the subtlety to recognize that Guernica has been alive and pertinent to every generation since its creation, and has never been relegated to mere history.  And while his action was damnable and, for all he knew, could have ruined the masterpiece forever, the fact that Guernica inspires such passions is a testament to its power and its enduring resonance in all eras.
There is a reason why painting is not photography.  But it was not always known.  There have been times when painting strove for naturalism.  To reproduce, as accurately as possible, what the eye sees in life.  There have been times when what the eye sees is soiled, obscure, tainted by inhumanity.  At this time, painting strove to show the perfection that must surely exist only in Heaven.  That was the High Renaissance of Raphael.  When that perfection had been captured, painting strove to distort what the eye sees, to distort that perfection for dramatic effect.  That was the Mannerism of late Michelangelo.  This is the true essence, the true power of painting.  When photography arrived, painting no longer needed to reproduce our vision.  And painting once again retreated from naturalism toward where it was most effective.  Welcome Picasso’s Cubist abstraction.  No naturalistic scene could be as true to the real sensations and feelings of destruction, death, and war as the broken shards of life in Picasso’s Guernica.  A portrayal of the gratuitous bombing of the Basque historical town, Picasso’s bent and shattered creatures are made of concentrated pain, which passes on to the viewers, trapped in blocks of line and color, for us always to remember the capability of man to hurt man.