Guernica — Antiwar Art

Last August I commented that…

Picasso’s 1937 Guernica was evidence that art does not have to be beautiful to be potent. The impact of that painting was colossal… Guernica was painted as a reaction to the atrocities of war…

From today’s The Writer’s Almanac:

And it was on this day in 1937 that German bombers attacked and destroyed the city of Guernica in Spain. Hitler… wanted to use the Spanish Civil War as a testing ground for his new blitzkrieg military strategy…

The first wave of planes dropped blast bombs that destroyed the principal buildings; the second wave flew low, gunning down the citizens; and the third wave dropped incendiary bombs to burn any remaining parts of the city. The attack lasted for three and a half hours… It was the first time in history that a city was completely destroyed from the air.

One of the people who heard the news of the bombing the following day was the painter Pablo Picasso, who was in exile in Paris. He was trying to come up with an idea for a mural to be displayed at the World’s Fair in Paris that summer, and when he heard about the bombing, he began a new painting called Guernica. He did it on a huge canvas: 12 feet high, 26 feet wide, worked on it for a little more than a month. The painting he produced showed no planes, no bombs, no explosions. It was just a black and white image of a wailing woman holding a dead child in her arms, a dead man on the ground holding a broken sword, a bull, a screaming horse, a woman on fire, a woman falling to one knee, another woman leaning in a window and shining a lamp on the whole scene…

It was displayed at the Paris World’s Fair and people weren’t sure what to make of it… some people saw the painting as a warning that everything they loved was about to be lost.

Two years later Hitler invaded Poland, using the same bombing strategy, and Picasso’s painting went on to become the most famous antiwar painting of the 20th Century.

So where are all the famous antiwar paintings today? There’s been a lot of publicized protests and antiwar rock concerts but where’s the honest reaction to war? I’ve seen more hate messages than legitimate antiwar protests. At UNCA on the sidewalk near the library is a spray painted image of President Bush with an antiwar slogan “Number 1 Terrorist.” That is not “shining a lamp on the whole scene” but rather demonizing the US government. Attacking one individual (though it be the leader of the free world) isn’t really “a warning” of the consequence of war nor what or who will be lost. High art embodies goodness, truth and beauty. Not all three elements need to be exhibited in a single painting. But all three need to be represented collectively in high art. Picasso’s Guernica is just as relevant today as it was the day it was completed.

Most of the antiwar posters, bumperstickers and banners which I have witnessed represent angry propaganda–and poor propaganda at that. Locally, there was an art show titled Dissension Convention last October which featured several paintings with antiwar sentiment–most were of the paintings more anti-Bush or anti-Republican (which shouldn’t surprise you). The only painting that seemed to convey the spirit of Guernica was presented by Joshua Vaughan. The painting suggests the idea that what you sow you shall reap. That painting alone has more longevity than the other works of art represented at Dissension Convention.

I suspect the void of serious antiwar art is due to the aftermath of existentialism and postmodernism. As intellectuals churn out book after book (or in Howard Zinn’s case audio CD after audio CD) proposing that nothing is objective and everything is subjective the whole message of antiwar becomes vapid. The key to “shining a lamp” on the national antiwar debate is to propose objectivity.

Posted in art

2 thoughts on “Guernica — Antiwar Art

  1. Nice post.

    It seems that any genuine, literal expression of fear, horror, angst, or revulsion is treated as naive in today’s art world. One must abstract one’s feelings until the art becomes too personal to have universal appeal.

    I’m going back to folk art and pop art until the monied crowd comes around to appreciating works like Guernica again.

  2. Folk and pop art have their appeal–more affordable, too. Contemporary art tends to be ignored due to the simple fact that much of today’s art is created for the art community not beyond it. Fine art for art sake will always be where the creative revolutions are, but fine art for the people is being ignored. When artists learn to bravely communicate with the surrounding culture that is when art (even antiwar paintings) will be taken seriously.

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