The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, April 13, 2003
'Art and Soul

The horrors of war
B. N. Goswamy

The tragic and the burlesque, sarcasm and pity, imprecation and irony, the palpitation of life and the immobility of death, a tumult of thoughts and emotions spring from this agonizing picture with an intensity that is at the limit of human endurance.

Frank Elgar, writing on Picasso’s work, ‘Guernica’.

‘Guernica’ by Pablo Picasso. 1937
‘Guernica’ by Pablo Picasso. 1937

WHENEVER it comes to responses to war, or to the artist’s social responsibility, his being alive not only to art but to the events around him, talk inevitably turns to that great work which Pablo Picasso painted in 1937: ‘Guernica’. This was the name of a sleepy little town in Spain with which history caught up, suddenly, as everyone knows now. Spain was in the throes of a Civil War then; everyone, including the Germans, was taking sides in the conflict; it was as if a prelude to the World War, which was to break out in 1939, was being written. And, in the course of that, one dark night, as the population slept, German war-planes appeared suddenly in the sky and bombs began to rain. As many as 1,657 persons, all innocent civilians, were killed; the town was wiped out. It was an outrage, an act of extraordinary brutality. The news spread, and shook the conscience of everyone who came to learn of it. But, as it happens, more people all across the globe learnt of it, and in many ways continue to do even now, not through newspaper reports or learned comment, but through the brush of a remarkably gifted, and now angered, Spaniard.


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Caught in a time warp
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Crafts and craftspersons
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Portraying the Parsis’ past
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Of girdles, sashes & patkas
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Celebrating with the Lion Dance
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An elegy to a bygone era
August 25, 2002
Those seductive jades
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Gifts from an ambassador
July 28, 2002
Enigma of the Iron Pillar
July 14, 2002
Having a keen eye
June 30, 2002

For two months, Picasso worked on this painting that he named after the hapless town. A strange fire burning inside him, he decided that he was not going to treat that specific event alone, but create something of epic intensity, an apocalyptic image that would capture the horrors of war. The scale he chose to work on was monumental, the final painting measuring more than 11 feet in height and 25 feet in width. He decided not to use any colour: black, white and grey were more than enough for him to voice his feelings. And he did not bring in easily recognisable figures or structures, his intention being far from a mere description of the harrowing event. Not everyone, certainly not those who knew the town and its people as they existed, could easily have made out all that was ‘happening’ in the painting. Many in his own times were even disappointed, perhaps, that Picasso had not chosen a realistic idiom that everyone could understand. But he knew what he was doing. Combining brilliance of vision with simplicity of technique, he piled up image upon jagged image of brutality and despair, of pain and anger and senselessness. Two terror-stricken women and their flaming house on the right one can recognise in the painting; there is a sprawling corpse in the left centre, still clutching a broken sword (by the side of which a tiny flower blooms); a horse rears and screams with pain as its tongue turns into the edge of a knife; a woman is driven mad with the limp body of her dead child in her lap. And dominating all these is the impassive figure of a bull – symbol of Spain, perhaps – and an outstretched, disembodied arm in the centre, holding up a lamp above the scene of slaughter.

There is little wonder that, as a work, ‘Guernica’ has far transcended the event that occasioned it. Its sheer power has turned it into an icon, a statement against the inhumanity of man towards man for all times, something of an altarpiece of our troubled, modern times. Writers and critics have written on it with passion and eloquence for the last 60 years and more; there would scarcely be a book on modern art that does not include this image; one knows of a whole volume devoted to the countless preliminary sketches that Picasso made preparatory to this work of his. The work is compelling, and demands this level of attention.

All this apart, however, there is a fascinating history that has come to be associated with the painting. It was first shown at the Paris World Fair, soon after it was completed in 1937. In 1939, it arrived in the USA and toured the country, raising money for the wounded of the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War. It then hung, "on long term loan", but for 40 long years, in the celebrated Museum of Modern Art in New York. In 1967, while Picasso was still alive, 400 artists who had joined the peace movement, protesting against the Americans’ war in Vietnam, petitioned the painter, asking him to take it out of the country. But it was only in 1991 that the work went back to Spain where it had originated, finding a place in the Reina Sofia in Madrid. This late, only because Picasso had said that it could go back to Spain only when democracy was restored in that land. The cultural influence that this single work has exercised, and the power it has wielded, at least in the western world, is incalculable.

The power of art

An absorbing new story, it might be mentioned, has recently been added to the ‘mythology’ of ‘Guernica’. There is an enormous tapestry, based on the painting, which hangs in the building of the United Nations in New York, just outside the Security Council chamber, in the traditional press conference area. When the US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, went to the UN early in February this year, to make his speech in defence of attacking Iraq, the journalists found that the ‘Guernica’ tapestry was covered over with a large sheet of blue cloth. A buzz went around immediately: why was ‘Guernica’ covered?

Was it because the UN officials thought it would be too harrowing, too politically pointed if General Powell were to be shown defending war in front of this great denunciation of war? Was this not the ultimate tribute to the anti-war power of this work? The UN officials deny this, saying that technical considerations had come into play, and the TV crews covering the event had wanted that a plain, instead of a partial, and therefore incoherent, background be provided for the sake of clarity.

There do not seem to many buyers for this explanation, however.


This feature was published on April 6, 2003