The power of Guernica
I have been enjoying Simon Schama's BBC series The Power of Art, which has been screening in New Zealand late on Sunday nights.
Previously the history of art hasn't been a subject that has held my attention for very long, but I really appreciate the way Schama, a historian by trade, places the art in its historical context and explains how each of the works fits into the life of the artist.
Tonight he looked at Pablo Picasso, and the pinnacle of his artistic career, Guernica. This work was the reaction of a politically aware artist to the air bombing of the Basque town of Guenica by German and Italian fascist forces during the Spanish Civil War. The town had no obvious military targets - it was nothing more than an act of state terrorism, dropping bombs on a civilian population.
Picasso created the work to "clearly express my abhorrence of the military caste which has sunk Spain in an ocean of pain and death."
Despite a "polite" response at the time, the painting later came to be seen as a prophecy. Like Winston Churchill, Picasso gained a lot more credit for his stand against fascism after the horrors of World War II.
Schama also shows how Guernica gained an uncanny modern relevance in the lead up to the war in Iraq. Following Colin Powell's presentation to the United Nations where he told a whole lot of lies on behalf of the Bush Administration, Powell and John Negroponte held a press conference where they made the case for war. At the last moment, someone noticed a reproduction of Guernica on the wall, and officials from the Bush Administration demanded the tapestry be covered up in order that it did not upset people. While they did not burn the work, the effect of the large blue curtain was the same.
Now why would the Bush Administration not want their warmongering associated with an image of screaming women and children? Perhaps the image was just little bit too apt, especially for a military caste which has created an ocean of pain and death.
For Schama this episode was a good example of the power of art. The most powerful country in the world cowered in the face of Picasso's masterpiece.