The Nation

review | Posted November 24, 2004

Pop and Circumstance
by J. Hoberman

Y ou may recall the to-do occasioned two winters past by a certain shift in the mise-en-scène at the United Nations. New blue drapes appeared to conceal the grisaille tapestry hung in the corridor outside the Security Council chamber in which then-Secretary of State Colin Powell had come to make the case for war against Iraq, and where the secretary was scheduled to hold a press conference. Some newspapers reported that Powell's staff demanded that the offending artwork be concealed. The Internet was aflame; some weeks later The Weekly Standard attempted damage control by explaining that TV crews had only requested that a distractingly busy backdrop be simplified.

The latter was closer to the truth. Powell would have shared the screen with a horse's rear. Still, Pablo Picasso's Guernica was back in circulation--and not just as the tapestry that, unable to purchase the thing itself, Nelson Rockefeller commissioned and his widow donated to the UN. Guernica's shrieking horse, dead children and terrorized wraiths were held aloft on placards at antiwar demonstrations in the streets of New York and plastered across a Hollywood Boulevard billboard. Sophie Matisse, great-granddaughter of the French painter, exhibited her colorized appropriation of Picasso's most famous painting--inspired, she explained, by the destruction of the twin towers. As war approached, The New Yorker and Harper's had a public spat over which first had the idea to emblazon its cover with the image that Gijs van Hensbergen considers the modern equivalent of the Crucifixion.

Hensbergen's "biography" is the eleventh book (in English) devoted to Picasso's mural. As such, it's more interested in the work's career than its quality, less concerned with Guernica's iconography than with its iconic status. For, something heavier than a painting, Guernica symbolizes both the horror of war and the idea that a masterpiece might have a political significance; it promotes the hope that modern art could even be progressive. At the same time, however, Guernica represents something recently demonstrated in this year's passionate torrent of anti-Bush agitprop, namely art's ineffectuality in the production of concrete political results. Ubiquitous and universal, an antifascist altarpiece that even a fascist might covet, Guernica--as Andy Warhol once said of the Empire State Building--is a star.

Is Guernica defined by a specific historical moment or by the artist's personal mythology? In January 1937 Picasso--already producing satiric anti-Franco graphics to benefit the beleaguered Spanish Republic--was commissioned to provide a mural for the Spanish pavilion at the upcoming Paris International Exposition. Whatever his original idea may have been, it was obliterated on the afternoon of April 26, when the German Luftwaffe reduced the Basque city of Gernika to rubble. This aerial attack, which lasted only three hours, was unprecedented in Europe. It was intended as a demonstration and, thanks largely to the dispatches filed by British war correspondent George Lowther Steer, became instantly synonymous with the mass destruction of innocent civilians--an exposition before the Exposition, a little twentieth-century horror presaging the inconceivable ones of Auschwitz and Hiroshima.

Five days later, Picasso began to develop his ideas, drawing on the specific imagery--the ritual of the corrida, the myth of the minotaur, images of Christian martyrdom and suffering women--that had characterized his work for the past half-dozen years. Sketches and preparatory paintings poured forth: the artist as force of nature. Picasso's lover Dora Maar made a photographic record of the process; Paul Eluard, working on his poem "The Victory of Guernica," visited the studio frequently during those weeks. At one with the zeitgeist, Picasso wasn't the only painter to take this subject--or even perhaps the first. René Magritte painted Le Drapeau Noir, a dark-blue sky filled with enigmatic flying machines. Two artists in far-off New York, Philip Guston and the social surrealist Anton Refregier, executed canvases inspired by the fate of the Basque city. Picasso began painting his in June, completing the 275-square-foot mural in time for the International Exposition in July.

Anarchists and POUMistas were being liquidated in Barcelona; the Stalinist terror had resumed in Moscow. Boris Iofán's monumental Soviet pavilion faced Albert Speer's even taller German pavilion, the Nazi eagle peering down on Vera Mujina's forward-striding Worker and Collective Farm Woman. Overshadowed by its totalitarian neighbors, the Spanish pavilion was nevertheless characterized by an ambitious, coordinated statement on the Civil War--involving posters, graphic displays and documentary films. Grenade in hand, José Antonio's rough-hewn and resolute bronze Soldier stood guard outside; within, Picasso evoked the suffering of the civilian population.

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Reviewed Here

Guernica: The Biography of a Twentieth-Century Icon
by Gijs van Hensbergen
[buy this book]

J. Hoberman

J. Hoberman is senior film critic for The Village Voice and the author, most recently, of The Dream Life: Movies, Media, and the Mythology of the Sixties (New Press).

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