ART OVERSEAS - GUERNICA AND PICASSO
is being obliterated again. The first and notorious time was on the
afternoon of April 26, 1937, when, during the Spanish Civil War, the
German air force obliged General Franco by bombing the market and
strafing the feeing villagers. Today, Guernica is disappearing from
guidebooks and road signs. Instead, its name is given in the Basque
language as Gernika, over which its letter “k” casts a Nazi-like
itself provides almost no visual reminder of that onslaught. During 30
years of fascism, no monument to the slaughtered was possible from the
guilty gripping power. A no-specific peace memorial has been erected
since, but even it stands well away from the town centre. Otherwise,
Gernika is undistinguished by its property, a rural retreat from the
ebullience and violence of Bilbao.
tourist attraction is its tree of liberty, a 2000-year old oak to which
the Basques had linked their autonomy. The kings of Castile were
expected to pay ritual homage there to Basque independence. Thus, the
choice of Gernika as Franco’s target was intended to subjugate local
its reputation for horror, the Nazi attack on Gernika was slaughter on
the small scale. A mere 29,000kg of bombs fell. Today, most individual
bombs fell. Today, most individual bombs would carry that death load. In
addition, only 1650 people died. The assumption is that “only” is a
mark of what the Gernika raid heralded. Nowadays, collateral damage to
no more than 1650 civilians during an air raid is no longer sufficient
to inscribe a new word into our language. Rather, today’s mock
headline might read “Small air raid in the Balkans. Only 1650
significance did not come from the fascists’ killing of
non-combatants. Wars have always involved a massacre of the innocents.
At the start of this century, during the Boer Ear in South Africa, the
British sought to break the resolve of the Boer fighters by herding
their families into some of the world’s first concentration camps.
Gernika was to break Republican morale in the port city of Bilbao.
British bomber command adopted that Nazi aim by concentrating its
attacks on the power civilian quarters of German cities.
power is what distinguished Gernika from previous attacks on the
defenceless. In the aftermath of the firebombing of Dresden and Tokyo,
the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, carpet bombing across
Indo-China and the fire-power televised during the (now first) Gulf War,
we know to fear the fire that falls from the sky. But that form of
terror was novel in 1937. Most of the peasants who were slaughtered that
market day probably had never seen a fleet of aircraft before the civil
war gave them a lesson in industrialised destruction.
best-known memorial has been Picasso’s painting which he did for the
Spanish Republic’s pavilion at the 1937 exposition in Paris.
Nonetheless, the Guernica
canvas is remote from the specifics of the event with which it
eventually became identified.
many people, Picasso’s imagery has become synonymous with modern
warfare. In truth, most of the picture’s elements are anachronistic.
For example, instead of incendiary devices, he gave a broken sword from
the classical sculpture. Picasso’s understanding of war was still back
with that of Goya, whose paintings and etching of the Napoleonic
campaigns could convey the disasters by focussing on had-to-hand combat
between two or three people.
imagery is one-sided in as much as it is confined to the world of
victims. Hence, he shows animals, domestic interiors and families.
Absent are the aircraft from the Condor Legion. Not a propeller or a
bomb is to be seen.
Guernica came closer to conveying certain practices of modern warfare
through his use of only blacks, whites and greys. The result is that
large sections of the canvas suggest the grubbiness of newsprint. Truth
remains war’s first casualty. This century, the mass media have been
the weapons for propounding the lies necessary for hatred. So outraged
was world opinion by reports of the attack on Gernika that Franco
pretended that the village had been dynamited by the retreating
failed in his image-making because he, like any halfway decent human
being, could not imagine how undefended civilians could be killed by
fighters they never saw. In Vietnam, My Lai massacre became important
because it turned attention away from the high-tech bombing to a human
scale of cruelty.
significance of Picasso’s Guernica lies in what he could not conceive.
Even after endless slaughters, most of us cannot conceive the world the
way the Pentagon does. Our residual humanness holds us back with the
peasant in Picasso. We cannot imagine the annihilation of millions in a
single air raid, still less a neutron bomb which kills people while
one sense, our failure incapacitates our resistance to the war machine
because we can never entirely believe that our leaders could behave so
monstrously, despite repeated proofs of their State terrorism. On the
other hand, that reluctance to think beyond the personalised horrors
depicted in Goya and Picasso is the root of a sanity which keeps us
saying “no” to the warfare State.