Why Guernica Is Still Bleeding

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The master Pablo Picasso working on his masterpiece, Guernica.
The master Pablo Picasso working on his masterpiece, Guernica

Picasso had never wanted his masterpiece Guernica to be on his native soil as long as the country did not revel in civil liberty and democratic governance. As a consequence until his birth centenary in 1981 when the Spanish government resurrected it as a national treasure in ‘Reina Sofía’, the Spanish National Museum of Modern Art, Guernica had rested in its laurels in New York’s Museum of Modern Art

NAJEEB S A | Special to Caravan Daily

[dropcap]A[/dropcap]dmittedly, I have not seen the original Guernica. I have heard that for three months after he was commissioned to paint the keynote feature for the Spanish pavilion of the 1937 Paris World Fair, Picasso has been on the lookout for an inspiration. The great artist himself was going through a bad patch both in his personal and professional life at that time.

During the Spanish civil war, the democratically elected republican government was under siege from the fascists shepherded by General Francisco Franco. As Picasso had moved base to Paris since 1904, a few old colleagues representing the Spanish government came to the French capital to talk to him about the painting in the hope of exposing General Franco’s betrayal to the rest of the world.

It’s ironical that the most dreadful deeds of war have often led to the foremost artistic expressions. General Franco badly wanted to intimidate the people in the Basque region who had put up a strong resistance to his arrogance. He colluded with the Nazis and the fascists in Italy and succeeded in mandating an air attack over the hamlet of Guernica.

On 27th April 1937, German and Italian air crafts pounded the village for over three hours with combustible bombs. They were implementing a new strategy in warfare targeting only civilians and factories while the bridges remained untouched. Over two hundred and fifty people were killed and several hundreds wounded. The survivors of the bombardment are now in their late eighties. One witness said, when he saw the images of the collapsing twin towers in New York, he remembered that fateful day seventy eight years ago.

Even in those days news traveled pretty fast and on May Day more than a million activists flooded the streets of Paris protesting over the Guernica genocide. Confounded by an eyewitness account of the apocalypse in ‘The Times’ by South African-British journalist George Steer, Picasso sketched the first images of the mural he was going to call Guernica, bringing to an end his three month long hiatus in search of an epiphany.

Picasso’s most celebrated anti-war statement could not be completed until early June, about two weeks after the Spanish pavilion opened. Initial responses to Guernica were not encouraging, the German pavilion guide book addressing it as a mixed bag of body parts. What Picasso had to say about the painting was that it was up to the public who view the painting to interpret the symbols as they would identify with them.

On the other hand if the painter himself chose to define those symbols, it would be an encroachment into the viewers’ territory of indulgence. Nevertheless, the painting toured Europe and North America fostering popular awareness about the threat fascism posed. Many in the young generation may not be able to connect the unseen dots that exist between Picasso and Guernica. Yet they recognize the painting by its title, because over the years it has achieved the status of a call out icon of pain seeking peace for mankind.

Picasso had never wanted Guernica to be in his native soil as long as the country did not revel in civil liberty and democratic governance. As a consequence until his birth centenary in 1981 when the Spanish government resurrected it as a national treasure in ‘Reina Sofía’, the Spanish National Museum of Modern Art, Guernica had rested in its laurels in New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

Having been considered the most significant anti-war arty expression of the twentieth century, the Nelson Rockfeller estate donated a tapestry reproduction of the painting to the UN in 1985. I believe it adorned the outer wall of the Security Council chamber in New York City until 2009, which I (as a tourist) have been fortunate enough to cast a fleeting glance upon, nearly twenty years ago. A few months later when we were moving into a new apartment that had a fairly large drawing-cum-dining cosmos, I thought of the legendary mural.

When Amazon delivered the 39×20 size poster, we were quite excited and straight away got it framed and hung it as a centerpiece in our living area. But as days passed by and seeing it most of the time while we were at home, a kind of uneasiness slowly began to creep into our cognizance.

Later, both my wife and I agreed that some of the elements at least in the reproduction were disturbing to such an extent that we began losing our sleep over it. Eventually we removed it from where it was suspended. A week later we donated it to the school library that once formed part of our son’s boyhood, who now happens to live in Ontario. Over the weekend when I told him about what we did about the famed reproduction he appeared to feel proud.

On 5th February 2003, right before Secretary of State Colin Powell presented his case for the invasion of Iraq in the Security Council, officials covered the fabled mural with a pastel blue curtain and also camouflaging it with a couple of UN flags saying that the new background would better suit televised broadcasts of news conferences. Others pointed out that it was because what the painting actually represented wouldn’t go hand in hand with what was in store – a war that would risk the deaths of non-combatants like women and children, exactly as Picasso had articulated in his creation.

Not surprisingly, in the first two days of the Iraq invasion eight hundred missiles were launched by the coalition forces targeting the country’s infrastructure. In October 2004 Lancet medical journal uploaded in their website the appalling results of a research survey led by Les Roberts of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore.

It said that since the beginning of the invasion nearly one hundred thousand Iraqi civilians had perished in coalition air strikes out of which number more than half accounted for women and children. (These figures have more than doubled in later years.) Quoting US General Tommy Frank’s admission “we don’t do body counts”, the researchers disapproved the insolence of the coalition war machine in that it did not even make an attempt to assess the civilian causalities it caused, which apparently was a flagrant disregard for the responsibilities of occupying forces as laid down in the Geneva convention.

But how much of it matters to the world now, only the war theater stretches from the West Bank, to Syria to Afghanistan. Nazi General Erich Ludendorff in his book ‘The Total War’ had advocated that modern warfare has to incorporate the whole society and does spare no one. Perhaps this argument has legitimized the killing of civilians in the contemporary war theater, which could be why the military strategists have coined the fancy expression ‘collateral damage’.

During the 1980s’ Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, the death toll had touched the million mark. By the same token, the 2003 invasion of Iraq by the coalition forces and their punctuated withdrawals that took as long as 8 years had also resulted in an estimated 200,000 deaths, most of them civilians.

Yet with the strategic as well as neo-political odds weighing heavily in their favor, the domino effect these wars produced were exactly the opposite of what the super powers had hoped to achieve, except for the ouster of certain dictatorial heads of states and displacements of their collaborators. They never succeeded in putting out the fires, nor mending differences, but only in spiraling radicalism.

Pitted against the bottom line that the ongoing 5-year conflict has already cost nearly 250,000 lives, in his “pitiless” pursuit of the Daesh dens in Syria and its neighborhood, what President Hollande may accomplish is the likelihood of inciting further resistance, says professor emeritus Andrew J. Bacevich of Boston University. Will the hushed whispers in stately corridors that a turnaround in strategy from being unsuccessfully offensive to successfully defensive come true?

From the point when Guernica was conceived until its completion it continued to evolve. It is said that once Picasso had even considered the inclusion of a red tear drop emerging from the eye of a distraught woman. Paradoxically enough, despite the fact that the tear drop did not make the final cut, Guernica continues to bleed.

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