Blogs > Cliopatria > Guernica -- IV

May 28, 2007 12:42 pm

Guernica -- IV

[Cross-posted at Airminded.]

Here's a confession: I don't really get Guernica -- the painting, that is, not the event (which is why I haven't mentioned it inthisseries until now). I understand that it's a passionate reaction by a great artist to the tragedy unfolding in his own country. It's physically imposing, rich in symbolism and, by now, a part of history itself. I'd love to see it one day. But what I don't get is how, and why, Picasso's Guernica came to be seen as a more powerful reaction to the coming of total war than this:


Or this:


Or this:


Or this:


Or this:


Or this:


To me, it's not, but perhaps I'm irredeemably literal. Why is Guernica such a recognisable image, and these so unfamiliar? Is art more powerful than reality? (Not that photographs aren't constructed at all, but they do record the effects of photons which were actually reflected from the ruins of Guernica, or emitted from the flames which consumed it.) Are the photographs of Guernica '37 devalued by their similarity to post-raid pictures of London '40, Hamburg '43 and Tokyo '45? Feel free to educate me in the comments!

The images of Guernica after the air raid are from Wikipedia, though from a user page, not an article. A couple have been deleted from Wikipedia, but I managed to find them here and here.

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More Comments:

Geoffery Kehrig - 10/3/2009

The pictures of shelled buildings are compelling ... but they lack the DIRECT human connections that images of the human face and body communicate about the emotional disintegration and horror of war.

When communicating to the general public, victims of war have more emotional impact than destroyed buildings.

There have been many powerful war photos and video imagery from Vietnam to back up this point (this is also why the US army does not allow cameras to capture the human element of their victims anymore ... they learned this lesson from the 60's and 70s ... people feel empathy and sympathy for the pain of innocent victims).

The images of Picasso's twisted human bodies and their expressions convey the fear, pain, horror, slaughter and personal tragedies of war.

It is a reaction against the cold calculated killing of the REAL victims of war ... innocent people.

Guernica is bigger than a single event. The painting shows how we can all be victims of war. It is a search for logic in the illogical act of murder.

As Hemingway said, "Never think that war, no matter how necessary, nor justified, is not a crime."

This painting is universal in it's symbolism and impact. It could represent the slaughter of innocent victims of September 11th in America ... or the innocent civilians of a bombing in a village within the middle east.

Any survivor can identify and make personal connections to the horrifying images within Guernica.

To me, the painting is a terrifyingly, powerful plea for peace and compassion to all of our fellow human beings.

Picasso's painting is a richly visual and symbolic masterpiece from the past century ... and possibly his greatest artistic achievement.

Fergal Amadeus Groot - 2/5/2009

The painting "Guernica" speaks more to human suffering, which, to me, is what distinguishes war crimes. I find that, as shocking as images of collapsed infrastructure may be, what sticks in Picasso's rendition is the entirely human aspect. Okay, there are animals too, but the point is, the Basques and retreating Republican victims were subject to brutality, that is the point of the painting.

Brett Holman - 5/31/2007

Thanks for your comment, Oscar. I was almost stunned when I stumbled across those pictures, because they were mostly unfamiliar to me (I have seen the last one before). I realised that I had had little idea of what Guernica actually looked like, before or after the raid: the painting was the image which always came to mind. Over on Airminded, Chris Williams makes the very good point that the painting, being so unique and identifiable in a way that bombed-out ruins are not, has become THE image that gets used again and again to represent Guernica (a self-reinforcing process). So I guess in a small way I'm trying here to restore the balance a little ...

I think those are all good reasons for why Guernica has the effect it does. On the last, I think you're right, but it's interesting that although people today might not look art to help explain our own times, evidently they do for past times, as with Guernica.

Oscar Chamberlain - 5/29/2007

In many ways I sympathize with your question. The image of the painting has never grabbed me, though I suspect that being in the presence of the painting itself is a very different experience from the small and often color free reproductions through which I have viewed it. With that caveat, to me the pictures you share have more power.

Still I offer some possible answers:

Because it is art and it is unique. I think you are right that the photos blur one into the other.

Because it's by Picasso. His fame lent weight to the painting as a protest and as a cry from the heart.

Because it was not "simply" reporting the facts. In the photos we are distant from the carnage. In the painting people cry to the heavens.

Because the painting was unveiled in a way that maximized its exposure.

Finally, because the painting came out in a generation in which many people believed that art could express reality as well or even better than reporting. Today we live in a sea of non-fiction. Fewer and fewer people look at the fictions of art and story-telling as paths to the truths of their times.

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