Picturing the Horrors of War

Issue section: 
Issue: 
(272)

Picasso's 'Guernica' depicts the cost of conflict. Mike Gonzalez explains why it's time it was discovered again.

We are surrounded by images of war. Real, imagined or remembered conflict is a constant in the kind of films that are shelved under 'Action' at Blockbuster's. Very few computer games have gone beyond the simple binary of good and evil, friend or enemy. Newspapers regularly carry stark and terrifying photographs of the victims of war in some unnamed place--as if only fear and terror can really be dramatic. And then there is the machinery of warfare, drawn out in loving scientific detail on the nightly news. Thus war is made part of our natural experience.

But now something has changed. War has been unmasked as an instrument in the hands of small and ruthless bodies of men. The impulse to violence is anything but natural--people die because someone decides they should die. And at that moment, none of the images we are given will do. They cannot express the revulsion millions of us expressed on that glorious 15 February.

At times like this every generation rediscovers 'Guernica', Pablo Picasso's scream of rage painted in 1937. Of all the paintings that have represented war, it is this one that seems to echo through every generation (closely followed, I admit, by Goya's terrifying 'Disasters of War'). But why does this painting still seem to possess a power beyond its time and place? And why does this painting, even in reproduction, feel so much more profound than even the extraordinary photographs of Don McCullin or Robert Capa?

On 26 April 1937 the planes of the German Condor Legion set out to bomb the Basque town of Guernica. They were under the general orders of Mola and Franco, the leaders of the military insurrection that had sparked the Spanish Civil War. Guernica was not militarily significant; but it was the ancient seat of a Basque culture whose independence was a constant provocation to the fascists whose aim was to recreate a centralised, Catholic, traditionalist Spain.

The bombardment lasted three and a half hours, and left a town destroyed and many dead and injured. A week later Picasso began work on a painting commissioned by the Republican government, due to be shown in the official pavilion at the Paris World Fair later that year. The title commemorates the destruction of the ancient Basque city. Yet there is nothing in the painting to link it to a date or a time. Its central images are torn and broken figures. The painting seems to work with sound, or the absence of sound, the voiceless screams of the wounded horse and the woman at the centre of the canvas. Though it is a painting full of bodies, they have lost their integrity. Wherever you see hands or feet or mouths, each laid over the other, they are twisted and have lost their function. All that is left is a sense of pain.

This is a painting emblematic of modern art, yet it is curiously traditional. Its central images belong to a language of myth--the horse, the bull, the broad sword, the Madonna and child on the extreme left of the picture. This is not a vocabulary of a modern world, but of an art which believes it can say universal things about human experience. And all of these core images had been central to the language of Picasso's work for many years. The bull occurs over and over again--perhaps, as some people believe, as a representation of Spain, but in my view as an expression of sexual power and masculinity. In the painting the bull looks away, apparently impassive, the only face in the picture not twisted in agony. But it is also the only eye that does not see (or will not see) what war has done to everything that is human--a mother's love, desire, heroism, everything. Is it too far-fetched to suggest that the bull has undergone a different kind of death--a kind of moral emptying out, until all that is left is this expressionless mask.

The other curious thing about 'Guernica' is that it is in black and white--and that the horse at the centre of the work is marked until it looks almost like newsprint (recalling a technique Picasso and the Cubists used regularly, of pasting paper onto the canvas). In a way, this narrow range of colour--or absence of colour--gives the painting an air of permanence, of timelessness, as if it were locked in granite rather than painted on canvas.

Perhaps it's that feeling of weight, of noise, of pain that makes it work for every generation. In the end, despite its reputation, this is not a directly political painting about Guernica or the Spanish Civil War. It is a gasp of pain, of distress, frozen in the air. Perhaps that is why its impact is greater than a photograph--because in the end it does not tell us how war is, or even how it begins or ends, but captures how it feels to understand, in one blinding painful moment, that everything human is destroyed when the bombing begins.