What's behind the U.N. cover-up of Picasso's Guernica?

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Feb. 6 2003 6:56 PM

Hidden Treasures

What's so controversial about Picasso's Guernica?

The tapestry in question
The tapestry in question

Earlier this week, U.N. officials hung a blue curtain over a tapestry reproduction of Picasso's Guernica at the entrance of the Security Council. The spot is where diplomats and others make statements to the press, and ostensibly officials thought it would be inappropriate for Colin Powell to speak about war in Iraq with the 20th century's most iconic protest against the inhumanity of war as his backdrop. Why is Guernica such a powerfully controversial image after all these years, and how did it come to hang in tapestry form at the United Nations?

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Guernica is a mural, 11 feet 6 inches high and 25 feet 8 inches wide, which commemorates the aerial bombardment—and obliteration—of the ancient Basque town of 5,000 inhabitants by German and Italian squadrons on April 26, 1937. It has justifiably been held to be one of the masterpieces of modern art. A modern history painting, Guernica self-consciously draws on archetypal forms the artist was exploring at the time: bulls, horses, melancholy women—particularly Spanish themes that were nonetheless classical and universal. Picasso used a distinctive pictorial language to convey meaning in a broadly accessible way without compromising the hermetic originality of the artist's style; the chopped-up, fragmentary treatment of form makes the image more startling and conveys violence. Most notable, though, is the painting's audaciously stark absence of color—Guernica is painted solely in black and white and gray tones. Black-and-white images carry symbolic as well as graphic punch, of course, and, to a contemporary audience used to black-and-white newspapers and film, the added connotation of objectivity.

Guernica is no stranger to political dispute. Picasso painted it for the Spanish Pavilion of the 1937 Paris World's Fair as the fulfillment of a commission that predated the bombing atrocity. After the World's Fair, Guernica toured European capitals, a rallying-cry-in-paint to the anti-fascist cause. In 1939, the mural and supporting studies arrived in New York for a fund-raising tour in aid of Spanish war relief. It left America for numerous exhibitions during the Cold War years (by which time Picasso had joined the French Communist Party) but during that time the Museum of Modern Art had become its semipermanent home. Meanwhile, the Franco regime, far from viewing the work as an embarrassment, was calling for its "return" to Spain—ignoring the fact that the painting had never actually resided there. In the first Spanish monograph on Picasso, published in Madrid in 1951, the author described Guernica as "the picture of all bombed cities"—a neat formulation that underscores the cost of universalism in art. Lack of specificity makes the image more potent and more tame.

While at MoMA, the mural became the focus of intense political activism. Commenting on the natural home for the painting, Picasso had said in 1956, "It will do the most good in America." In 1967, however, 400 artists responding to the Vietnam War signed a petition urging Picasso to take it out of the country: "Please let the spirit of your painting be reasserted and its message once again felt, by withdrawing your painting from the United States for the duration of the war." The liberal art historian Meyer Schapiro viewed this as nonsensical political posturing. In a letter to the Art Workers Coalition in 1970 he asked if MoMA was making a protest against the crucifixion by hanging paintings of that subject, and by implication, wondered why Franco was so keen to have Guernica in the Prado, if hanging it implied criticism of all warfare.

Not long after, in 1974, Tony Shafrazi, a young Iranian artist (and later a trendy SoHo dealer) sprayed the words "Kill Lies All" onto the picture, as a protest against U.S. action at My Lai. (The canvas was well-varnished so his paint cleaned off with ease.) A self-proclaimed Guerrilla Art Action Group came to the defense of Shafrazi, arguing that he was completing, not vandalizing, Picasso's creation. Spain did eventually get Guernica in 1981 under the terms specified by Picasso of the country's transition to democracy.

The tapestry version at the United Nations was a gift from the estate of Nelson D. Rockefeller in 1985. The tapestry version succumbs to the temptation of color—browns and taupe—considerably weakening its effect, as does the change in medium.

The continuing sensitivity to Guernica exemplified by the U.N. cover-up may remind us that modern art is poor in images glorifying just military action, though rich in images of the horrors and injustices of war. Further back in history, of course, there are numerous celebrations of the triumph of righteous might. Unfortunately, some of the best depict the vanquishing of Saracens, which might not go down so well today. Long gone, however, are the days when statesmen actually commissioned public works of art, history painting, or monumental sculpture for purposes of propaganda, self-glorification, and political justification. Except, of course, in Baghdad, where innumerable portraits of Saddam Hussein and Bamiyan-sized replicas of his arms adorn the fateful streets.

Art critic David Cohen is editor of the online journal artcritical.com and gallery director at the New York Studio School.