The Dialectics of Art
Wednesday, 08 December 2021 18:25

The Dialectics of Art

Published in Visual Arts

John Molyneux introduces his new book, The Dialectics of Art

This book is the product of a love of, and engagement with, art that goes back to my childhood in London in the nineteen fifties and sixties. It consists of a combination of case studies of particular artists – Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Tracey Emin, Jackson Pollock and others, written at various times over the last thirty years – with four new reflections on art and art history. The latter deal with the questions: what is art, how art is judged, how art develops, and the dialectics of modernism.

As its title implies, the book is written from a Marxist perspective and the terrain it covers is visual art in what might be called ‘the bourgeois epoch’ i.e. from the Renaissance to the global present, with the primary focus being ‘Western’ (European and American) art.

The central theme running through the book, both in the theoretical chapters and the case studies, is the dialectical tension that has existed and continues to exist between art and the capitalist system. On the one hand visual art, throughout this period has been controlled and dominated by the rich and powerful, the ruling class in Marxist terminology; this was so with the Medicis and Popes (some of the Popes were Medicis) in Florence and Rome, with absolute monarchs in the early modern era, through to the Rockefellers, Guggenheims, Saatchis and Gagosians of modern times. On the other hand artists, while often depending on these people have for their survival, have frequently baulked at their masters or even, through their art, been in outright rebellion against them.

Michelangelos David with pedestal 300 dpi

Michelangelo and Rembrandt are both examples of this. Michelangelo had Lorenzo de Medici as his patron and worked on the Sistine Chapel for Pope Julius II (of the rival della Rovere family) but he produced the David sculpture to celebrate the driving out of the Medicis by the people of Florence, and clashed repeatedly with Pope Julius.

REMBRANDT slf prtrt beggar2

Rembrandt was a highly successful society portraitist in Amsterdam in the Dutch ‘golden age’ but also continually produced works, like his moving etchings of beggars and his many studies of Jewish people, that were at odds with the taste and requirement of his patrons. Moreover the pattern continues through the likes of Goya (both painter to the Spanish court and the producer of the devastating Disasters of War) to Picasso or Rivera, Emin or Banksy in the modern era.

My argument, in Chapter 1, is that this tension derives not just from the left-wing or rebellious characters of many artists but from the very nature of art under capitalism. Art develops historically as a distinct sphere of activity (and this applies to poetry, literature, music, etc as well as painting and sculpture) in the bourgeois period because it is the product of creative labour, that is labour controlled by the producer themselves  – ‘unalienated labour’ in Marxist theoretical terms – in opposition to the spreading alienated wage labour on which capitalism rests. This is linked to what I suggest is the other main characteristic of art, namely a striving for the unity of form and content in that the meaning of a work, not just its subject but the totality of its ideological, emotional and psychological associations, are embedded in the totality of its form i.e. every colour, every brush stroke, every dimension and so on. Only creative labour, I suggest, can deliver that intimate unity. Though none of this, unfortunately in my view, changes the fact that to survive artists usually have to sell the products of their creative labour as commodities and as part of capitalism.

What makes great art?

Another issue the book considers is how aesthetic judgments are made: what makes some art works better than others and what makes great art. Some people find this question very annoying, distasteful even, because they feel it reeks of snobbery or elitism or is an attempt to dictate taste to people. But individuals often feel that some judgment of art is unavoidable at a societal level and in practice most individuals make choices about art. What the book does is look how those judgments have been made in the past, on the criteria have they been based on (for example skill, naturalism, realism, expression and emotional power) and then goes on to ask if Marxism has something to add to these previous criteria.

300px After Hans Holbein the Younger Portrait of Henry VIII Google Art Project

I stress in the book that serious Marxists have not attempted and should not attempt to judge art by dogmatic or narrow political criteria. It cannot be reduced to left-wing socialist art versus right-wing capitalist art, or anything similar. Rather what Marxism adds is an understanding that great art gives powerful expression to changing social relations. For example a portrait of Henry VIII by Holbein is not just remarkable resemblance of the king but also depiction of the social relations involved in the institution of absolute monarchy. Similarly Edvard Munch’s The Scream and many works by Francis Bacon are powerful expressions of the alienated human condition under modern capitalism.

the scream

This criterion is employed in the specific case studies. The art concerned is always situated in its historical and social context, using the Marxist method of historical materialism but it is seen as a creative response to that context not as a mechanical reflection or expression of it. Thus Rembrandt is seen as a creative and critical response to the new social relations that emerged with the Dutch Revolt and the establishment of the Dutch Republic. Andy Warhol is located in the context of the postwar economic boom and celebrity/consumer culture it generated, but he is also seen as producing a double-edged critical response to it - and so on.

GREAT ART ANDY WARHOL Marilyn

The last chapter traces certain dialectical patterns of development in modern art. It identifies in particular a democratising tendency in terms of both subject matter and materials: from mythology, religion and portraits of the rich and powerful in oils, marble and bronze through paintings of ‘the people’ (Courbet, Manet, Van Gogh, Cezanne, early Picasso etc.), followed by the everyday and everyday materials (cubist collages, Duchamp’s ready-mades, industrial materials like neon and bricks, city and household detritus), to the social turn in the 21st century. But then in opposition to this, a pull exerted on rebellious artists, drawing them back to the establishment. This co-opted and incorporated them into the art world of the millionaires and the corporations: Picasso and Matisse, Dali, Pollock (and his use by the CIA), Hirst, Kapoor, Emin, and even Banksy.

tracey emin my bed300dpi

The book also offers a provisional assessment of where art is at now. and suggests that contemporary and future art cannot fail to be shaped by the changed relationship between humans and nature embodied in the arrival of the Anthropocene and the multi-dimensional ecological crisis faced by humanity. From the caves of Lascaux, to Gainsborough, Constable and Cezanne, art has always responded to changed relations (which are also social relations) with nature. 

Finally, The Dialectics of Art envisages a future in which capitalism and alienated labour are overcome and all work, all production starts to take on a creative artist character, as part of a collective project to shape and build a sustainable and humane world.

Radical, subversive circus and cultural change
Wednesday, 08 December 2021 18:25

Radical, subversive circus and cultural change

Published in Cultural Commentary

Kimberley Reynolds describes how radical and transgressive circuses in twentieth-century children’s literature make the case for social and personal transformation. Above image: Family of Saltimbanques by Pablo Picasso, 1905

The circus has been a consistently popular setting, theme, metaphor and space in publishing for children from at least the nineteenth century, and writers, illustrators and readers are attracted to it for a variety of reasons. Foremost among these is the fact that the circus world is exotic, international, polyglot, excessive and carnivalesque. They combine animals from distant lands (in line with concerns about animal welfare, few circuses now have animal acts), astonishing illusions, gravity-defying aerialists and acrobats, the antic behaviour of adults in the roles of clowns, and sideshows featuring what were traditionally known as ‘freaks’. These features are all related to the identification of the circus by the first wave of modernist and avant-garde artists and authors as a quintessentially radical aesthetic space: a space where themes and ideas are explored with a view to challenging and changing how the everyday world is perceived and organised.

A sense of the radical appeal of the circus can be established with a few examples. For instance, during his Rose or ‘circus’ period, Pablo Picasso used images of circus performers as metaphors for the socially and economically precarious position of artists. Like circus performers, he suggests, innovative, challenging artists in early twentieth-century Europe and America were regarded as unimportant outliers by those in positions of power. Henri Matisse had a life-long interest in circuses and what they said about movement, freedom and creativity. This interest is documented in his book Jazz (1947), which was originally titled The Circus. More than half of the images it contains are of circus performances. Fernand Léger and Marc Chagall were fascinated by the way circuses liberated bodies and minds from convention. Their paintings often focus on the way circus acts create a sense of mental and physical liberation from the constraints of everyday life.

KR Leger

The Acrobat and His Partner by Fernand Léger

Circuses also offered artists new perspectives (from above and below) and celebrated speed, flight and simultaneity, as when multiple acts are taking place on the ground and in the air at the same moment. Circus rings and the contorted body shapes made by acrobats and aerialists lent themselves well to abstraction, while the transitions from acts featuring spangled, gravity-defying artists to lumbering elephants, ferocious big cats, bizarre clowns and the exceptional bodies found in circus sideshows gave a surreal, dreamlike quality to the circus experience. Perhaps most importantly, the inter-artistic nature of circus acts spoke to avant-garde interests in ‘Total Art’, meaning the combining of words, music, lighting, movement, and the plastic arts to provoke new sensations and perceptions.

Mikhail Bakhtin has shown how, by inducing new outlooks on the world, carnival, of which circus is one form, feeds cultural change. This understanding points to the subversive potential of circuses. In Ant-Nazi Modernism, Mia Spiro points to the way that the decades which witnessed the rise of fascism and Nazism saw the deliberate use of circuses to challenge the world view they promulgated. This deployment works well since circus life and circus acts stood for everything such regimes sought to suppress. They were ethnically, socially, and sexually diverse; they mixed levels of discourse; they displayed fluidity, eroticism, exoticism, and hybridity. The peripatetic nature of circuses means they were also free from geographical and nationalistic boundaries. This was as true on the page as under the Big Top or on the canvas. For instance, in Djuna Barnes’s novel Nightwood (1936), the circus is the only place where lesbian, transgender and other characters who struggle to fit into life in 1930s Paris and America can be at ease. Barnes makes the circus a space where, ‘no one is “alien” because everyone realizes that social positions, race, [and] sexuality are performances’ (Spiro 73).

Understanding the performative nature of all aspects of social life – not least in political displays – undermines the kind of mass spectacles by which totalitarianism asserts its power. So, for instance, performance theories relating to audience response compare the different effects on spectators of circuses and the huge, highly choreographed rallies favoured by Nazi propagandists. These mass spectacles were a deliberately hypnotic, homogenising and coercive kind of event. Their effect was to make most participants and observers unquestioning and conformist. Circuses, by contrast, are energising and individualistic; performances are not designed to lull audiences, but to provoke them. Their astonishing and often dangerous acts make audiences ask, ‘how do they do that?’ In this way, spectators are encouraged to recognise that they are watching tricks and illusions and to think about and deconstruct them – exactly the opposite effect of the Nazi rallies.

Circuses offered abundant metaphoric potential for celebrating freedom of thought, movement and interaction at a time when all of these were under threat. This made them valuable subjects for those artists and writers who were opposed to the divisive, hierarchical, nationalistic, and militaristic politics of the far right. In their hands, the circus was simultaneously offered as a site of intellectual and cultural provocation and a place of delight that appealed not just to a cultural elite but to large and mixed audiences. Children have always been part of the circus audience, and in circus stories, children are present as both performers and spectators. This does not mean that circuses are good places for the young. The experiences of real child circus performers have often been brutally abusive, and many of the first circus stories for children concentrated on this aspect of circus life. Stories about the sufferings of young circus performers make up a complete subgenre, but here my focus is on the way the circus setting was used by children’s writers and illustrators to introduce to their readers some of the artistic experiments and political critiques found in arts and letters from the first half of the last century.

Transformation and transgression in juvenile circus stories

Soviet writer Yuri Olesha’s The Three Fat Men (1928) overtly uses the circus to criticise oppressive rule and to celebrate imagination, creativity and intellectual freedom. This is a story about revolution: in it the oppressed people in an unnamed town rise up against the ‘Three Fat Men’ who rule their land and literally consume all its resources. Though it is not geographically or chronologically anchored in a particular time or place, because its author was living in the new Soviet republic and the story was completed just one year after the series of revolutions that saw the old imperial Russian rule replaced by the world’s first communist society, it is difficult not to link the book to those events. The revolution is led by members of a circus. One of these is Tibbulus the Tightrope walker and the other Suok, the girl acrobat, but even before they begin to take control of the events, a circus act has been encouraging the people to disrespect their three fat leaders. For instance, the three are represented on a stage by a trio of fat, hairy apes while a clown sings:

Like three great sacks of wheat,
The Three Fat Men abed!
For all they do is eat
And watch their bellies spread!
Hey you Fat Men, beware:
Your final days are here! (17)                      

The clown is right. The surreal plot, which includes separated twins, kangaroo trials and arbitrary sentences, a living doll, a talking parrot with a beard and a great many extravagant banquets, culminates in the overthrow of the Three Fat Men. The people are inspired  to liberate themselves by those with courage, creativity, education and morals. All of the provocateurs are connected to the circus.

The Three Fat Men is aimed at able readers, and Olesha’s use of the circus is deliberately political. But books for younger readers also celebrate the internationalism, category mixing, simultaneity and Total Art found in modernist painting and writing. One of these is Samuil Marshak and Vladimir Lebedev’s The Circus (1925). This belongs to the outpouring of much-admired books produced in the first decades of Soviet rule, often by avant-garde writers and artists who hoped that they were helping to build society anew. For its original readers the book’s internationalism mirrored the drive to unite the many countries and peoples, with their different languages, eye shapes, skin tones, hair colours and fashions, that made up the new Soviet Union. It also supports the work of transforming an illiterate peasant culture into one which was both literate and ready to welcome, rather than fear or resent, modern technology.

 KR Olesha 1 fatcov2

Cover of The Circus and Other Stories, by Lebedev

The Circus begins with a poster based not on the highly decorated traditional fairground graphics usually favoured by circuses but on modern advertisements, as seen it its use of clean lines, sharp typography and white spaces. Huge, repeated exclamation points convey that very modernist quality of energy, while the text promises eclecticism in the form of ‘A rider from Rio,/An aerial trio/…. Jacko, the famous clown… all the way from Paris.’ Inside, a black tightrope walker is used to familiarise the workings of a telephone message, showing modern technology as thrilling but unthreatening, while a green musician is introduced as the wife of a Soviet clown. In line with the modernist appreciation of speed and dynamism, many images show figures in motion, zooming this way, galloping that, balancing precariously and defying gravity.

In the British-produced The Circus Book (1935), by Wyndham Payne with illustrations by Eileen Mayo, Japanese acrobats practise on one page while a man in evening dress is shown working alongside clowns and performing horses ridden by a bear and a lion on another. All are very familiar circus images, but when considering the significance of representing the way categories were mingled under the Big Top in these books, it is important not to forget the extent to which in interwar Europe, racial and national origins, sexuality, and physical development could determine a person’s fate. From policies in Nazi Germany to fascist demonstrations in London, Jews, Romani (a group closely associated with circuses) and others deemed inferior by those in authority were vilified and often attacked. The Circus Book makes much of the internationalism and inclusiveness of circuses. It asks children to admire the ability of circus performers to speak many languages so they can work together: ‘… circuses engage artists of every nationality so you can imagine the babel of tongues behind the scenes. Some of the directors can give orders in half a dozen different languages, nearly all the artists can speak at least two or three besides their own, and a well-known clown was able to do his act in twelve languages’ (8). This short information book is not overtly provocative or revolutionary; nevertheless, readers of the book are invited to admire what elsewhere in society was being presented as suspect.

KR dumbo

Undoubtedly the most famous circus story for children is Dumbo, as told through the 1941 Walt Disney animated feature film. The artwork in this circus story (which began life as a children’s book and generated many spin-off picturebooks) has a modernist edge that subtly comments on, for instance, the alienation of workers and the loss of identity in modernity as in the impressionistic depiction of the roustabouts who set up the Big Top in a storm, and crowds fleeing as the huge tent collapses when Dumbo knocks over the ‘Pyramid of Pachyderms’. Expressionistically-coloured scenery conveys mood, while Freudian-inflected experimental sequences such as ‘Pink Elephants on Parade’ bring in other avant-garde interests around subjectivity, interiority and the psyche. The most pointed aspect of its radicalism focuses on racist policies in the United States at the time. This occurs in the section where Dumbo and Timothy meet Jim Crow and his gang. The name ‘Jim Crow’ refers to the laws that enforced segregation the in the US up to the 1960s. The crows dress and have the mannerisms of scat/jazz musicians: jazz clubs were places where whites and blacks often mixed. Dumbo and Timothy also mix with the crows in defiance of the segregationist agenda, and it is the crows who enable Dumbo to fly and become a hero. Their knowledge of psychology leads to the ‘magic’ feather that persuades Dumbo he can fly.              

KR the circus of adventure 

The Circus of Adventure, by Enid Blyton

There is nothing obviously radical about Enid Blyton’s The Circus of Adventure (1952); nevertheless, when the four adventurers, Philip, Dinah, Lucy-Ann and Jack, and the young central European prince who is in their charge seek refuge in a circus as they flee from a palace coup, behaviours that would have been suspect in other settings are valued. For instance, the young prince, Gustavus Aloysius, known as Gussy, gives a bravura performance as a girl, when soldiers ransack the circus, looking for the fugitives. The four British children have also been disguised with grease paint, circus costumes and an invented language. Because this is a circus and so outside what the soldiers consider to be the real world, they see insignificant itinerant performers rather than their prince and his middle-class British minders, and soon depart. The success of the children’s performances owes everything to the help of their circus friends. Their class background, age and nationality become unimportant, and the children are valued for their skills with animals and their willingness to join in the work of keeping the circus on the road.

As in the mythology that has grown up around circuses, all the members of the circus are portrayed as a big family, though they come from many countries and speak dozens of languages (‘Ma’ is Spanish, her husband is English, and their son seems to speak every language there is). Outside hierarchies are also of little consequence to the members of the circus. When the young prince objects to his treatment by, ‘Ma’, the woman who plays his grandmother, she responds, “Pah! ...You’re just a boy. I’ve no time for princes.” The narrator reinforces her statement by observing approvingly, ‘And she hadn’t’ (148). Such a celebration of classless internationalism is highly unusual for the broadly conservative Blyton.

The transformative effects of the circus on Gussy prove permanent. His time with the performers (and, of course, the four British children) has made him a stronger, better young man with a new, more respectful, attitude to his people and those who lack his social position. Gussy, it is implied, is on his way to becoming a modern ruler and a better ally for Britain. This is arguably a convenient than a radical conclusion from a British perspective, yet for much of the book even an author known for finding foreigners suspicious turns a circus full of ‘others’ into loyal, creative, heroic friends who use their circus skills to thwart a coup. The circus setting, then, shapes the book’s message and refashions the author’s ideological assumptions.

This brief sample gives a sense of how circus stories produced during the first half of the last century shared interests, agendas and modes with the experimental arts and letters produced by some of the best known modernist artists and writers. My growing collection of circus stories shows that for many writers and illustrators, the circus continues to provide an aesthetically and politically radical space, theme and metaphor that helps them make the case for social and personal transformation.

Portraits from the pandemic: Artists highlight the role of NHS workers
Wednesday, 08 December 2021 18:25

Portraits from the pandemic: Artists highlight the role of NHS workers

Published in Visual Arts

Nicholas Baldion discusses art, portraiture and the Covid-19 crisis, illustrated by some of his portraits of NHS workers. The painting above is of Karl, who works for the NHS in Oxford, and it's by Tim Benson

In the ancient Roman Republic, there were laws preventing anyone but the patrician class from having their portrait made. This is because the ruling class of antiquity understood well the power of art, and they wished to prevent this tool from falling into the hands of the plebeian masses.

No.1 Nurse

Today, art - and portraiture in particular - is available to anyone who can afford to pay.

That is until the coronavirus turned everything on its head. All layers in society, especially the artist, have been forced to re-evaluate how they understand the world. The idea that ‘we are all middle-class now’ - an idea that every class-conscious worker knew to be a fallacy, but which had been prevalent amongst certain layers of society - has been utterly destroyed.

No.2 Cleaner

The working class is now visible for even the most thick-skulled to see. The category of ‘key worker’ reveals to all that the lowest paid and least respected - the supermarket workers, the delivery drivers, the transport workers, the cleaners, the nurses, and healthcare-workers - are the ones that society cannot do without.

In stating this fact, the immense power of the working class also becomes apparent. As Ted Grant famously stated: not a wheel turns, not a lightbulb shines, not a phone rings, without the kind permission of the working class.

Art mirrors life

It is often noted that art provides a mirror to the mood in society. It is no surprise then that the popular outpouring of support for the NHS - seen until recently every Thursday with the ‘clap for the NHS’ events - should be reflected by the art world.

No.3 Nurse

Artists who would normally paint the portraits of paying clients are turning their talents towards healthcare workers. From the big names in the oil painting world, to the emerging artist and amateur painters, hundreds of NHS workers have been matched to artists and have had their portraits painted.

It is important to recognise the genuine nature of this mood. The claps and cheers for the NHS come loudest from working-class neighbourhoods and estates up and down the country. Likewise, the hundreds of artists participating do it because of a genuine admiration: they rightly understand that these workers are the ones that society should be honouring.

Lives sacrificed for profit

At the same time, we must highlight the hypocrisy of the capitalist media and Tory politicians who clap and sing praises for NHS and frontline workers. These same workers are dying preventable deaths, precisely due to the policies and failures of this government.

No.4 Nurse close

These workers are forced to work in unsafe conditions. They are gagged from talking out about the lack of adequate PPE. And they are often paid poverty wages. Their lives are being sacrificed needlessly.

Some of the health care workers I have spoken to have told me that they had been threatened with the sack for making political posts on social media, or for speaking out about inadequate PPE. Indeed, even Labour MP Nadia Whittome - who returned to work as a carer - was sacked from her zero-hours contract job after speaking out about the lack of PPE.

No.7GP

Consider the case of the cleaner working for private contractor ISS at Queen Elizabeth’s hospital in Woolworth, who was suspended and who faces the sack for requesting PPE. Think also of the nurses at Northwick Park Hospital in Harrow, who were forced to use bin bags as makeshift PPE equipment, and who all subsequently contracted coronavirus. And think of bus driver Emeka Nyack Ihenacho, who died after contracting Covid-19. He was at risk due to his asthma. Yet he was told he had to go into work or face a pay cut, despite there not being safety measures in place .

The poor are dying at a faster rate than the rich. There are 55 dead for every 100,000 in the poorest neighbourhoods, compared to 25 dead per 100,000 in wealthy neighbourhoods. The deaths - and the inequality in the death rate - are only likely to increase as lockdown measures are lifted prematurely, with more lives sacrificed on the altar of profit.

Time to demand

To my fellow artists, now is the time to stand with our brothers and sisters working for the health service, and with all key workers working in unsafe conditions.

Don't fall into the establishment’s narrative of ‘sacrifice’ and ‘heroes’. The NHS workers I have spoken to don't want to sacrifice their health. They don't want to sacrifice their lives and those of their families. They don’t want to be remembered as heroes. They just want to do their job as professionals.

No.8 Paramedic

Now is the time to demand that they get the correct PPE. To demand that they get the hazard pay due them. To demand that the families of dead health care workers receive death in service benefits. To demand that our nurses and health workers are never again in a situation where they have to rely on foodbanks - that they get the pay rise due them.

To demand a fully-funded training programme for doctors, nurses, paramedics, and medical staff, with decent pay and hours to increase staffing levels across the board. To demand that all the auxiliary staff, cleaners, and porters are taken back in-house, and that we put an end to the poverty wages that they have been suffering for so long. To demand that the private profiteers who have been milking our NHS are driven out. To demand that we have a fully-funded and fully public NHS, run under workers’ control and management.

No.11 Nurse

Artists: now is not the time for cutesy portraits of smiling NHS workers that conform to the Tory narrative. These are a just pat on the head for NHS workers, whilst they remain silenced. Now is the time to take up the mantle of the great artist and communist Pablo Picasso, who famously said:

What do you think an artist is? An imbecile who only has eyes, if he is a painter, or ears if he is a musician, or a lyre in every chamber of his heart if he is a poet, or even, if he is a boxer, just his muscles? Far from it: at the same time he is also a political being, constantly aware of the heartbreaking, passionate, or delightful things that happen in the world, shaping himself completely in their image. How could it be possible to feel no interest in other people, and with a cool indifference to detach yourself from the very life which they bring to you so abundantly? No, painting is not done to decorate apartments. It is an instrument of war.

For more images, see here and here. There is also a virtual exhibition of portraits of NHS workers here.

Nicholas’ own series of portraits of NHS workers - 'Safety not sacrifice' - can be seen on his instagram: Baldion

Guernica
Wednesday, 08 December 2021 18:25

Guernica

Published in Visual Arts

Jenny Farrell takes us through one of the greatest political artworks ever, Picasso's Guernica.

There are a handful of pictures that may be said to be almost universally known. They include Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, Edvard Munch’s The Scream and Picasso’s Guernica.

Eighty years ago, on 26 April 1937 the small Basque town of Guernica was annihilated by German bombers. Picasso heard of this act of terror on 28 April and began initial sketches in response to this atrocity on 1 May. It became the painting Guernica.

Despite its familiarity, or perhaps because of it, it is interesting to take a closer look at this iconic painting and discover more about what is says, exactly, and why it has the effect it has on the viewer.

The title is as terror-filled as the images displayed. In February 1936, the popular front had won the democratic elections in Spain. In July, a putsch by fascist generals took place under the leadership of Franco, supported by Hitler, Mussolini and international capital. A three year long civil war was unleashed, which ended in the crushing defeat of Spanish democracy.

Picasso had been commissioned in January 1937 to produce a mural sized painting for the Spanish Pavilion at the Paris International Exposition of Art and Technology in Modern Life. At a time, when the second world war had already begun in Spain, the German and Soviet pavilions stood across from each other on the exhibition grounds – the German eagle facing hammer and sickle. The Spanish pavilion aimed to highlight the just cause of the Spanish Republic and call for international support. It, too, represented the forces of humanity and culture against fascism barbarism. Picasso’s Guernica was exhibited in the open lobby.

Picasso began work on this painting in May 1937 and installed it in Paris in mid-June.

To understand the painting requires a degree of effort to decipher the abstract images. In its formal composition, Picasso combines the Christian triptych (traditionally an altar piece depicting Christ’ suffering on the cross on a large central panel, flanked by two narrower wings) with the classical Greek triangular pediment (a sculptured gable). In this way, Picasso’s combination distils highpoints of European culture and uses them against barbarism.

The painting shows two animals and five people. All of these have symbolic functions. The bull and the horse – are traditional symbols of Spanish popular culture, classical mythology, indeed any farming or nomadic cultures breeding horses and bulls. The clearest symbolic figures aside from these are the torch-bearer and the pieta.

In the painting, there are two sources of light: the torch and the electric bulb/ sun, positioned centre top of the picture. The woman carrying the flame, associates the entire tradition of enlightenment humanism to this day, albeit here illuminating the perversion of humanism – the destruction of life. The light-bearing woman is closely linked to liberty in the visual arts as well as in literature. One example is the New York statue of liberty, based on the Roman goddess Libertas, another famous case in point is Delacroix’s famous painting of the Liberty Leading the French Revolution.

Turning to the electric bulb/ sun, the cult of light is associated with Apollo in Greek mythology and in Christian culture, light traditionally represents God.

These two sources of light more or less at the top centre of the painting shed a triangle of light on what lies beneath – a scene of horrendous human pain and destruction. If you imagine lines drawn down from the flame to shape a triangle with the base of the painting, you have the pediment of the classical temple, coinciding with the central panel of the triptych.

What does the light illuminate? From right to left – this is the movement of the picture – a half-clothed woman is fleeing from a burning town. A human is trapped in the flames, screaming, about to be consumed. At the centre is the horse, fatally stabbed by a dagger in its back, writhing in mortal anguish. Underfoot are dismembered human body parts: an arm grasping a broken sword beside the faint outline of a flower. Another arm is stretched out in agony beside a severed head, engraved with horror. The outstretched hand reaches into the left corner of the painting and shows the effort made to protect the dead baby held by its grief stricken mother. Thinking of the painting as a triptych, the wailing mother and the burning person are in the wings, to either side of the centre panel. Both these characters and the horse are shown screaming, protesting and resisting in the moment of their destruction.

The powerful head of a female torch bearer, representing reason, civilisation and a democratic world public, sweeps through the picture from the right. She is witness, both seeing and revealing the horrors of Guernica. She embodies life, energy and hope.

Hovering over the mother in the left wing is the bull, a deep source of hope and resistance. The animal is not wounded, although its eyes and mouth express sadness and anger. It represents the power of indestructible, life-giving nature. Since ancient times, the bull has connotations of fertility. It represents the innate power of the people.

The horse, its stricken head, is at the centre of the triangular pediment and the triptych structure, just below the light. The horse has special significance in this painting. It distils the suffering of the people and becomes the essence of this. The horse’s head heightens the agony, the elegiac tone of the entire picture, becomes its symbol.

The horse, in its anguish, is positioned in between the torch bearer and the bull, reason and nature, which, combined, guarantee the regeneration of life. The frail but visible flower beside the fallen soldier also symbolises rebirth. The combined power of reason and nature engender optimism for new life, resistance and struggle to overcome such destruction. The movement of the head of reason is towards the bull. As the head is without a body, such merging is almost certainly part of the painting’s projected intention. Another factor that suggests the necessary joining of torch bearer and bull, of head and heart, of reason and body, is that these two figures alone in the painting, are not physically tormented in the same way as the humans are. The bull is distressed and the torch bearer horrified; together they embody ground for hope, for anger, the will to resist and fight back, for renewal.

Looking at the ‘language’ of the painting, its form, the questions arises: How can such horror be depicted appropriately? Is it possible to express profound and utter destruction in a naturalistic, ‘beautiful’ way? This painting is in black and white, creating a level of abstraction for the viewer on the one hand, adding the suggestions of a torn newspaper photograph on the other. The effect is distancing. The viewer is not drawn in, doesn’t totally identify with the images, but is put into a position of observer, thinking about what is presented.

The size of the painting also acts to physically distance the onlooker: it is 3.49 metres (11 ft 5 in) tall and 7.76 metres (25 ft 6 in) wide and cannot be seen properly close-up. The observer needs to stand at a distance to take in the whole, and make effort to understand. Grasping the message of the work parallels the effort to understand history. It isn’t presented beautifully on a plate, but needs grappling.

As indicated, the characters displayed are representative. They depict the collective experience of the Spanish people and beyond that, of the human race in a world at war. This is THE mother mourning her child, THE person fleeing from a burning city, THE human consumed by its flames, THE fallen soldier, THE world in flames. The composition furthermore suggests both indoors and outdoors, thereby making it a more universal space. Thus, the painting becomes a comprehensive statement against the inhumanity of war. It is both a condemnation and an appeal to fight for peace.

And so, as we commemorate the fascist attack on a small Basque town, as we remember and mourn its dead, our awareness of the ongoing wars, continuing crimes against humanity, human suffering and horror, perpetuated by the very same imperialist greed and inhumanity, is heightened when looking at Picasso’s masterpiece.

JF Guernica 2

Based on an essay by Thomas Metscher, published in: Thomas Metscher, Der Friedensgedanke in der Europäischen Literatur (1984)