Jenny Farrell

Jenny Farrell

Jenny Farrell is a lecturer, writer and an Associate Editor of Culture Matters.


Sunday, 06 August 2017 06:00


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)


A worker reads and asks questions
Sunday, 25 June 2017 21:18

A worker reads and asks questions

Published in Poetry

The recent election results showed a stunning level of support for Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party’s anti-austerity policies. Working people are clearly starting to ask more questions about who exactly produces the wealth in class-divided societies, including our own. Jenny Farrell’s father made this brilliant translation of one of Brecht’s most famous poems.

A worker reads and asks questions
by Bertolt Brecht
translated by Jack Mitchell

Who built seven-gated Thebes
In the books you’ll find the names of kings.
Was it the kings that lugged those hunks of rock?
And what of Babylon, so often demolished?
Who rebuilt it time and again? In which
Of golden Lima’s houses lived its builders?
On the day the Chinese Wall was finished where
Did the masons go in the evening? Great Rome
Is full of triumphal arches. Who raised them? Over whom
Did the Caesars triumph? Had Byzantium of the songs
Palaces only, for its inhabitants? Even in fabulous Atlantis,
The very night the sea swallowed it,
The drowning still bawled for their slaves.

Young Alexander conquered India.
All alone?
Caesar defeated the Gauls.
Didn’t he have so much as a cook with him?
Phillip of Spain wept when his fleet
Sank. Did no others shed tears?
Frederick the Second won the Seven Year War.
Who else?

A victory on every page.
Who cooked the victory feast?
A great man every ten years.
Who paid the bill?

So many accounts.
So many questions.

Not the Feelies
Thursday, 22 June 2017 19:50

Not the Feelies

Published in Films

Jenny Farrell explains how Leviathan reveals the nature of capitalism.

The dystopias of the mid-20th century, Brave New World (1932) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), described with astonishing accuracy the world we live in today: thought police, news speak, genetic engineering, escapist drugs and a cinema that conditions people not to think about the kind of society they inhabit. Their films, in Brave New World, are aptly called ‘The Feelies’.

Anybody with a passing awareness of our own mainstream cinema realises that this is exactly what we have today. The ‘movies’, as opposed to ‘thinkies’, which dominate all our screens present us largely with private, relationship issues, mainly either set in or seen from the middle class perspective, and most definitely resolvable within existing society. Where issues of race or gender are addressed, from the safe distance of historical perspective, we the audience are reassured that we would have acted in an ethical, in fact radical way, if only we had lived at that distant time. And of course all is well now, we are assured and can leave the cinema affirmed in our self-righteousness.

Not so with some recent Russian films – rarely screened in Western cinemas. One of these is Leviathan, by Andrey Zvyagintsev. Its title brings to mind two things. First, the Bible’s Book of Job, where Leviathan is described as an enormous, all-consuming sea monster. Secondly, the title evokes Thomas Hobbes’s 17th c treatise on the State, ‘Leviathan’, advocating the need for a strong State at the time of the English Revolution, including the alliance between State and Church as the best and most reasonable form of government for the people.

Zvyagintsev adds to this equation the story of US Marvin John Heemeyer, who in 2004, frustrated over a failed zoning dispute, ploughed his bulldozer into the town hall, a former mayor's home and other buildings in small-town Granby, Colorado. Zvyagintsev, however, sets the film in the culture he knows best – Russia. He changes details of the plot, while revealing the nature of a Leviathan society.

This film was gleefully hailed in the West as a film about corrupt Russia. It was even awarded the Golden Globe. It was condemned in Russia as anti-Russian. Both angles miss the point. The film exposes the mechanisms of capitalist society and its destruction of ordinary people, their lives, and their happiness. It exposes how little power, what scant hope for justice working people have when faced with the combined power of politicians, the judiciary and the Church. It is difficult to think of a recent Western film, outside of Ken Loach’s work, that presents the very nature of capitalism with such radical honesty and incredible cinematography. In that sense, the film is not only about Russia but at the same time about the inhuman system that is capitalism – anywhere.

Of course, its detail is Russian, no film can or should be made in abstractions. Films, like all artwork, deal in individual lives. Zvyagintsev’s film associates the greater context through its title. He also uses the landscape on the edge of the world: the Barents Sea bordering on the Arctic Ocean, frozen landscapes, wrecked boats and the skeleton of a blue whale to emphasise this more encompassing scope. Yet, the story is rooted deeply in the everyday minutiae of ordinary, working people’s lives. The film shows how the monster devastates this. There seems to be little hope for humanity. Perhaps some slight courage may be taken from the fact that a friend of the protagonist has the potential to challenge the beast. In Leviathan, this path is thwarted and seems unlikely, yet it is there. The fact that the film itself makes a statement about the Leviathan, too, is important.

Leviathan struck close to the bone in Russia, where despite everything, art is clearly still understood as a serious comment on society. The cultural ministry was outraged and indeed censored its ‘profanities’, amputating the film. It also questioned the right of such a film to taxpayers’ financial support. (Films clearly still receive state subventions!) Zvyagintsev himself called on people to watch the illegally copied film online in places where it was not shown in cinemas. The film’s impact was such that civic leaders and Orthodox priests and bishops of Samara called on the Minister of Culture to sack Valery Grishko, the actor who plays the bishop in the film, from his position in the state-sponsored theatre. The “image created by this actor is a cynical and dirty parody on Russian orthodox bishops, it offends the believers and in its essence is nothing else other than blatant mockery of Russian State and the principal religious confession of our country — The Holy Orthodoxy.”

To turn to ‘real life’: at the time of writing, there is an ongoing, growing truck drivers’ strike in Russia (since 27 March 2017). It demonstrates an awareness and readiness to fight against the insatiable appetite of the Leviathan. Leviathan and other recent Russian films help their viewers identify those who would rather send them to ‘The Feelies’ and remain hidden. By describing present day Russia, however, they reveal the nature of capitalism. Understanding this, is a prerequisite to change. As Rosa Luxemburg said, “the first revolutionary act is to call things by their true names.” We need films like this.

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