Eighty four years ago, the much loved Spanish artist Pablo Picasso made a statement about war through a mural called Guernica named after the Basque town that bore that name. Have we forgotten his message?
On Australia Day, Home Affairs Secretary Mike Pezzullo talked about the beating of the drums of war. This was followed soon after by Major General Adam Finley stating that war with China was a high likelihood. A year before in July 2020, five Australian warships joined US and Japanese vessels in joint military exercises in the Philippines Sea challenging China’s claim to the Spratly Islands.
The allure of war expressed in these incidences is puzzling and alarming to most peace loving people. The dark human instincts that give expression to war, environmental destruction and cruelty to other sensual beings must be controlled for the sake of human civilisation.
If anti-war voices are not heeded in the corridors of power, perhaps a statement from one of the world’s most beloved painters, Pablo Picasso, could cast the spectre from a different angle. Picasso says it through his famous mural, the Guernica.
I have not seen the real painting but reproductions of it in books suffices to convey its message. Looking at the picture, one is struck by the heartrending scene; and yet one cannot escape the ambiguous “pleasure” of viewing an exceptional piece of artwork, albeit uncomfortably.
The picture above was extracted from http://www.pablopicasso.org/guernica…
Picasso was commissioned by the Spanish Republican government to produce a work of art for the Paris exhibition of Art and Technology in Modern Life in 1937. A year earlier, a bloody civil war had broken out between the Republican government and the Nationalist opposition led by General Francisco Franco.
Nazi Germany entered the fray on the side of the Nationalist. At no risk to themselves and with no history of grievance against the Basque people, they bombed the small town of Guernica, which had an estimated population of 5000 inhabitants. In order to ensure maximum casualty, the Nazis chose to bomb the town on a market day when most of its inhabitants were out in the open.
Bombing was followed by strafing with machine guns. The attack killed an estimated 1,654 people. A quick calculation indicates that 33% of the population, mostly innocent people, had their lives snuffed out.
As the story goes, Picasso started his painting on a different motif but changed his theme when news reached him about the Guernica incident. Politics was not normally a subject of Picasso’s paintings. That being said, the message in the Guernica is unmistakable even to the untrained eye.
Anyone looking at the painting could feel the horrors of the massacre. Apart from the cultural symbols, all the images of suffering in a war is represented and easily discerned by all – the screaming woman with child, the torn remains of a soldier and people in despair. Nevertheless, he did employ a couple of iconographic images i.e. the horse and the bull, animals of significance in Spanish culture.
Picasso himself said that the horse represents the the people. The bull, iconic of Spanish bullfights, suggests brutality and violence. In order to further emphasise the grimness of the depiction, Picasso painted the mural in monochrome. Analysts indicate that the Guernica incident was the German Condor Legion’s excuse to test saturation bombing followed by strafing. Today, Wikipedia lists about 67 major arms industry corporations in the US. They all await the next war, to say the least, to boost their credibility.
There is one story about that painting that I am certain will warm the hearts of those of us who detest aggressors. Apparently a German officer who saw a photograph of the Guernica in Picasso’s apartment in Paris asked him, “Did you do that?” His reply was, “No, you did!”
I missed the opportunity to see the Guernica in person although I was close enough to the Museo Reina Sofia when I visited Madrid in September of 2017. Time constraint denied me the pleasure. However, I did enjoy a good gaze at the apartment where Picasso painted the Guernica. It was the 27th of July 2015 in Paris. Our tourist guide “Phillip” led us to a street called Rue Des Grands Augustine. I cite the following entry in my travel journal:
“… The street was called Rue Des Grands Augustine… Further on, Phillip drew our attention to some words in French etched into the wall of the building at the end of the street. It marked the place where Louis XIII stood when his father King Henri IV was killed nearby.The assassin was taken to the top floor of the 3-story building opposite and tortured. A plaque on the left wall outside the building indicated that it was where Pablo Picasso painted his famous mural, the “Guernica”. It seems uncanny that two momentous events in history, albeit disparate, could have happened at the same place. The man is as enigmatic as his paintings. Yet a magnificent piece of art was produced there, one portraying a hideous act of mass murder.”
Given my understanding that the economics of fascism incorporates elements of capitalism and socialism, recent geopolitical events in a number of democratic governments are beginning to appear concerning. Donald Trump and his constant politicking about nationalism, the US government’s increasing interference in the free operation of commerce and industry, its isolationist policies and its noticeable racial tensions are disquieting to those who value democracy.
To assure myself that I am not thinking astray in dealing with such a complex political idea as fascism, I extracted the following definition of racism from https://www.britannica.com/topic/fascism:
Although fascism is a notoriously difficult ideology to define, many 20th-century fascist movements shared several characteristics. First, these movements sourced their political strength from populations experiencing economic woes, real or imagined.Fascists tended to capitalize on these economic anxieties by shifting the blame away from government or market forces. Jews, immigrants, leftists, and other groups became useful scapegoats. Redirecting popular anger toward these people would, in theory, rid a country of its ailments.
Trump blamed the Chinese for the US’s economic woes – trade imbalance, currency manipulation and forcing the transfer of technology. Other blame games include labelling Covid19 as the Kung Fu virus; accusing the Chinese for genocide in Xinjiang; persecuting democracy advocates in Hong Hong; threatening to takeover Taiwan by military force. Even those seeking refuge in the US from poverty in Latin America were blamed for rising levels of crime in the US – “Build the Wall, Crime will fall”.
To unify a country, fascist movements propagated extreme nationalism that often went hand in hand with militarism and racial purity. The prosperity of a nation depended on a unified polity that put the group’s welfare above the individual’s. A strong, vigilant military was considered necessary to defend these group interests. And for some fascists “the group” was defined not by territorial boundaries but by racial identity. Nazism constituted the most insidious form of racial-purist fascist nationalism.
The US is currently in the throes of a racial identity crises notably the “Black Lives Matter” campaigns; the verbal and physical abuse of Chinese Americans. The Chinese have become the “new” Jews for the purpose of blame. Us military spending is the largest in the world.
Fascist movements of the 20th century also frequently lambasted liberalism for its alleged role in sowing political disunity and moral degeneracy. Although many fascist movements initially organized themselves around democratic institutions for political legitimacy, they resorted to totalitarianism in practice. A component of this process became the reorganization of society around a strict moral code that often sought to reverse the “decadence” of pre-fascist culture.
One of the controversial aspects of liberalism in a liberal democracy is the role of the whistle blower. Recent whistle blowers who raised the ire of the US government include Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, Julian Assange.
What they reveal are acts of impropriety by government carried out covertly on the excuse of national security. Power in the hands of intemperate politicians is often used in a manner indistinguishable from totalitarian regimes such as fascism. The Guernica reminds us of political excesses raising concerns about its perpetrator in whose face in the mirror the idea of “them” and “us” blurs.