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Welcome to The Houston Literary Review
May 2008 Visual Art Section

 
Norman Ball on Guernica, an Art Essay
 
Guernica, by Pablo Picasso, 1937; housed at Museo Reina Sofia, Madrid, Spain.
 
 
Picasso painted Guernica in 1937. A testament to his
sprawling genius, it is all there on the canvas. The German
military’s almost-distracted razing of an ancient Basque
village provides a telling microcosm for much that will pre-
occupy the world up to the present moment: asynchronous conflict, the incitement of non-combatant terror as a tactic
of war, shock and awe practiced on a ranging, borderless battlefield, the ascendance of the totalitarian impulse, the
assault on culture by a proto-military industrial complex.

Guernica has been interpreted, too narrowly I feel, as a
protest against war. This relegates it to polemical status, understating its ambition, for there is a more existential crisis
at work on the canvas of which war is but a symptom. Indeed
war is implied here more than it is portrayed. Everywhere we
see shrieking people, their heads turned heavenwards as
though petitioning a godless sky where the last remaining
light is artificial (solipsism, secular humanism, the ‘perfecting’ ideologies of fascism and communism). In the second instance,
we are witnessing the death of culture. War, or should we say
Orwell's perma-war, is an instrumentality only; a potent
weapon, to be sure, in the arsenal of the abyss (chaos) as it lays murderous claim to the edifice
(culture).

I offer this broad interpretation fully aware of Picasso's dismissive quote meant for symbology’s more earnest paint-by-number practitioners: "this bull is a bull and this horse is a horse." Here his tongue
is somewhat in his cheek. Picasso conceded on many occasions that, while a horse is a horse of
course of course, in the subconscious wellspring of artist and audience, Jung’s alchemical play-
ground, ‘mere things’ are often stalking horses for deeper, more archetypal realities. Picasso selects
this historical moment then abandons all but the clarion call of its name. Guernica is allegory through
and through, which is to say there is little of Guernica in Guernica.

Picasso is announcing the monumental and macrocosmic terror that would come to grip the world.
The sheer size of the mural portends the immensity and seminality of the crisis. Nazism and
Auschwitz would soon follow. Though the temperature of war has ranged from hot to cold in the
ensuing years, the essential arc has never been abandoned. President Eisenhower rendered the
most prescient American speech of the last fifty years when he railed against the insinuation of war
into the very fabric of our culture with his by-now apocryphal military industrial complex. The returning warrior-turned-king noted with chagrin how the vaunted WWII military machine was not fading into
dutiful abeyance. Rather it was self-perpetuating into a war of explicitly modern devise and euphem-
istic inscrutability --a cold war.

When a culture arranges itself around its antithesis, war, the lion has laid down beside the lamb with
full predatory intent. The ascendance of terror as an 'organizing principle' in the early years of the
21st century attests both to the obstinacy and concluding purpose of its designs. Nietzsche
warned against nihilism. And what is systematic terror but thinly-veiled nihilism? To borrow from Yeats’
oft-quoted and iconic "The Second Coming," the center, when it embraces war, has already relinquished
its hold.

Ominously, there are no oases of calm to be found on this cacophonous black and white swirl; nor is
there a discernible center though some have suggested a triptych. The cultured nuances of color are superfluous for such a stark and culminating message. Moreover as the eye, emulating history, travels
from left to right, the scene only darkens in every sense of that term. With Guernica, we can only
hope Picasso’s prescience suffers an uncharacteristic lapse of vision as he offers us so little light,
so little hope, at culture's end.

Note: ‘Honest terror’ is a quote from Federico Garcia Lorca’s 1934 toast to Pablo Neruda.