On a recent trip to Spain, I took my family to Madrid. One of my reasons for going was to take my daughters to see Picasso’s iconic painting Guernica. I’ve always tried to be honest with them about the world in all its beauty and ugliness–and this masterpiece combines those two qualities in powerful ways. It’s the defining image of our age.
Much has been written about the huge mural, which depicts the bombing of an undefended Basque town by planes of the German Luftwaffe on April 26, 1937–a critical turning point in the Spanish Civil War. The death toll is disputed, but there’s no doubt that from one hundred to a thousand people died that day. Journalist George Steer, writing for The Times of London, described this new strategy of warfare:
Guernica, the most ancient town of the Basques and the centre of their cultural tradition, was completely destroyed yesterday by insurgent air raiders. The bombardment of the open town far behind the lines occupied precisely three hours and a quarter during which a powerful fleet of aeroplanes … did not cease unloading on the town bombs weighing from 1,000lbs downward and it is calculated more than 3,000 two-pounder aluminium incendiary projectiles. The fighters, meanwhile, plunged low from above the centre of the town to machine-gun those of the civilian population who had taken refuge in the fields
At the time, Picasso had been commissioned to create a painting for the Republican government in exile, to be displayed at a Paris exhibition. Facing a creative block, Picasso read Steer’s reports and other accounts from Spain, and in his anger decided to change course and attempt to capture the suffering inflicted on the town.
Working furiously in his Paris studio on the massive canvas, Picasso completing the work in less than a month. Reaction was mixed. Some recognized its genius, while some supporters of the Republican cause were critical–claiming the picture lacked an overt message, unlike some of the other propaganda on display. (The Reina Sofia Museum has created a thoughtful exhibit that provides excellent context for Guernica, including posters, Picasso’s preliminary sketches, and newsreels about the Spanish Civil War).
But Picasso’s masterpiece wasn’t propaganda, and that’s why it continues to endure in our imagination. It’s a cry of rage against the horrors of modern warfare, a work of art that prophetically envisioned the carnage of the modern world. Technology and brutal efficiency all reside in that evil-eye electric lightbulb hovering at the painting’s apex. Picasso foretold the fracturing of countless lives on all sides of war. Not just in London, Rotterdam, or Warsaw, but also Berlin, Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki. Throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, we’ve seen that screaming mother and her dead child too many times (as well as the ineffectual bull, the male symbol so potent in many of Picasso’s works, here reduced to a dumbstruck bystander).
Guernica continues to be the icon of a world steeped in violence, whether it’s napalm dropped by B-52s on the people of Vietnam or the callous acts of terrorists that shattered so many lives on September 11. There’s nothing mysterious about why a tapestry based on Guernica at the United Nations was hidden behind a curtain when Colin Powell gave a speech arguing for the invasion of Iraq. We want our shock and awe to be abstract, just words. But words have consequences, and we see this in the news every day: in the indiscriminate death of Syria’s Civil War, in extremist attacks on Paris, Ouagadougou, Beirut, Jakarta, Panakhot, Brussels, Garissa University, and in reprisal attacks on Raqqua, Sana, Waziristan… the list goes on and on.
It’s hard to call Picasso’s painting political when its subject is such a pervasive constant of our time. It’s realism. Within those stark, cracked images of fear and grief is a command: that we actually see the results of violence, especially those acts we might otherwise ignore.
For example, you may have missed it, but largely ignored this week was the news that Saudi Arabian warplanes armed with bombs bought from the U.S. killed 97 civilians (including 25 children) in Yemen. Where is their Guernica?
Or in the deluge of our new feeds, it might have slipped your notice that a US drone strike in Afghanistan reportedly killed 17 civilians. Where is their Guernica?
We live in a world of dark threats, but to my mind there’s no brand of warfare as cowardly and dangerous as remote-controlled drone strikes, where soldiers sit in front of computer monitors sipping their Big Gulps and, with a click of a mouse, send missiles thundering down from that lightbulb in the sky. Many of these attacks are what US military leaders call “signature” strikes. These are the ones in which the targets’ identities aren’t known, but simply chosen because they look suspicious. After the target is hit, more missiles are fired at the people who attempt to help the victims. A recent article in the Atlantic asserts that between one hundred to several thousand civilians have died in U.S. drone strikes around the world. The same number as the event that inspired Guernica.
Drone operators jokingly refer the photo evidence of these strikes as “bug splats.” And I suppose from satellites in orbit, that’s what they resemble. But what Picasso’s Guernica reminds us is this: these aren’t bugs, but real human beings–with real lives–that are being ripped apart.