Without a doubt Pablo Picasso was the most influential artist of the 20th Century, spanning many eras of art and shaping many different schools and styles. He was one of the founders of Cubism, though he ranged into many other styles in the various periods of his artistic production. Picasso produced over 20,000 different pieces of art from major paintings and sculptures to drawings, ceramics, costumes and theater sets.
For our Peace Art Festival we begin with one of his most famous works, Guernica.
The painting was Picasso’s response to the German Nazi bombing of the Basque town of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War. The painting was put on tour, bringing attention to the horrors of that war which turned out to be a prelude to the greater horrors of World War II.
For Guernica Picasso chose to only use the colors blue, black, and white, which gave the painting a starkness the accentuated the horror depicted. The suffering on the faces is stark and chilling. A bull stands over the shattered people, an image very evocative in Spanish culture.
Guernica elicited many interpretations, sometimes contradictory. Picasso, however, refused to speak about the meaning in the painting. As critics reflected on the bull and horse he responded: “This bull is a bull and this horse is a horse. If you give a meaning to certain things in my paintings it may be very true, but it is not my idea to give this meaning. What ideas and conclusions you have got I obtained too, but instinctively, unconsciously. I make the painting for the painting. I paint the objects for what they are.”
The painting has been a focus on critique from various political views. Some viewed it as “bourgeoisie” and showing a lack of empathy for the working class. In 1990 Germany used the painting in a military recruiting campaign with the slogan “Hostile images of the enemy are the fathers of war,” clearly missing the message in Picasso’s work. From 1985 to 2009 a tapestry reproduction of Guernica was displayed at the entrance of the United Nations Security Council chambers. When Colin Powell made his presentation to the Security Council prior to the invasion of Iraq a blue curtain was put over Guernica.
Lesser known is Picasso’s painting Massacre in Korea depicting the atrocities carried out against civilians in the town of Sinchon, particularly by American forces. Picasso was against the U.S. intervention in Korea during his time of having Communist sympathies. The painting harkens intentionally to Goya’s The Third of May that depicted Napoleon’s soldiers executing Spanish civilians. Picasso painted the victims and executioners naked. The men, however, have no penises; rather their weapons become phallic (and non-generative) in nature as part of Picasso’s critique of war.
Though the overwhelming number of Picasso’s works of art had no particular political message or themes of war and peace, Guernica will always be on the short list of anti-war art masterpieces.