Sunday, October 03, 2004

Picasso and Powell

by F. T. Rea

With protests of America's policy in Iraq swelling in many precincts, fresh anti-war propaganda is sure to be moving into public view to compete for attention with the output of the Bush administration's propagandists, who've been spinning like whirligigs since the prisoner abuse scandal broke. Interestingly, one member of the Bush team, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell -- a former four-star general, who, unlike some of his neoconservative teammates, has seen war from the inside out -- not only knows his battlefield strategy, it seems the Secretary knows something about art history and the propaganda side of waging war, as well.

In some ways little has changed at the heart of arguments concerning so-called "preemptive" war in the last 200 years, when France's army -- as driven by the empire-building vision of Napoleon Bonaparte -- was an occupying force in Spain.

Accordingly, today’s anti-war propagandists, with their powerful tools at hand, owe a great debt to one particular artist -- Francisco Goya (1746-1828). Documenting what he saw firsthand, the ghastly images Goya hurled at viewers of his paintings and prints parted from tradition.

Overwhelmed by the brutality of France's campaign of terror to crush the Spanish will to resist, Goya -- a well-connected artist who had much to lose -- took it upon himself to remove the romantic veil of glory that had always been draped over portraits of war in European art. Instead of heroic glorification Goya offered horrific gore, as he spoke out on behalf of the nameless victims slaughtered systematically in the streets, so as to send a message that would have legs. Goya’s work along these lines became widely distributed, due to then-recent advances in printing, so for the first time the masses looked into the face of all-out war.

Following in Goya’s footsteps artists such as Honore Daumier (1808-1879), Georges Rouault (1871-1959), Frans Masereel (1889-1971), Otto Dix (1892-1969), among many others, created still more haunting images illustrating the grittier aspects of modern war. In the midst of the Spanish Civil War, with the storm clouds of World War II gathering, Spaniard Pablo Picasso created history’s most celebrated piece of anti-war art.

On April 27, 1937, to field test state-of the-art equipment, Adolf Hitler loaned a portion of Germany's air force, the Condor Legion, to a fellow fascist dictator -- Spain’s Francisco Franco. The mission: to bomb a small town a few miles inland from the Gulf of Biscay; a Basque village that had no strategic value whatsoever. The result: utter terror. Bombs rained on Guernica for over three hours; cold-blooded machine gunners mowed down the poor souls who fled into the surrounding fields.

Four days later with grim photographs of mutilated corpses on the front pages of French newspapers a million outraged Parisians took to their streets to protest the bombing of Guernica. That same day Picasso, who was in Paris, dropped everything else and began sketching studies for what became “Guernica.” As Spain’s government-in-exile had already commissioned him to create a mural for its pavilion in the upcoming Paris World’s Fair, the inspired artist already had the perfect place to exhibit his statement -- a shades-of-gray, stylized composition made up of a terrified huddle of people and animals.

When the fair closed “Guernica” needed a home. Not only was the Spain of Generalissimo Franco out of the question, Picasso decided it couldn’t stay anywhere in Europe. Thus, the huge canvas was shipped to the USA and wound up calling Manhattan’s Museum of Modern Art its home for over four decades.

In February of 1981 I saw “Guernica” with my then-11-year-old daughter. When the MOMA elevator opened the sight of the 25-foot wide masterpiece stunned this scribbler; the elevator doors began to close before the spell was broken. A few months later it was packed up and sent to Madrid, Spain, upon the 100-year anniversary of Picasso’s birth (1881-1973).

A large copy of “Guernica” now hangs on the second floor of the United Nations building. On the occasion of Secretary Powell’s February 5, 2003 presentation -- underlining his president's impatience with U.N. members seeking to avoid, or delay, war in Iraq -- the aforementioned copy was conveniently covered by a blue drape (not unlike the strategic drape Attorney General John Ashcroft had thrown over a statue to hide a marble breast that seemed to vex him).

Alas, it seems Powell did not have enough clout to slow down Bush's years-in-the-making plans for war in Iraq. So, instead of resigning Powell caved in and used up his reputation as an honorable man in order to present a bogus case for war.

Still, Powell realized that even a faithful replica of “Guernica” (a tapestry donated to the U.N. by Nelson Rockefeller’s estate in 1985) simply had to be avoided as a backdrop for any photographs of him on that fateful day of betrayal.

Yes, the savvy Powell was worldly enough to know better than to lie through his teeth -- “We also have satellite photos that indicate that banned materials have recently been moved from a number of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction facilities...” -- while posing before an image with such a rich history.

Six weeks before the invasion of Iraq Powell apparently retained a firm grasp on the propagandistic potential of art to cast a telling light upon his utterances, even as he lost his grip on what had been his honor.

No doubt, both Goya and Picasso would get a chuckle out of that blue-drape strategy.

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