Monday, July 31, 2006

Picasso and Powell

by F. T. Rea

In February of 1981 I saw Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica” with my then-11-year-old daughter. When the Museum of Modern Art’s elevator doors opened the sight of the 25-foot wide masterpiece was so stunning the doors began to close before the spell was broken.
A few months later, what remains history’s most celebrated piece of anti-war art was packed up and sent to Madrid, Spain, upon the 100-year anniversary of Picasso’s birth (1881-1973). There it remains. However, a large copy of “Guernica” hangs on the second floor of the United Nations building -- a tapestry donated to the U.N. by Nelson Rockefeller’s estate in 1985.

On the occasion of then Secretary of State Colin L. Powell’s February 5, 2003 presentation -- underlining his president’s impatience with U.N. members seeking to avoid, or delay, war in Iraq -- the tapestry was completely covered that day by a blue drape. Powell apparently realized that even a replica of that particular piece had to be avoided for a backdrop of any photographs of him on that fateful day.

Three-and-a-half years into the war-of-choice in Iraq, when I think of what has been uncovered by investigations into the run-up to the invasion, I still wonder how much of what Powell said he actually knew had been ginned up by propagandists to sell a dangerous policy based on bad ideas.


In some ways little has changed at the heart of arguments concerning war and occupation since France's army -- as driven by the empire-building vision of Napoleon Bonaparte -- was an occupying force in Spain.

Overwhelmed by the brutality of France's campaign of terror to crush the Spanish will to resist, Francisco Goya (1746-1828) -- a well-connected artist who had much to lose -- took it upon himself to remove the romantic veil of glory which had always been draped over portraits of war in European art.

Documenting what he saw of war, firsthand, the images Goya hurled at viewers of his paintings and prints radically departed from tradition. Instead of heroic glorification Goya offered horrific gore. The art world hasn’t been the same since.

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 “Guernica.”

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, cartoonish 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 wouldn’t be safe anywhere in Europe. He was probably right. Thus, the huge canvas was shipped to the USA and eventually wound up calling MOMA its home until 1981.


Colin Powell, a former four-star general, who, unlike some of Bush's hawkish neoconservative experts, knows war firsthand, from the inside out. It seems the Secretary knew something about art history, as well. Six weeks before the invasion of Iraq, he apparently retained a firm grasp on the potential of “Guernica” to cast a bitterly ironic light upon his history-making utterances. That, while he may have lost his grip on what had been his honor.

Instead of resigning because he disagreed with the Bush policy, Powell said, “We also have satellite photos that indicate that banned materials have recently been moved from a number of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction facilities...”

Powell apparently accomplished what he had been ordered to do. Now he lives with what it wrought.

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