Wednesday, October 01, 2003

Artful Propaganda

by F. T. Rea

With protests of the war/occupation in Iraq swelling again, it’s certain that more anti-war art will be moving into the public’s view to function as propaganda. That propaganda created by individuals opposed to the war will then do battle with the corporate and government propaganda supporting the war. Today’s outraged artists seeking to tilt public support away from the war owe a good part of their artistic license to weigh in to one man – Francisco Goya (1746-1828).

The shocking images that Goya hurled at viewers of his paintings and etchings, in the early nineteenth century, broke with tradition. Goya, a well-connected artist, took it upon himself to strip away the romantic portrayal of war routinely presented in European art before Napoleon’s troops began to occupy Spain. Instead of glorious combat between hero and villain, Goya offered horrific brutality and pathetic victims – forgotten people whose deaths went for naught.

Because Goya’s work was widely distributed, due to what were recent advances in printing, for the first time many people saw graphic depictions of all-out war. 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 less-than-glorious aspects of war, inspired by the bloodiest conflicts of their times.

Later, in the midst of the Spanish Civil War, with the storm clouds of World War II gathering, Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) painted history’s most celebrated piece of anti-war art – “Guernica.” In this time, long before embedded war correspondents, Picasso’s “Guernica” spectacularly documented one afternoon’s mayhem.

On April 27, 1937, to field-test state-of the-art equipment, Germany’s Adolf Hitler loaned a portion of his 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, as machine gunners systematically mowed down the poor souls that fled into the surrounding fields. Most estimates say that roughly a third of the population of Guernica – over 1,600 people – was killed or seriously injured.

Four days later Picasso saw a million people in the streets of Paris protesting the bombing of Guernica. Grim pictures of corpses appeared in French newspapers. That day Picasso dropped what he had been working on 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 product of the artist’s labor – with its stark shades-of-gray composition of terrified people and animals – was displayed in a way that it caused quite a stir.

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 painting was shipped to the USA and called Manhattan’s Museum of Modern Art its home for over 40 years.

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 was literally stunning; the 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 the artist’s birth.

A large copy of “Guernica” hangs on the second floor of the United Nations building. On the occasion of Secretary of State Colin Powell’s February 5 presentation, underlining the Bush administration’s impatience with U.N. members seeking to avoid, or delay, war in Iraq, said copy was covered by a blue drape. Apparently, someone thought that even a replica of “Guernica” (donated to the U.N. by Nelson Rockefeller’s estate in 1985) had to be avoided as a backdrop behind any photographs of Powell.

Secretary Powell, who crossed his fingers and told his U.N. audience, “We also have satellite photos that indicate that banned materials have recently been moved from a number of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction facilities,” surely knows the history of “Guernica” and exactly what inspired it.

Perhaps Powell was actually ashamed of himself and needed no reminders, perhaps not.

Ten days later ordinary citizens in Europe took to their streets to protest the war in Iraq that was brewing. In London and Madrid the crowds were said to have been over a million strong. It’s worth noting that volunteers in Madrid used a paint-by-numbers system to configure a huge replica of the image that vexed Powell – “Guernica.”

Although Bush's spinners told us that when American troops crossed the border Iraqis would pour into streets to welcome their Yankee liberators, now we know that didn’t happen. While the White House propaganda team said it had a plan for what to do in Iraq once Saddam Hussein was toppled, that has turned out to be as bogus as Powell’s so-called “intelligence” about WMDs.

Now the protests against Bush's policy in Iraq are building again in European cities. In the long run, with all the power the bumbling American pro-war neocons still possess, make no mistake – they fear new art with the mojo of “Guernica” more than they do any of the weapons of mass destruction that mustachioed Saddam didn’t have.

Surely Goya would be pleased to know that artists are still breaking with the establishment to protest war. Daumier, an incurable French wiseacre who went to jail for six months for drawing a political cartoon that mocked his ruler, Louis-Philippe, would no doubt relish humorous art mocking failed rulers George W. Bush and Tony Blair.

So, art-wise, as Bush himself once said, "bring it on."

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