Guernica's Continuing Influence / Liz Goldner
When I was a teenager living in the New York suburbs my art-loving mother often took me to the Museum of Modern Art. That is where I saw Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica.” At 11-feet high by 25-feet long, the painting represents the fascist bombing and obliteration of an ancient Basque town during the 1937 Spanish Civil War, through the depiction of injured bodies, horrified faces, bulls, horses and birds. This world-renowned painting soon came to affect my perspective about art and politics, leading me to a lifetime of seeking out politically oriented and surrealistic work in museums and galleries.
Pablo Picasso, “Guernica,” 1937, oil on canvas, 137 1/2 x 305 1/2”. Courtesy of the Museo Reina Sofia, Madrid, Spain.
David Brooks wrote in the New York Times (January 25, 2024): “When you go to the Museo Reina Sofía in Madrid, you don’t just see Picasso’s ‘Guernica,’ forever after you see war through that painting’s lenses. You see, or rather feel, the wailing mother, the screaming horse, the chaotic jumble of death and agony, and it becomes less possible to romanticize warfare. We don’t just see paintings; we see according to them.”
One exhibition I saw 30 years ago in Bern, Switzerland, contained dozens of caricatures from the 14th century of people who lived and died during an outbreak of the Bubonic Plague. Indifferent to class, the images conveyed how along with paupers, court jesters and courtesans, many esteemed knights, royalty and church leaders were also felled by the disease.
Illustration from history book written in the 1340s by the French chronicler and poet Gilles li Muisis. Residents of a town stricken by the plague burn Jews, who were blamed for causing the disease. Courtesy of the Royal Library of Belgium, Brussels.
In 2019, I attended the surrealist exhibition, “Monsters and Myths,” at the Baltimore Museum of Art, with work by Salvador Dali, Max Ernst, Andre Masson, Picasso and others. All of the works were created in Europe before and during World War II, the idea being that monstrosities in the real world breed monsters in art, often producing exceptional work. Understanding that the pieces were created during decades of worldwide distress, I was grateful to be living in the relative calm of Southern California.
But that situation was about to change. With the advent of COVID-19 at the end of 2019, I began reflecting on the many politically oriented and surrealistic exhibitions I have seen over the years. Reflecting on the show about the Bubonic Plague, I realized that just as people from all classes had been afflicted by that 14th-century scourge, people affected by COVID-19 included royals, politicians, movie stars, musicians, TV anchors, athletes, doctors, nurses, factory and food-service workers and prisoners. The rest of us stuck at home missed being with others.
André Masson, “There is No Finished World,” 1942, oil on canvas, 53 x 68”. Courtesy of the Baltimore Museum of Art, Baltimore.
Many scenes of that time, such as stores all lit up yet free of customers or a mostly empty Times Square, reminded me of the eeriness of mid-20th-century surrealism in its frequent depiction of a discomfiting world. But within a year, our world became even crazier with the January 6, 2021 insurrection and the subsequent proliferation of violence and threats of violence against private citizens and politicians — an insanity that has continued.
Unable to tear myself away from the news, I’ve been thinking about the significance of “Guernica” and mid-20th century surrealism in today’s world. I seek out work that reflects Picasso’s famous mural. As 2023 was coming to a close, I read Hyperallergic’s “Top 50 Exhibitions of 2023.” Many of the cited exhibitions featured work with surrealistic and political themes by artists mining their personal pain creatively, with much of the work reflective of the world we inhabit today.
Philip Guston, “Wharf,” 1976, oil on canvas, 81 1/4 x 117 1/4 x 2”. © The Estate of Philip Guston, courtesy of the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth.
One reviewed show was the controversial, almost cancelled, retrospective “Philip Guston Now” at the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC. It contained more than 150 politically charged paintings and drawings of Guston’s work in styles including abstract expressionism, social realism and surrealism. References in the work addressed numerous worldwide travails: the Ku Klux Klan, the Holocaust, the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War. The catalog, “A Critical Study of Philip Guston” by Dore Ashton (1990), describes his affinity with Picasso: “Although Guston felt that a comparison with Picasso was embarrassing, the profusion of images he produced late in his life can be compared to Picasso's last, immense cycle of drawings in which all the motifs of his lifetime parade in a grand finale and add up to one large allegory.” One of his later pieces, “Wharf” (1976) is itself an allegory and summation. It depicts a partially hidden Guston, his wife next to him peering into the distance, alongside an array of personal symbols, including the sole of a shoe and a hand with a brush, a foreboding black body of water in the foreground, and a mist-shrouded landscape and pale blue sky in the background.
Remedios Varo, “Creación de las aves” (Creation of the birds), c. 1957, oil on Masonite. Photo: Rodrigo Chapa, © 2023 Remedios Varo, ARS, NY/VEGAP, Madrid.
Another retrospective, “Remedios Varo: Science Fictions” at the Art Institute of Chicago, presented more than 60 mid-20th century paintings and drawings by the late Spanish-born, Mexico City-based artist. Her work blended surrealism with Mexican and indigenous imagery and with new age interests, including Theosophy, mysticism, and psychology. Her “Creación de las aves” (Creation of the birds) (1957) is a dreamlike painting of a woman inhabiting a bird body. The fantasy conveyed in this piece resonates with those of us who are dismayed at the political and social rise of fascism. Yet one critic remarked, “I found solace and hope in how Varo routinely expanded the immediate, visible world into complex force fields that exceed human tampering.”
Also addressing indigenous cultures, New York’s National Museum of the American Indian hosted “Shelley Niro: 500 Year Itch.” The retrospective, cited as part of “Six Nations Reserve, Bay of Quinte Mohawk, Turtle Clan,” featured oil paintings, photographs, sculpture and beadwork that blend indigenous iconography with popular culture. The artist’s surreal “Ancestors” from "M. Stories of Women" (2011) illustrates a beautiful woman in profile with her head floating in the cosmos. It was one of many pieces representing the trauma that Native Americans recall or were told about by their elders; artworks created to promote indigenous people’s personal and communal healing.
Shelley Niro “Ancestors” from “M: Stories of Women” series, 2011, archival pigment print, 14 x 9 1/4”.
Indeed, those artists were all calling to our troubled society, creating art through the prism of their personal distress and larger world awareness. One prominent leader who refused to make that call was former Secretary of State Colin Powell. In February 2003, citing source material subsequently shown to be untrue, he promoted the upcoming War in Iraq at the United Nations. Before he spoke, he had U.N. officials hang a blue curtain over a “Guernica” tapestry installed behind him. As Hamid Dabashi wrote in Aljazeera, “It would have been a mockery of historical memory to make a case for war with the most iconic antiwar artwork staring you down.” That speech, and the concealing of “Guernica,” are acts that Powell, who died in 2021, is remembered for.