The painting that saved art

PUBLISHED: 13:00 15 September 2017

attending the opening of “PIEDAD Y TERROR EN PICASSO: EL CAMINO A GUERNICA” exhibition at Que Sofia Museum in Madrid, Spain Aoril 4, 2017. ( DANA-No: 01605279 )

attending the opening of “PIEDAD Y TERROR EN PICASSO: EL CAMINO A GUERNICA” exhibition at Que Sofia Museum in Madrid, Spain Aoril 4, 2017. ( DANA-No: 01605279 )

Dana Press Photos/PA Images

At 11am on the morning of April 26, 1937, a reconnaissance plane circled over Guernica in the Basque region of Spain. The town’s people were nervous. Guernica’s strategic importance was obvious, if the city fell to Franco’s forces then the Basque coastal region would be next and the Nationalists would soon have north Spain under their control. Its inhabitants were also nervous because Mussolini’s air force, in support of the fascists, had already used aerial bombardment on towns in their campaign elsewhere in northern Spain. But it was market day and the town was busy, and despite the nervousness it was business as usual – even after a second spotter aircraft was seen flying overhead in the early afternoon.

The first wave of German and Italian bombers arrived just after 3pm and began the process of saturation bombing. This wasn’t like the small localised attacks the Italians had carried out elsewhere. Wave after wave of planes from the German Condor Legion, supported by those from the Italian Aviazione Legionaria, dropped their 250 kilogram splinter bombs and incendiary bombs on the defenceless city. Fighter aircraft strafed the fleeing civilians. This was an exercise in terror. The intention was to destroy Guernica.

The Germans had been planning this for a while. The Condor Legion had been perfecting techniques of rapid refuelling and rearming to allow their aircraft to maintain sustained pressure on targets. This would be part of the Blitzkrieg tactics that the Nazis would use to similarly devastating effect in the early stages of the Second World War. Intended to demoralise and disrupt as well as to destroy the enemy, planes were to be used in coordination with tank and infantry units. But at Guernica the Luftwaffe were just practicing being destructive. This horrific attack on a defenceless city was a rehearsal. It was a training exercise.

This was one of the first ever saturation bombings of civilians in a European city but it was not the first time civilians had been targeted with bombing raids from the air. The Germans had done it, with mixed results, from airships and planes over British cities during the First World War. The British themselves had a record of bombing civilians going back to 1920, with raids in Mesopotamia. Also in the 1920s, the French used their airforce to crush anti-colonial revolts in Syria and Morocco. In 1932, the Japanese bombed Shanghai and in 1936 the Italians (who probably carried out the first aerial bombing of civilians, in Tripoli in 1911) exacerbated the horror by using gas and chemical weapons in their bombing raids on the Ethiopians.

But in the Spanish Civil War this technique of saturation aerial bombardment came back home to Europe and was added to the long list of violent and terrifying methods Europeans used when killing each other. News of the attack on Guernica shocked the world but, of course, that didn’t see the practice ending. Over the next eight years the aerial bombing of civilians in Europe would happen again and again. It would leave many of the continent’s cities as a wasteland. It would also, along with the Holocaust, make a wasteland of the very idea of European civilisation.

Meanwhile in New York the American artist Jackson Pollock was struggling to get over what was a lost winter, The winter of 1936/37 was, for Pollock, wasted with drunken nights spent in the bars along New York’s Thirteenth Street, Fourteenth Street and Sixth Avenue. During these evenings, Pollock was often little more than an animal. In dance halls he would sniff at women and rub himself against them. These nights would usually end in violence and unconsciousness. Pollock was, in that winter, a lost, hateful and hated man.

At the time Pollock was painting for the FAP (Federal Art Project) – a scheme which, as part of Roosevelt’s New Deal, paid artists to paint. It was a lifeline for artists, especially in New York, and whilst it was bureaucratic and at times a little absurd – at one point artists were pretty much expected to ‘clock on’ in return for their subsidy – it did create a sense of community amongst artists. In New York this community grew in the cafes and bars of Greenwich Village, and it was boozy and macho. Pollock was a natural fit.

What wasn’t such a natural fit for Pollock was the sort of work associated with New Deal-era projects like the FAP. This work tended to be social realist in tone, paintings of working men and women, factories, steelyards and so on. Or it was rooted in a more romantic tradition of epic America, the Great Plains or cowboys and the like. It was worthy, politically engaged and very parochial.

Pollock, who was from Wyoming, liked to pretend he was a cowboy, but he wasn’t, and whatever it was that was haunting him, that had him drinking and fighting his way through New York, was never going to be exorcised by pictures of the American West or dams and railroads. He was too selfish to produce social or socialist art that was any good. He was also not very good at drawing. He struggled with human figures – a bit of drawback for a social realist art.

But if the social realist work of the FAP didn’t offer Pollock a way forward in his art then the Mexican Muralists did. Mexican Muralism was every bit as socially engaged as US New Deal-era art. It was revolutionary and socialist but it also took some of its language from indigenous Mexican cultures. It was this last aspect that perhaps gave Pollock an artistic language with which he could work. Occasionally there was, in Mexican Muralist art, a network of symbols and signs drawn from the culture of the Maya or the Aztec that made sense, not in any obvious realist way, but at the level of the subconscious. Pollock saw in it something that was instinctive and introspective. The symbols and signs made sense to him.

But what Pollock saw in Mexican Muralism wasn’t enough because whilst he had found a language in art that was introspective and that was on the internal side of sight, it still wasn’t his language. He needed something bigger and something that went deeper. Pollock needed something that gave objective form to subjective impulses, desires and conflicts and maybe even to what it was that was haunting him.

In the end he was to find that language but he wasn’t to find it in anything American or Mexican – he found it in European art. He was to find it in the art of the man who had gone further, or deeper, in giving form and shape to that internal side of sight. Pollock found what he was looking for in the work of Picasso and he specifically found it in Picasso’s painting Guernica when it was displayed in New York in 1939.

Picasso had already decided in 1936 that he would produce a work of art in support of the Republican cause in the Spanish Civil War for their pavilion at the International Exposition of Art and Technology in Modern Life that was to take place in Paris in 1937. The moment he received news of the destruction of Guernica he immediately put all other ideas to one side and made it the subject for his painting.

Over a five-week period Picasso, with ferocious creative energy, worked though a series of ideas, structuring and restructuring his picture and the images he used until he got to the final painting. Intriguingly, each step of the way was documented, his sketches and photos of the creative process still exist. It is a painting with one of the most documented creative processes ever.

These sketches and photos – as well as the images in The Dream and Lie of Franco which Picasso produced at about the same time – give us an almost unique insight into artist’s creative process. Picasso never explained his work. His visual language remained exclusively that – it was always visual. Picasso’s genius was to find a personal, subjective language of images, lines, forms and colour that transcended words. He rarely explained and rarely showed his thinking. But with Guernica we do get precious insights.

We can see how Picasso built up a series of images – the minotaur, the horse, images from the Crucifixion, from Goya, from his lovers – which he arranged and rearranged, edited and transformed until we end up with that final picture. And that picture is of shattered images, twisted icons and broken physical forms. These give expression to Picasso’s own desires, fears and instincts every bit as much as they describe the destruction of the city.

And it’s this quality, the way in which Picasso’s own desires, fears and instincts shape the picture, that is most significant. Despite us seeing the creative process behind the painting Picasso still doesn’t explain them. Some are fairly obvious; the grieving mother with the dead child, the soldier with the broken sword; but others – the lights, the horse, the minotaur – all demand an explanation. Yet it is an explanation we never get, and which we can only guess at. What we are confronted with is a painting which Picasso has packed with images from his own personal language of images. In doing so he produced art which was an assertion of his individuality in the face of totalitarian thuggery and the violent expression of the opinions of others.

This is the triumph of the painting Guernica, because as well being an expression of outrage at the bombing it is also the expression of the individual and the subjective. It is an expression of the unquantifiable and unknowable inner life painted at the very moment in European history when powerful forces were setting about annihilating the unquantifiable and unknowable. As such, Guernica was a triumph and a masterpiece.

However Guernica was pretty much the last of such paintings. What followed after the bombing of Guernica – the firestorms of Hamburg and Dresden, the destruction of Coventry, Rotterdam, Hiroshima – pretty much negated art. Picasso’s strident, redemptive, mysterious, inventive individuality becomes worthless when held up against such horror.

You can see how useless Picasso’s shattered images are in the painting Guernica when you compare them to the eyewitness and journalistic descriptions of what bombing raids did during the war: the firestorm of Hamburg which dragged fleeing women and children into it; the burnt remains of people who tried to find cover in the ponds and fountains of Dresden; the people who, in their last moments, found themselves sinking into melting streets before being incinerated; the German woman refugee seen carrying the half-charred remains of her child in a suitcase; and so on and so on.

The German writer WG Sebald writes of this inability of art or literature to respond to the destruction in his book On the Natural History of Destruction. He writes of the clichés that Germans would use in their response to the bombing of their cities and towns by the RAF, clichés such as “that fateful night”, and “staring into the inferno”, as if closer thought and more precise description are impossible. And those clichés were just the precursors to silence. Sebald argues there was only one writer who directly confronted the horror of the destruction of the German cities unequivocally and that was Heinrich Böll in his novel Der Engel schwieg (The Angel Was Silent) and that novel was considered unpublishable until 1992. The destruction of European cities, especially in Germany, did not trigger a wave of creativity and of artistic responses. There was no Picasso for Hamburg or Coventry. There are exceptions of a kind, important exceptions, but mostly there was silence. It felt as if a long artistic tradition, an artistic tradition of individual expression that was linked to the very idea of civilisation, had come to a halt.

But in early 1939 this destruction of civilians by modern air warfare, as far as Europe was concerned, was still a one off and Picasso’s painting, this assertion of the individual against the horror, could still be used as argument for civilisation. It was a very particular left-wing and republican view of civilisation but in the days before the start of the Second World War it was felt that the painting still had a job to do. The masterpiece was toured and was done so as to raise money, to act as propaganda for the Left and to argue against fascism.

The touring of Guernica was not a success. It drew criticism at the International Exposition in Paris. Communists felt that its modernism was too arcane to make propaganda points about fascism. They preferred Madrid 1937 (Black Aeroplanes) by Horacio Ferrer de Morgado – a rather leaden portrayal of suffering. Others argued that its modernism, with its deeply personal motifs, was too arcane to make any sort of sense at all.

After exhibitions in other European cities, the picture then toured the UK to raise money and support for the Republican cause. The problem with this tour was that the Republicans had lost the Civil War by this point and whilst there is a long and absurd tradition throughout the European Left of acting as though heroic defeats are moral victories, the stench of defeat was just too pervasive. As the painting and the preparatory sketches travelled the UK attendance figures for the exhibitions were low and many reviews were hostile, or, even worse, lukewarm.

And then Guernica crossed the Atlantic. On the August 10, 1939, the painting was exhibited at the Stendahl Art Galleries on Wiltshire Boulevard, in Los Angeles. This exhibition attracted some of Hollywood’s biggest stars and talents to its opening night – Bette Davis was there, as was Edward G Robinson, Fritz Lang, Ernst Lubitsch and George Cukor. Support also came from the literary world, from Dashiell Hammett, Nathanael West and Dorothy Parker.

But this exhibition was also not a success. Only 735 people came and sections of the West Coast press were hostile. The Herald Express called it “Cuckoo Art” and the Los Angeles Examiner called it “revolting” and “bunk”. A few weeks later, Guernica was exhibited in San Francisco where a right- wing group called Sanity in Art criticised the work as part of their campaign against the influence of left-wing and foreign modernism in American art. Then the painting moved to Chicago where it was dismissed by the Chicago Herald-Examiner as “Bolshevist Art Controlled by The Hand Of Moscow”. This painting, which had been slagged off in Europe for not being communist enough, was now getting a kicking from half witted American critics for being too communist.

Finally, the painting arrived at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (MOMA). The museum owned Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon – the painting that was the ‘Big Bang’ moment in Modernist art – and the curator Alfred H. Barr had been pushing to organise a retrospective of Picasso’s work at MOMA for a while, although it had never quite come together. But now with Les Demoiselles d’Avignon and Guernica and Guernica’s preparatory sketches there was the opportunity for New York to host the biggest Picasso retrospective.

And New York ‘got’ Guernica. All the provincial critics and political hacks and idiot Californian columnists and dumb Mid-Western anti-communists had got it wrong. The painting was a masterpiece and was absolutely of the moment. It was a key work by the world’s greatest artist. New York went Picasso crazy – 5th Avenue stores had Picasso-esque displays in their windows and thousands visited MOMA.

But more important than New York’s love-fest with Picasso was the reaction of the city’s artists. Modernism had never really taken hold in New York. The celebrated Armoury Show in 1913 had introduced New York to Cubism, Fauvism and Futurism but its effect had fizzled out. By the 1930s the Government-sponsored social realist art had asserted itself. There just wasn’t any great radical modernist tradition in pre-Second World War New York art.

That would changed at that very moment when Jackson Pollock was confronted by Guernica in New York in 1939. Pollock found in Guernica the key to developing his artistic language. Picasso had given form to things that Pollock had been struggling towards; to the expression of subconscious impulses, to the influences of primitive art and symbols and to the transcendence of facility and representation by an authenticity that came from within.

Of course, ‘Big Bang’ moments in art are nice ideas but things are always a bit more complicated. Jackson Pollock was already very aware of Picasso before Guernica arrived in New York. Picasso’s importance was such that he – and Paris – were pretty much the embodiment of the idea of avant-garde and of modernism in art. For some people Picasso was art. As Pollock himself put it: “Picasso you bastard, you’ve done it all.”

But Picasso hadn’t done it all. Because what happened next was that Pollock would transcend Picasso. As Pollock’s contemporary Willem De Kooning put it: “Every so often, a painter has to destroy painting. Cezanne did it, Picasso did it with Cubism. Then Pollock did it. He busted our idea of a picture all to hell.” And it was that act of busting it all to hell that shifted the centre of all that was innovative and inventive in art from Paris to New York.

The idea, so central to Western art, of the heightened individual expression of something – feeling, truth, vision, the soul, if you want – an idea which looked like it had no places to go after the firestorms of Hamburg and Dresden and Hiroshima and the Holocaust, had found a new home in New York. In 1949, Life magazine ran an article asking whether Pollock was America’s greatest artist. The article was semi sarcastic – Pollock, who by then had found that drip painting style for which he is most famous, drew as much mockery as he did praise. But that article marked the moment when New York was were art was at.

Those artists that had been grouping around the Greenwich Village cafes and bars since the days of the FPA now saw a way forward.

Pollock was first but the Abstract Expressionism of Rothko and De Kooning soon followed. Suddenly Picasso and Europe seem old.

And this is Guernica’s ultimate triumph. Stalinism, fascism and war always moved to destroy all that is unknowable and unquantifiable about us. They aimed to remove, by violence, all our inward contradictions – all those messy, glorious, ridiculous and brilliant details that make us what we are. But with Picasso and Guernica and then with Jackson Pollock and the Abstract Expressionists, that inner life, that assertion of the individual was made anew. Guernica and its New York legacy in the Abstract Expressionists is ultimately the triumph of the imagination and of the individual in the face of destruction and slaughter and hatred.

Ian Walker is a journalist and former museum curator living in Munich.

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