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     Volume 5 Issue 113 | September 22, 2006 |

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The Immortal Message of Guernica

Nader Rahman

"The air was alive with the cries of the wounded. I saw a man crawling down the street, dragging his broken legs.... Pieces of people and animals were lying everywhere.... In the wreckage there was a young woman. I could not take my eyes off her. Bones stuck through her dress. Her head twisted right around her neck. She lay, mouth open, her tongue hanging out. I vomited and lost consciousness” That was the description of the bombing of Guernica given by an eye witness. On the 26th of April 1937 a German Luftwaffe squadron known as the Condor Legion bombed the Basque town of Guernica for over 4 hours in what is now known as the first comprehensive aerial attack on civilian population. The bombing took during the Spanish civil war, after Francisco Franco personally asked Adolph Hitler to help terrorise and demoralise the civilian population of the Republic side. The Nazi's agreed and used the experience as preparation for their infamous bombing raids of WW2. 1650 innocent civilians died without reason.

News of the massacre spread like wildfire and the event inspired none other than Pablo Picasso to create a mural commemorating the event. A horse stabbed through the chest, a crying mother with her dead child in her hands, a mutilated soldier, people screaming and running with houses on fire in the background. It was the ultimate symbol of the sheer destructiveness of war; it stood 11 feet tall and 26 feet long, the size of the painting almost emphasizing the enormity of the losses in war.

I have personally never seen the painting, but mere pictures of the painting are inspiring enough to make me an ardent anti war supporter. Guernica manages to convey the utter hopelessness of war and with its colour scheme of black, white and grey it give the effect of a picture that one would expect to see in a newspaper. There are surrealist and cubist undertones which are plainly visible without overpowering the message of the painting. One may think it is at times overly abstract but in comparison to Picasso's other work, the overall image portrayed in Guernica is rather more straight forward.

Since it was first exhibited in 1937 the painting has been dogged by controversy. It was first shown at the Paris International Exhibition in the Spanish pavilion, the mural was also accompanied by a poem by Paul Eluard. It toured Europe extensively and after Franco's victory in Spain it was shipped to the Museum of Modern Art in New York to help raise funds for Spanish refugees. While Picasso may have been a confused communist he was completely against Franco and his regime, and strongly believed in the Basque cause.

Over the years the painting has been through its fare share of controversies. Firstly Franco wanted it back in Spain (one wonders why?) and to that request Picasso flatly refused stating that it would only return when Spain became a republic again. A couple of years later a young Iranian artist named Tony Shafrazi spray painted the words “KILL LIES ALL” as a protest against US actions in the Mai Lai massacre in Vietnam. In 1981 to mark one hundred years since the birth of Picasso the painting was finally shipped back to Spain, as he stated in his will it only returned when the republic was reinstated again.

The painting is both awe inspiring and heart breaking, the gruesome twisted image serves only as a reality check for those who glorify war. It is not the politicians who suffer the consequences of war, the real victims are the civilians. They are the people who give their lives and die as unknown martyrs, Picasso's empathy for them was probably his inspiration behind the painting. Because when one sees the mural the horrors of war seem all to real, sympathy could not have painted that, only empathy could have.

Since the first exhibition 79 years ago the painting has generated great interest around the world and it seems rather fitting that a tapestry copy of the painting should hang at the entrance of the Security Council room in the UN headquarters in New York. The tapestry was donated to the UN by Nelson Rockefeller in 1985, who hoped that they (the UN) would not forget the real purpose behind the organisation.

On the 5th of February 2003 Colin Powell delivered a speech at the UN urging them to join America in a war on Iraq. What was most interesting about that speech was that it was given in front of the UN flag that had been hung over the tapestry of Guernica. It caused a stir around the world as Powell delivered a speech proposing and urging for war against Iraq in front of the greatest piece of anti war art ever. As Maureen Dowd, writing for the New York Times, wrote, "Mr. Powell can't very well seduce the world into bombing Iraq surrounded on camera by shrieking and mutilated women, men, children, bulls and horses." Life is ever so ironic.

On the following day, it was claimed that the curtain was placed there at the request of television news crews, who had complained that the wild lines and screaming figures made for a bad backdrop, and that a horse's hindquarters appeared just above the faces of any speakers (I thought that a horses rear just above the faces of those speakers would be the perfect background, I guess I was mistaken). Diplomats went on to tell journalists that the Bush Administration pressured UN officials to cover the tapestry, rather than have it in the background while Powell or other U.S. diplomats argued for war on Iraq. What is equally ironic is that the very first international report on the attacks at Guernica by George Steer that appeared in The Times in 1937 coined the phrase “weapons of mass destruction”, one of the foundations behind the United States push for war in Iraq.

The cover up of Guernica at the United Nations was one of the most shameful events of modern times, yet at the same time it only proved the immense power of art. Colin Powell may have spoken infront of a baby blue UN flag, but behind it, the atrocities of the war he sought to engage could already be seen.

One wonders if those who ignore the horrors of history or cover them up are doomed to repeat them. Three and a half years later and one guesses the answer is yes.




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