Pop and Circumstance | The Nation


Pop and Circumstance

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Thanks in part to its near-monochromatic palette, Guernica had the authority of a photograph. The initial reception to the mural was, according to Hensbergen, "strangely muted." Spanish officials were disappointed that Guernica wasn't more partisan, and the Basques, in particular, were displeased by the artist's subjectivity. Years later Rudolf Arnheim would observe, Guernica was not based on a "dualistic antagonism." The aggressors were invisible. Not a political statement but an illustration of existential terror, the mural "depicts the effects of a brutality that strikes from nowhere." But weren't these tortured, distorted bodies the result of applied fascism?

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J. Hoberman
J. Hoberman, the former longtime Village Voice film critic, now reviews online for Tablet, NYRBlog and Artinfo. His...

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Then Guernica went on tour. The mural was exhibited throughout Scandinavia, arriving in London on September 30, 1938, the very day of the Munich Pact between Hitler and British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. Guernica served as a fundraiser in England and the United States before making its formal debut as the centerpiece of the Museum of Modern Art's Picasso retrospective, which opened six weeks after the Nazi invasion of Poland. In that context, the mural was not just an antifascist statement but a prime chunk of European Modernism that had found refuge in America. The curator James Thrall Soby declared Guernica "the most forceful achievement of our century." Here, pace Adorno, was poetry after Auschwitz before Auschwitz.

Meanwhile, New York was gripped with Picasso-mania. Some 60,000 visitors jammed MoMA; the window displays at nearby Bonwit Teller and Bergdorf Goodman were inspired by Picasso. Hensbergen is even more emphatic in detailing the impact that Guernica had on local painters. Arshile Gorky, the town's leading picasseño, was devastated; Guernica summoned up the Armenian genocide, which he had witnessed as a child. For seekers of the timeless and tragic like Adolph Gottlieb, Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman, Guernica was, Hensbergen says, "a totem to the idea of the sublime."

De Kooning, whose native Rotterdam would soon be destroyed by the Luftwaffe, was stunned by the implications of Picasso's fractured space and bravura "wrap-around picture"--and what is Robert Motherwell's ongoing series Elegies for the Spanish Republic if not a two-decade-long response to Guernica. It "floored me," Lee Krasner recalled. Even more than Gorky, Jackson Pollock took on Guernica, analyzed it and moved beyond it. (It was Pollock's One that replaced Guernica in MoMA's permanent exhibition.)

While New York painters pondered Guernica's scale and grappled with its pictorial implications, Picasso himself became increasingly political. The artist joined the Communist Party in 1944; as the war ended, he executed a second "Guernica," the large grisaille Charnel House; in January 1951 he would produce a third one, Massacre in Korea. Unlike Guernica, Massacre in Korea presents robot death soldiers as well as their naked victims. (Hensbergen calls it "the one canvas that you wish Picasso had never painted.") More popular was the dove that the artist featured on a poster designed for the Communist-organized Paris Peace Congress in April 1949.

What sort of political figure did Picasso cut? An August 1937 editorial in the New Masses had called attention to the artist's bold antifascism; the Communist journal would soon hail him as "the greatest painter of modern times." But a long interview in the New Masses' March 1945 issue, dealing in part with Picasso's political commitment, prompted illustrator and Stalin sympathizer Rockwell Kent to dismiss Picasso's recent work as "just plain silly" and "without a single redeeming feature." Nor was Kent the only true believer to attack the world's leading celebrity Communist. In a bellicose 1947 defense of the new Soviet art, Pravda singled out Matisse and Picasso as decadent formalists. The same year, the critic Vladimir Kemenov went further, attacking even the culminating expression of universal antifascism: "The images of Guernica are as monstrous and pathological as in Picasso's other paintings.... The aim of Picasso's morbid, repulsive works is not to criticize the contradictions of reality, but to make an aesthetic apology for capitalism."

Capitalist diva or ambassador of peace, Guernica went back on the road after the Korean War. The painting was the centerpiece of Italy's first Picasso retrospective; it traveled on to Brazil and toured Europe throughout 1955 and early 1956. Guernica was exhibited in Munich, Cologne, Hamburg, Brussels, Amsterdam and Stockholm, returning in triumph for Picasso's 75th birthday to New York, where it was installed in the third-floor gallery at MoMA. Even the Soviets began to relax. By 1971 Leonid Brezhnev was free to pose before a Picasso canvas.

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