Pop and Circumstance | The Nation


Pop and Circumstance

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No less than Picasso's dove, his mural became an emblem of the international peace movement. Effacing Guernica's antifascist past and perhaps inoculating it against charges of Communist propaganda, MoMA felt compelled to place a panel denying that the painting had any political significance beyond the artist's "abhorrence of war and brutality." Alain Resnais's 1950 collage-film Guernica populated the destroyed Basque city with Picassoid ghosts, accompanied by Spanish actress María Casares's reading of Eluard's poem and Guy Bernard's spare, solemn score. More than any contemporary painter, Resnais is Guernica's aesthetic heir. His short appreciation would provide the template for subsequent essays in highly formalist Protest Modernism: Night and Fog, Hiroshima Mon Amour and Muriel. (The frenzied pyre of war footage, staged and actual, that opens Jean-Luc Godard's new film Notre Musique might be seen as another example of guernicaisme.)

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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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Given the toll taken by four years of travel, Guernica, Picasso decided, would remain in New York until its final transport to Spain, following the death or (less likely) the fall of Francisco Franco. The painting scarcely had to tour, however, to be incorporated into the protest rhetoric of the Vietnam War. Numerous posters appropriated Guernica as an image, particularly after the late 1969 revelation of the My Lai massacre. MoMA's third floor was the unwilling host to occasional antiwar vigils. Several antiwar groups contacted Picasso and requested he withdraw his painting from MoMA. After consulting with his dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, however, Picasso decided that the once-again relevant painting should stay. "The truth of the matter is that by means of Guernica I have the pleasure of making a political statement every day in the middle of New York City," he told his friend, the poet Rafael Alberti.

As early as 1967 the activist painter Leon Golub warned a symposium on the art of social protest that Guernica risked overexposure. To judge from Hensbergen's book, it certainly seems difficult to say anything new about the painting as painting. In early 1974, less than a year after Picasso's death, the future art-dealer Tony Shafrazi attempted to redeem the cliché. Ostensibly protesting Nixon's pardon of My Lai massacre culprit William Calley and in imitation of the graffiti artists he would champion, Shafrazi defaced Guernica with--easily removable--red spray paint: KILL LIES ALL.

Nor was Shafrazi's the only desecration. Peter Saul's 1973 canvas Liddul Guernica represents Picasso's painting as a construction in udders and inflated latex, with handy labels affixed: "sensubble arrt," "bewtiffle arrt," "expweshun issum," "dah-dah izzum," "foney coobeezm." The shrieking central figure, leaning out a window, none other than "Paablow." Saul recognized that, whatever its original intention, Guernica was Pop. (In 1974 Art Spiegelman quoted Guernica in his most ambitious graphic story before Maus, "Ace Hole, Midget Detective." What's remarkable is how well Picasso's image anticipates the distortions of the cartoon universe.)

In Franco's Spain, however, one might be jailed merely for receiving a Guernica postcard through the mail. This did not prevent much discussion, recounted by Hensbergen, on the nature of the painting's eventual disposition. Should it reside in the Prado, per Picasso's wishes, or perhaps go to Madrid's newly planned Museo de Art Contemporáneo? Sensubble or bewtiffle? Even Franco was involved in the maneuvering to appropriately place this national treasure. The dictator died in 1975, and the war was over.

Six years later, Guernica arrived in Spain--a source of prestige and much ancillary merchandise. Hensbergen, who refurbishes Guernica's aura the way another might restore the canvas itself, notes without particular irony that even the wooden crate that had protected Guernica in its voyage across the Atlantic was preserved and put on display as a holy relic.

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