You may recall the to-do occasioned two winters past by a certain shift in the mise-en-scène at the United Nations. New blue drapes appeared to conceal the grisaille tapestry hung in the corridor outside the Security Council chamber in which then-Secretary of State Colin Powell had come to make the case for war against Iraq, and where the secretary was scheduled to hold a press conference. Some newspapers reported that Powell’s staff demanded that the offending artwork be concealed. The Internet was aflame; some weeks later The Weekly Standard attempted damage control by explaining that TV crews had only requested that a distractingly busy backdrop be simplified.
The latter was closer to the truth. Powell would have shared the screen with a horse’s rear. Still, Pablo Picasso’s Guernica was back in circulation–and not just as the tapestry that, unable to purchase the thing itself, Nelson Rockefeller commissioned and his widow donated to the UN. Guernica‘s shrieking horse, dead children and terrorized wraiths were held aloft on placards at antiwar demonstrations in the streets of New York and plastered across a Hollywood Boulevard billboard. Sophie Matisse, great-granddaughter of the French painter, exhibited her colorized appropriation of Picasso’s most famous painting–inspired, she explained, by the destruction of the twin towers. As war approached, The New Yorker and Harper’s had a public spat over which first had the idea to emblazon its cover with the image that Gijs van Hensbergen considers the modern equivalent of the Crucifixion.
Hensbergen’s “biography” is the eleventh book (in English) devoted to Picasso’s mural. As such, it’s more interested in the work’s career than its quality, less concerned with Guernica‘s iconography than with its iconic status. For, something heavier than a painting, Guernica symbolizes both the horror of war and the idea that a masterpiece might have a political significance; it promotes the hope that modern art could even be progressive. At the same time, however, Guernica represents something recently demonstrated in this year’s passionate torrent of anti-Bush agitprop, namely art’s ineffectuality in the production of concrete political results. Ubiquitous and universal, an antifascist altarpiece that even a fascist might covet, Guernica–as Andy Warhol once said of the Empire State Building–is a star.
Is Guernica defined by a specific historical moment or by the artist’s personal mythology? In January 1937 Picasso–already producing satiric anti-Franco graphics to benefit the beleaguered Spanish Republic–was commissioned to provide a mural for the Spanish pavilion at the upcoming Paris International Exposition. Whatever his original idea may have been, it was obliterated on the afternoon of April 26, when the German Luftwaffe reduced the Basque city of Gernika to rubble. This aerial attack, which lasted only three hours, was unprecedented in Europe. It was intended as a demonstration and, thanks largely to the dispatches filed by British war correspondent George Lowther Steer, became instantly synonymous with the mass destruction of innocent civilians–an exposition before the Exposition, a little twentieth-century horror presaging the inconceivable ones of Auschwitz and Hiroshima.