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The Power of Art

June, 2003

SIXTY-SIX YEARS ago in April (1937), Guernica, the ancient capital of the Basques in northern Spain, experienced another one of history’s more despicable acts of terrorism. The fascists, who were on the march in Germany, decided to "test" their destructive abilities, aid the fascists in Spain, and knock out the Loyalists during the Spanish Civil War. With the consent of General Francisco Franco, the head of state, the Nazi pilots "terror-bombed" Guernica, killing thousands of innocent people, and thus demonstrated to the world "the art" of saturation bombing which they effectively used throughout World War II.

Despite his general disinterest in politics in the 1920s, Pablo Picasso was dumbfounded by this horror and reacted to it be executing a mural for the Pavilion of the Spanish Republic at the Paris International Exposition titled "Guernica." In the classic book History of Art (first printing 1962), by the great art historian H.W. Janson, he writes: "It does not represent the event itself; rather, with a series of powerful images, it evokes the agony of total war…the mural was thus a prophetic vision of doom—the doom that threatened us even more in this age of nuclear warfare…the symbolism of the scene of the mother and her dead child…the dead fighter’s hand clutching a broken sword…the screaming dying horse…the bodiless woman’s head and her hand holding the symbolic lamp" (possibly the Statue of Liberty). This mural, one of the most famous and one of the greatest antiwar works of art, was on indefinite loan by the artist to the Museum of Modern Art in New York City for decades; it has recently been returned to Spain, where it belongs.

Now Picasso’s "Guernica" is once again big news. Through the largesse of Nelson A. Rockefeller, a tapestry of the painting, which he owned, was given to the United Nations and hung at the entrance of the Security Council chamber. Given the fact that recently the UN inspectors of weapons of mass destruction, etc., with speeches given by those proposing war and those who oppose one, the powers that be decided that Picasso’s "Guernica" was too provocative an antiwar statement to be seen as the background to subsequent press conferences.

It happens that in the past, frequent press conferences have taken place before this mural. Lest either Hans Blix or Colin Powell, or the Premiere of France, or anyone else stand before the mural with a screaming mother’s head in the background, they decided to cover the tapestry with a "baby blue" curtain. "Too much of a mixed message, diplomats said," as reported by Maureen Dowd in her February 5th column in the New York Times.

So they covered it with a baby blue curtain. Would you believe the power of this work of art? In essence, they obliterated the "Guernica" because it made too many diplomats uncomfortable. The press secretary of the United Nations, Fred Eckhard, said: "this [blue curtain] is a [more] appropriate background for the cameras."

Although I can easily walk to the United Nations from my place in lower Manhattan, I haven’t yet done so. First of all I know unauthorized persons are no longer allowed close to the premises. Therefore, it is unlikely they would allow me to enter the place to check out the tapestry’s current state of exposure. Second, I think they have already had all the publicity they can handle vis-à-vis the "Guernica."

I sit here and revel in the thought that Pablo Picasso might have a thing or two to say about these folks covering up one of his greatest works of art. By 1937 he knew he could do or say anything he wanted to via his art. He went on working into his nineties, baffling, cajoling, insulting, entertaining, creating and destroying conventional ways of seeing by showing us another way. He definitely knew the power of his art. I miss him.

(Eleanor Jacobs co-founded the EARTH Shoe Company with her late husband, Raymond, in 1970. She is a free-lance writer who resides in Litchfield, CT and New York City.)

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