February 7, 2003
Guernica, 1937, Hidden from View So as Not to Offend the Perpetrators of Guernica, 2003
A BUZZFLASH NEWS ANALYSIS
When Secretary of State Colin Powell appeared at the United Nations Wednesday, February 5, to argue that Iraq had not complied with UN demands to disarm and poses an imminent threat, UN officials closed the curtain –- literally -– on Pablo Picasso's Guernica, the most widely known artistic interpretation of war.
The tapestry reproduction, which hangs outside the entrance to the UN Security Council, was initially covered on Jan. 27. A UN spokesman said a blue curtain provided a better background for cameras covering news conferences and speeches. Press accounts, however, indicate that some UN diplomats believe the United States exerted pressure on the UN to hide the tapestry while Powell and others made the case for war on Iraq.
The cover-up was a solemn reminder of the intensity of Picasso's images, and the power of art to give voice to war's horrors. Though the artwork may have been unsettling for those urging military action, the public response proved that war's brutal reality could never be concealed, especially as war is being heralded as a necessity.
Indeed, the nature of the act itself prompted protesters outside the UN on Wednesday to hold copies of pictures of Guernica, and the story of the cover-up sparked an outcry from all parts of the world.
Toronto Star art critic Peter Goddard wrote: "If there is a war with Iraq, there's already been the first casualty — art."
Guernica represents the devastation of the town of Guernica, Spain, which was bombed by Nazi planes April 27, 1937, during the Spanish Civil War. Fires in the town raged for several days, and 1,600 people either died or were injured.
The estate of Nelson A. Rockefeller donated the tapestry reproduction to the UN in 1985. (The original mural is on display in Spain's national museum of modern art, Reina Sofía.)
It has often been featured in the background of photos and TV images showing diplomats speaking to reporters. But not as of late.
"Because there was so much press, we had to move the cameras to accommodate them," UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric told the Toronto Star. "We needed the right background that would work on television and would say 'U.N.' If we'd left the tapestry, you would have only seen one-tenth of it."
The irony was, quite simply, overwhelming.
"How disconcerting, how off-message, it would be after all, if Secretary of State Colin Powell or UN ambassador John Negroponte had to beat the war drums in front of Picasso's wrenching images of women and children writhing in cubistic dismemberment under a bombing campaign," Alisa Solomon wrote in the Village Voice.
"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," wrote the ever-candid Maureen Dowd, adding, "The UN began covering the tapestry last week after getting nervous that Hans Blix's head would end up on TV next to a screaming horse head."
"So Guernica has joined the statue of Justice in Attorney General John Ashcroft's lobby, covered in blue drapes to hide her nakedness. Together they make a potent metaphor," Ian Williams wrote in the Malaysia's MalaysiaKini.
Laurie Brereton, a member of Australia's Labor Party who opposes the use of Australia's military troops in Iraq, spoke passionately about Guernica before Parliament on Tuesday: "Whatever the reasons (for the covering), there is a profound symbolism in pulling a shroud over this great work of art. For throughout the debate on Iraq, whether at the UN, in the U.S., or here in Australia, there has been a remarkable degree of obfuscation, evasion and denial, and never more so than when it comes to the grim realities of military action." (His remarks were reprinted in the Sydney Morning Herald.)
In 1937, the World’s Fair in Paris was planned as a celebration of modern technology. Picasso was slated to paint the centerpiece for the Spanish Pavilion, and he spent several months seeking inspiration for the mural.
Then the news of the bombing of Guernica made the Paris papers. Shocked by the photographs and accounts from survivors, Picasso began the first sketches of what would later become an 11-and-a-half feet tall by almost 26-feet-wide mural painted on canvas. The haunting, finished work depicted the aftermath of a massacre.
After the World's Fair, Guernica was exhibited around the world to warn of the threat of Fascism. During World War II, it found a home at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where it stayed (when it was not on loan to other museums) until it was given to Spain in 1981.
PBS' "Treasures of the World" series explains why the defenseless town of Guernica was attacked: "Guernica is the cultural capital of the Basque people, seat of their centuries-old independence and democratic ideals. It has no strategic value as a military target. Yet some time later, a secret report to Berlin was uncovered in which Von Richthofen stated, "...the concentrated attack on Guernica was the greatest success," making the dubious intent of the mission clear: the all-out air attack had been ordered on [General] Franco's behalf to break the spirited Basque resistance to nationalist "fascist" forces. Guernica had served as the testing ground for a new Nazi military tactic -– blanket-bombing a civilian population to demoralize the enemy. It was wanton, man-made holocaust."
Which is not unlike the intense bombing planned for Iraq: the "Shock and Awe" strategy calls for dropping up to 800 cruise missiles within two days.
"We want them to quit, not to fight," U.S. military strategist Harlan Ullman said, "so that you have this simultaneous effect -- rather like the nuclear weapons at Hiroshima -- not taking days or weeks but minutes."
Such remarks can only make one wonder if another piece of art will ever be able to capture that terror.
A BUZZFLASH NEWS ANALYSIS
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** For those seeking more information on Guernica, visit the Web site for the critically acclaimed non-fiction book Picasso's War: The Destruction of Guernica and the Masterpiece that Changed the World, by Russell Martin. While there, you can listen to a survivor describe the bombing of Guernica and learn more about the town and its people.
Also, on Feb. 4, Tom
Tomorrow posted a picture of Powell speaking in front of Guernica.
It is, he notes, "an artist's conception of the news photograph
they didn't want you to see tomorrow."
otherwise noted, all original