Saturday, July 23, 2011

Art Lesson

Most non-Spanish people don't know much about the history of Spain in the 20th century.  Very few people bother to know much about it at all and most general world history classes tend to ignore it, but if you are smarter than the average bear you might know a bit about the Spanish Civil War.

That most people tend not to know much about the war is a real failure of education in the world today.  The Spanish Civil War was a practice ground for the Second World War.  Hitler and Mussolini sent weapons and "Volunteers" to support the Nationalist side under Generalissimo Francisco Franco and many of the battlefield tactics the Germans would use later in World War II were first used and refined in Spain fighting against the Republican forces.

The Spanish Civil War also saw a lot of famous people participate.  Ernest Hemingway fought on the side of the Republicans and wrote The Sun Also Rises about Spain and For Whom The Bell Tolls specifically about the Civil War.  George Orwell, of Animal Farm and 1984 fame, also fought on the Republican side.

But the one person I want to talk about in all of this is Pablo Picasso.  You know who he is but you may not know that one of his most famous paintings is based on a terrifying event that happened during the Spanish Civil War.  The painting Guernica is about the bombing of that city by German and Italian planes in 1937.  It was a pretty horrific event and probably the first example of using airplanes for terror bombing in history.

All war is hell.  There is no doubt of that.  But people can become inured to the most terrible things.  Looking back now at what happened to Guernica it seems such a small thing.  After all, thousands died in the Blitz of London.  A hundred thousand each may have died in the Dresden and Hamburg bombing raids.  The firebombing of Tokyo may have killed 125,000 people and of course the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki killed probably another 140,000.  So the losses at Guernica - 1200 people at most - would seem almost insignificant in comparison.

Isn't that shocking though?  That we can call the loss of 1200 people "insignificant" really reminds me of just how casual we are about human life, even in this day and age.  Twelve hundred people would be two-thirds of the people in my home town.  Yet in comparison to so many other events, twelve hundreds does seem a trivial matter.

I imagine that it was not a trivial matter at the time.  Back in 1937, the horrors that would become so commonplace in World War II had yet to occur.  That civilians would get bombed in their homes, that bridges would be bombed and roadways strafed with machine guns so that those trying to flee the bombs could not do so, would not yet be the commonplace cataclysms that they became.  The destruction of three-fourths of a town's buildings was still a novel event.  High explosive and incendiary bombs dropped from thousands of feet in the air, indiscriminately killing young and old, man and beast, were a new way of creating hell on Earth.

And it is that context that we have to look at Picasso's painting of the event.  He was recording the newest horror that man had perpetrated upon man.  In stark black and white, he engraved on our psyches the revulsion and fear that must have accompanied the realization that war had become even more terrible than it had been before.  It is a nightmare written on canvas, and all the more terrible in that it was real.

It is said that while he was in Paris during the Nazi occupation, a Nazi officer was looking at a photograph of Guernica.  He studied it for a while, perhaps seeing all the destruction and death that Picasso had put into this piece of art.  He is supposed to have turned to Picasso and said "You did this?"

To which Picasso replied, "No. You did."

And that perhaps is the art lesson for today.  That art, good art, should reflect life, should make you see life in some new way.  And if art is a reflection of life, then it follows that some art must shock and horrify us.

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