An electric lamp, a conical lampshade with a bare electric bulb underneath it, emits a jagged light, shedding its harsh glare in rectilinear rays on the chaotic scenes laid out below. The scene is filled with dystopian images – a bull standing over a grieving woman, and the woman holds a dead child in her arms. A horse with a hole on its side. A dismembered soldier underneath a horse, his left with stigmata. The tongues of the animals are daggers, as though the violence is not just physical. An oldstyle oil lamp in the hands of a woman, lunging from the right in despair

This is Pablo Picasso’s masterpiece “Guernica”, painted in 1937 for the Paris World’s Fair at the behest of the Spanish Republican Government. Earlier that year, German and Italian Air Forces, fighting on the behalf of the Royalist Nationalists in the Spanish Civil War, had attacked and destroyed the civilian town of Guernica in the Basque country in a clinical display of air power. The Republicans ultimately lost the Civil War, ushering in a military dictatorship headed by General Francisco Franco under a restored but nominal monarchy. Picasso never returned to Spain, dying in 1973. Two years later Franco died, paving the way for reconciliation and ultimately, restoration of democracy in Spain. The painting itself returned to Madrid in 1981, once Picasso’s executors were satisfied with Spain being a Constitutional Democracy albeit not yet a republic.

The world wept for Guernica. Since then, we have seen the unleashing of industrial scale death and destruction to civilians. Within a very short while of the painting’s inauguration, Europe and Asia tore themselves apart in the Second World War. Technocrats got to showcase their lessons from the Condor Legion. The Blitz. Bomber Harris’s deliberate targeting of German civilians.  The Tokyo Fire Bombing of 1945. The Dresden Fire Bombing of 1945. Hiroshima. Nagasaki. Ever since, the world has lived under the spectre of instant planetary destruction with tens of thousands of nuclear weapons in the hands of several states. Several other civilizational challenges face humanity – the threat of global Islamic fundamentalist terrorism and the sometimes fascist reaction to it, the threat of climate change, the threat of global pandemics, the possibility of planetary ecological disaster.

Looking at the painting one sunny winter afternoon at the Museo de Reina Sofia where it now resides, I asked myself:  do we remember Guernica and the painting only because they mark the starting pistol in the race to industrial scale destruction? Within two years of its creation, we found ourselves huddled round our radio sets, listening to events unfold, “uncertain and afraid/ As the clever hopes expire/Of a low dishonest decade*”.

The world is still an uncertain and dark place. Hopes expire and dishonesty prevails. It may not be the threat of mass destruction that scares us all the time. There was a brief glimmer of hope when the Communist Empire, having first killed off millions of its own citizens,  destroyed itself between 1989 and 1991 – first the Chinese began to undo their totalitarian state in small measures and then the Soviet Empire collapsed in a heap. Then world began to take for granted the liberal orthodoxy that seemed to be the future of nations, calling it the “end of history”, to indicate that the big civilizational conflicts were resolved and mankind would move towards a liberal nirvana.

Just as the Cold War ceased, Islamic fundamentalism unleashed its havoc on the world. 9/11 and subsequent attacks on the UK, Spain, France, India, Indonesia and elsewhere have been met by harsh responses and illiberal actions necessary for liberal democracies to combat its enemies from within.   The world today looks even more divided and confused about issues of identity and nationality.  Islamic fundamentalism is the result of a conflict of cultures and identity. Instead of the internet uniting the world for good, it has also made the spread of terrible ideas that much easier.

The liberal paradise promised to us has rolled back. There is a revolt against liberal democracy due to the rise of nationalist populism. The copycat model of aping the institutions of the West without the liberal underpinnings that bind Western societies has clearly not served the purpose. There are democracies that are either in name only, or who openly govern in the name of their native majorities. The biggest and most successful democracy in the world is slowly turning against its own citizens in the name of the majority.

Technology has played a major role in changing the economic lives of people. Globalisation has meant the flow of jobs and incomes to the poorer countries, depriving those who once did these jobs to fend for themselves. Labour mobility is now shown to be a false premise. Those who were left behind have stayed behind. And those who came in have made the technological leap, over these stay-behinds, stoking resentment and encouraging populism. The harsh light of the lamp in the painting now shines on the victims of technological obsolescence, of technology-fueled resentments, of technology-mediated nativism, and technology-enabled terrorism.

The stark, black and white cubist images on that painting today represent a different type of dystopia – equally technological and very human all the same. The world today seems eerily close to world in the 1930s, leading full circle back to the time when Picasso put brush to canvas.

*WH Auden, September 1939

6 thoughts on “Recuerde Guernica

  1. Plus ca change, plus c’est le meme chose. The more things change, the more they continue to be the same. Human egos are fragile, brittle things and take very little to stoke. Identities are essential to existence and fundamentalist, aggressive, religious ideologies threaten our cosy existence and we feel impelled to react strongly

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  2. Standing in front of a painting inspired you to write this ? Wow. Just reinforces my strong belief that you are in the wrong profession.

    May I suggest that many of the regrettable trends that we say today stem from a lack of leadership. Contrast this with say the approach of Mandela during the abolition of apartheid in South Africa. It could have easily become a cesspool with many of the trends that you bemoan having taken extreme roots. Instead, wise and mature leadership made it possible to gather together a rainbow coalition. Similar leadership in other countries could have smoothened many of the trends that we despair of now.

    Each of us could contribute in a small way. By being inclusive, respecting views which we may personally not agree with and trying to find common ground.

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    1. Thanks for leaving a comment Ramesh.

      Leaders make and unmake a nation. For every Mandela there is always a Hitler or Mussolini. Spain and Portugal were very lucky. Just as Franco died, the dictator Somoza died in Lisbon. A bunch of army officers in Portugal saw the transition to a civilian democracy. One of them, Melo Altunes was the Intellectual In Uniform. Spain was similar. Nearly 1 million died or were wounded in the Civil War. Absolutely no rancour exists today because of the way the transition was handled.

      I am not sure if we are so blessed.

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  3. What a beautifully written piece.

    The aspiration for order and the resistance to chaos, both reflect what appear to be a dharmic response to the world we live in. However, the world itself is like a scrap of paper in a wind swept field. Unpredictable and susceptible to the elements. It is often in our irrelevance to the tumults of the external world, that the inkling to understand who we are is stoked.

    As Lord Krsna said to Arjuna: I am terrible time the destroyer of all beings in all worlds, engaged to destroy all beings in this world; of those heroic soldiers presently situated in the opposing army, even without you none will be spared.

    Wars never have heroes and villains. They are foisted by the stories we tell that are passed on and retained in our collective memories. It is time that is the greatest actor in a script that disappears into every moment.

    Which is why perhaps the greatest art arises from a place of silent emptiness.

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    1. May I return the compliment? Such a deep and thoughtful comment to leave on what are nothing but ruminations on revisiting a painting I had last seen in 2001?

      Reading your comment, I was able to put my finger on my sensations when I saw the picture – I must have sensed the great silence that must have existed after the last Ju87 peeled off after dropping its deadly cargo. Just the birds cheeping, sounds of fires burning, the first sounds of the victims emerging from the ruin, the trundle of lorries and ambulances rushing out to start the rescue. Picasso never visited Guernica but he must have sensed it, and it took him a couple of weeks to put this piece of timelessness on canvas. And how lucky we are that we can see it, and feel it, and ponder for a moment on the inhumanity in all of us.

      There are no winners, as you say.

      Thanks again!

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