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