When Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) painted Guernica (1) in 1937, the painting was not only a pictorial documentation on the horrors that took place on a small Basque town in northern Spain on April 26th, 1937, but a testament to the tragedy of all war that humankind wages upon itself. Picasso says he created the painting to bring the world’s attention to the Spanish civil war and to General Franco’s unusually cruel tactics to try and win this war. In the case of Guernica, this painting has monumental political significance and is still viewed today as greatest anti-war symbol of our time.
This massive, mural- sized painting (11 ft. tall by 25 ft. wide) is painted in oil and currently on exhibit at the Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid. Even if we remove the political significance of this nearly monochromatic painting, we are still left with one of Picasso’s masterpieces of cubist composition. The twisted, disjointed figures undulating across the canvas create a tapestry of suffering in sharp contrasts of black, white and blue. The Spanish Republican government commissioned Picasso in 1937 to create a large mural painting to help bring to the light the misery of the Spanish Civil War to an international audience.
Rather than seeing this very political commission as a limitation, Picasso embraced this opportunity as a platform to use his mastery of oil painting to affect political and popular opinion. Even those who are Basque or Franco sympathizers can not escape from the deep sadness and despair they are confronted with in this painting. In no way is this painting’s political tie a limitation to its greatness. Picasso’s Guernica has been exhibited throughout the world, viewed by millions, and many would argue that this was Picasso’s greatest achievement.
Fast-forward 70 years to 2007; Different artists, different politics, different wars. No longer does the general populous receive its information in newspapers or the radio as they did in 1937. Our access to information is now instant and mainlined. In 2004 accounts of torture, sodomy and rape at the Abu Ghraib army prison in Iraq began to surface. The world, including its artists began to react. Richard Serra (born 1939) created a series of litho-crayon drawings depicting a scene of an Abu Ghraib prisoner being tortured (2), arms outstretched like a Christ figure, with the words “Stop Bush” on either side of his hooded face.
The Whitney Museum of American Art used images of this drawing for posters of their 2006 Whitney Biennial at a time when America was still deeply divided over the continuance of this war. This mass-produced, photographic image had become a symbol of the anti-war movement in the United States. But unlike Picasso’s Guernica, Serra is working directly from a photograph of the actual event, simplifying it into a cartoon like image. Thus, Serra’s anti-war statement does not appear to be a timeless piece of art as Picasso’s did. If we take away the political significance from Serra’s drawings we are left with a compositionally stark subject.
The politics must be included in Serra’s drawings for us to have an appreciation (or hatred, depending on your political view) of it. This is, perhaps, intentional on Serra’s part, being a minimalist sculptor, to strip the very concept of torture and war down to its most essential parts. The speed at which Serra created this drawing is parallel to our contemporary, insatiable appetite for news and information. It is possible that Serra wanted this drawing, like the actual photographic image itself, to be ephemeral; viewed and discarded to make way for the next headline.
In conclusion, the political art that can align itself with our speed of information will be the political art that is successful in the future. Like it or not, we are all involved in politics in some way and affected by the decisions our governments make. If art is a mirror of our surroundings, then at some point it’s going to cross over into the realm of politics. We can only hope that our contemporary artists will utilize the same care and skills to create political work with mature political significance rather than first-idea, sophomoric vision.