Talking about looking at painting about bombing Guernica

In my 20s, on my first trip overseas, Picasso’s Guernica and I happened to be in New York at the same time. It had a room to itself in the Museum of Modern Art. I wandered in and admired it with pretty much the same undifferentiated awe as I’d brought to pretty much everything else in MOMA. I suppose I was suffering a kind of low-grade colonial Stendhalism (you know, the condition where visitors to Florence grow faint from exposure  to too much beauty). The only other person in the room, a young man about my own age, spoke: ‘I’ve been wanting to see this all my life. Isn’t it amazing?’ I thought he was some kind of weirdo, either that or an art student.

I saw Guernica again in Madrid five years ago, this time in the context of a major Picasso exhibition, and, having read Alice Miller’s essay on Picasso in The Untouched Key, I saw it a little better.

Last night the Art Student and I caught a bus to town to hear a Sydney Ideas talk by Professor Timothy J Clark, art historian from the University of York in England: ‘Looking again at Picasso’s Guernica’. I came away feeling that when it comes to looking at something like this painting, I’m not much better than a day old kitten.

As the fast-talking professor who introduced the speaker said, we mostly hear Picasso spoken of in connection with erotic adventures and high auction prices. CJ Clark’s interest lies elsewhere. Guernica, he said, is a history painting, already an anachronism when it was painted in 1937, but a history painting that refuses to die: it crops up again and again in anti-war demonstrations. A tapestry at the United Nations building was covered with black felt at the insistence of Colin Powell when the US was bombing civilians somewhere. How to account for its enduring power?

His stab at answering this question took focused on Picasso’s relationship to space. Picasso for him, he said, ‘is a history painter’, and the main history he painted was ‘the end of room space’, that is the traditional subject of paintings – a space built for human habitation, with a roof, walls, furniture and perhaps a window looking out onto external space. That subject would seem to be a long way from Franco’s bombing of the historic Basque town of Guernica. Yet, as far as I could understand the argument, CJ Clarke was saying that the struggle to resolve issues of space – both room space and public space – is at the heart of the painting’s success. The painting was completed in five weeks from its inception, and Picasso spent just 26 days working on the canvas. His ‘muse and lover’ (Wikipedia’s description) Dora Maar took a series of photographs of the work in progress, of which Clarke used slides to take us through his argument: we looked at the way classic motifs were introduced and then obscured, at the importance of the sheer scale of the painting, at the role of geometry, etc etc. We didn’t touch on Alice Miller’s key (she locates the painting’s emotional force in its connection to major childhood trauma) and the erotics of the painting, we were told in an aside, is a story yet to be told.  That is to say, a lot was said about the painting, but there is so many more important things that can be said from so many other valid perspectives, so much more to be discovered in this one painting.

Such close looking may be commonplace for art students – for me it was breathtakingly interesting. I couldn’t see how, or even if, the discussion actually went any way towards explaining the painting’s enduring power, but I’ll leave that to people with better equipped eyes to answer.

Clarke’s next book is Picasso and Truth: From Cubism to Guernica. I expect it will be a good read.

2 responses to “Talking about looking at painting about bombing Guernica

  1. Jealous.
    I’ve had an ongoing and ill-informed interest in seeing this painting and I’ve even had the good fortune to see a few Guernica-less Picasso exhibits. The closest I came was visiting the QLD Art Gallery (whatever it’s actually called) where it had been rendered in sand in full size on the ground. But, in keeping with my good fortune, the exhibit had been pain-stakingly smudged and swirled by the artist in some message about impermanence and I was left looking at a floor full of black and white sand.


  2. Thanks Jonathan. My first contact with Guernica was in the 70s in Madrid, where I saw it not in a gallery, but painted as a mural on a building that artists/activists/residents were trying to save from demolition.

    To save the area of Madrid from demolition, famous and not-so-famous artists got together and painted a lot of big murals, thus creating an outdoor gallery too valuable to destroy. A great idea – don’t know if it worked.

    Guernica was the centrepiece and it made a powerful impression.


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