Thursday, August 20, 2009

Picasso's Guernica in the Reina Sofia, Madrid

Of all the famous paintings we saw last week in Madrid, the one that did not open up to new revelations and new insights was Picasso’s Guernica. It was exciting to see it in all its splendor, but it’s not a painting that I wanted to look at for any length of time. When I think about why this is, I begin to realize that this is precisely the point of the painting. What you see is what you get. Despite, or perhaps because of the fragmentation of the picture plane, once I had seen and surveyed the surface of the canvas, there was little to keep me in front of it. It’s not a painting that is in any way beguiling, it is to the point, up front, immediate. This, of course, was exactly what Picasso was looking for. Guernica doesn’t shock in any way, it doesn’t ask for contemplation, despite its size, it’s a very understated painting. Executed as it is in the greyscale of the printed press – which, as many critics and commentators point out – makes it a critique of the representation of war and violence, and in particular, the way such events are fragmented and sensationalized by the press.

The grey, the flatness of the image, the absence of drama via an absence of color is what makes it so powerful. If it is possible for Guernica’s post-cubist style to be labelled realist, then that is how I would best describe it. In the aftermath of Picasso’s war, light does not emanate from lamps, shadows are not in the process of shifting or being cast, and both take on the same status as body parts: mere ineffectual objects laid flat on the picture plane. Guernica is a matter of fact, “realist” representation of the devastation of war. I want to say that there is something grisaille-like about Guernica. The painting could be mistaken as a study for another, brightly colored version of the same image. But unlike the fifteenth century grisaille’s that depicted the drama of life and the spectacle of the grisaille technique, Guernica is two- not three-dimensional.

It’s not hard to see why the Guggenheim in Bilboa want Guernica moved there. Of course they do, it’s a tourist draw card. Unfortunately for Thomas Krens and his corporate machine, the painting is also owned by the Spanish State, so it is unlikely they will be convinced by the “American exploitation of art-as-tourism” argument that Guernica belongs in the Basque region where the bombing took place. Rather than appeasing the Guggenheim’s greed, Guernica is a painting that must stay where it is in the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia. Not only because it is a national treasure, but because the painting belongs with all of the works that inspired it, and all of those that come in its wake. In the adjacent rooms, all of the drawings and studies and sketches that Picasso did in preparation for what was to become this highly controversial painting give it a context. Guernica belongs as much to the art world that produced it as it does to the history of Spain: surrounded by Spanish cubism, and taking its place in the progression of Picasso’s works is where it makes sense. Guernica may be realist in its representation of the bombing of Guernica in April, 1937, but how would that be understood if it was just another painting in the company of works by Jim Dine, Andy Warhol or a contemporary Spanish video artist?

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