The last war picture

Print edition : June 20, 2003

Picasso's Guernica. -

The fact that war can now extinguish human life entirely makes a picture like Picasso's Guernica appear as the final response to war that painting as an art could make.

IN the Madrid museum where it hangs, Picasso's Guernica is still a draw; all the guide books no doubt mention it, and the busy tourist on his way to or from the Prado will pause there at least, if only to look at his watch. One wonders what the young make of it, towed there in shoals for innoculatory doses of Culture - they may not like it much, with their senses weaned on video games and action films. Perhaps an American coming of age just now, for whose then innocent gaze television had wrapped up as `infotainment' the first Gulf War, will find the picture somehow quaint; or, if his eyes have been schooled to art since, perhaps as `archaic' in its way as, say, an Etruscan relief.

Someone old enough to have lived through the Second World War will still see the painting otherwise, one hopes. The bombing of Guernica marks the advent of what we might as well call American war - destruction visited upon human beings and the earth they inhabit by creatures who are, in body and soul, altogether elsewhere. Considered so, the violence of that attack differs in degree only, not kind, from the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; and annihilation, abstractly or distantly conceived, as it were, seems to have directed both the preparation for war and its conduct ever since, by what were once called the Great Powers. Litanies of atrocity need not be rehearsed, anymore, to make the point. And to see how `normal' it has become to think of war so, for the willing subjects of the Great Powers at least, all one need do is recall how the bombing of Iraq was just covered on American television.

Guernica was, it appears, commissioned by the sorely pressed Republican government in the thick of the Spanish Civil War. Picasso finished the painting a month or so after the bombing of the town by Franco's planes. The picture was exhibited later the same year, at the Paris Exposition of 1937.1 The Republic fell the following year; and the picture was not returned to Spanish soil till much after Franco's death. It hangs now in the Reina Sofia museum, set a little off on its own, just by where the rest of the Picassos are and collects viewers around it for just that reason perhaps. However, the picture seems to linger in larger public memory - if one can speak of such a thing anymore - and newspaper photographs of a protest in New York, on the day the bombing of Iraq began, showed marchers carrying recognisable bits of Guernica on their placards.

One wonders who among the spectators would have seen that as especially appropriate. The painting was in the Museum of Modern Art for many years before its return to Spain, and a good many New Yorkers of any age at all are apt to have seen it somewhere or other - in a magazine or newspaper, or on the occasion of its repatriation at least, if not in the museum itself. But while a larger public might applaud Guernica placarded, one wonders if the more knowing citizens of the American art-world would. The historiography of modernist painting usually treats the picture as a summa of Picasso's work until then. The painting is praised for the way in which it draws together manifold impulses which, acting by themselves as it were, had already led the painter's hand to draw very different sorts of picture. It might be well to repeat the sort of commentary that would find its way into the catalogue of a retrospective. In Guernica, Picasso may be supposed to have "enclosed violent expressionistic content within semi-abstract forms" using "images of violence he had developed over the preceding years: the anguished women, the dead children, the screaming horse" all packed into "a scene of chaos" dominated by the bull, which is said to be "an impassive symbol of violence and brutality".

I have taken the above excerpts from an Encyclopaedia of World Art published in 14 ponderous volumes some 40 years ago by McGraw-Hill. Of course, a more recent compilation would relay received wisdom in a more current register, but is unlikely to say anything different. The bull may well have migrated to Guernica from the earlier Minotauromachia cited as a source there, becoming `semi-abstract' in the passage; while the horses in the two paintings are formal cousins, the girl with the candle in the latter seems to have burgeoned into the woman stretching her lamp over the carnage; and one may be sure that precedents for other motifs, taken whole or sectioned as detail, are easily assembled.

Of course, none of this keeps Guernica from being about Guernica. So, perhaps, one should mention some feature that might make it so. The action is crowded by the picture's space, which acquires a close feel from the small window set high to the right and the seeming junction of walls and ceiling to the left, behind the bull. The confining character of pictorial space seems formally apposite. The sudden onslaught of an aerial bombing would have sealed in and constricted the lived space of Guernica; or so, one is tempted to imagine. Anyway, when the picture's space is felt to confine, the woman with the lamp will seem to have flown in from an outside - though, perhaps, putting it that way makes the picture more `narrative' than it is meant to be - and seen so she seems to hover at one remove from what is happening around her, somewhat as her young ancestress in Minotauromachia stands to the action depicted there. The contraposition of the electric bulb and lamp becomes formally curious now; the bulb does more than `date' the action of Guernica to the time or `epoch' of the event it nominally depicts.

ALL this might suggest that the picture embodies meaning in some singular way. But I must confess that when I saw it last, some four years ago, Guernica left me quite cold, though much of the work by Picasso hanging nearby still seemed a marvel. Of course, I was looking at it as a picture addressing the fact of Guernica; perhaps one should not do so at all. In his Success and Failure of Picasso, John Berger suggests that Guernica is not in any direct way a picture about war. Apparently, it is "a highly introspective work" rather, and "only the political uses to which it was rightly put" have "confused people about this". For Berger, this is a painting about "how Picasso imagines suffering" more than anything else. The process of imagining here is, primarily, a somatic one, to which any visualising of the actual bombing is regarded as ancillary, presumably because the picture shows "no town, no aeroplanes, no explosions". The suggestion is that Guernica records some bodily suffering which Picasso himself undergoes, in some empathetic way, "as he daily hears the news" of the war; and "what has happened to the bodies in being painted" is supposed to be "the imaginative equivalent of what has happened to them in sensation in the flesh". We are "made to feel their pain with our eyes," Berger goes on to say. This pain is so extreme that it reduces the body to "a single ability, the ability to bear pain"; and from the axiom that "pain is the protest of the body", Berger concludes, finally, that "just as Picasso abstracts sex from society and returns it to nature" so in Guernica he "abstracts pain and fear from history and returns them to a protesting nature".

These are astonishing claims and it may be worthwhile pausing over them. The phrases "protesting nature" and "protest of the body" do not seem rhetorical flourishes only; nor do they simply project, on to body and nature conceived as modes of matter merely, some character properly ascribed to sentient being. One suspects that the opposition of nature to history here is ultimately religious, though neither Eden nor Utopia, however sharply or vaguely imagined, would serve as emblems of their redemption. The pain we are supposed to feel with our eyes, anyhow, is something elemental. The picture appeals, Berger says, to "our instinct for survival". That instinct is not conceived of in a narrowly Darwinian way as something which animates individual creatures in some evolutionary struggle to survive. Rather, it seems an instinct properly ascribed to the human species considered as a whole because an empathetic response to witnessed or imagined pain would retard, one thinks, the operation of any survival instinct in creatures engaged in evolutionary competition with each other.

One may well doubt whether an instinct for survival of any species can be predicated as such; and the mere fact of every person's wanting to survive is not likely to enhance the human species' chances of survival. But, supposing otherwise for the moment, Guernica seems a wonder on Berger's telling - a painting which can call up some deeply natural instinct for collective survival by making us feel with our eyes the body's extremity of pain. It would be easy to quibble with Berger. For instance, the assertion that pain is the protest of the body seems to run up against physiological fact.2 Let us suppose, however, that suitably `allegorical' readings of Berger's dicta will sidestep such obstacles, and grant him that Guernica once worked upon its beholders as he says. Let me now try and say why, taken just so, it may nonetheless be thought the last war picture.

Picasso's Minotauromachia.-

The work does not, on this reading or any other, record the advent of American war - of destruction `distantly' dealt. But we must now ask if a painting could obtain any purchase at all, on war so conceived and conducted, in any way that painting alone could. Putting things summarily, one may say that painting becomes an art when paintings begin to embody meanings that cannot be otherwise articulated; and painting continues as an art only so long as paintings can so mean. Now given how painting has embodied meaning in its career as an art, through the last 500 years or so, it does not seem likely that a painting could address or explore in any singular way what war has become. This will also seem a summary judgement, and we shall come back to the question. But for just that reason, and precisely because war can now extinguish human life entirely, a picture like Guernica seems - on Berger's reading of it at least - the final response to war that painting as an art could make.

One wonders whether Picasso would have accepted so drastic a sentence. He does, after all, go on to paint a Massacre in Korea. But that picture is an embarrassment, and bolsters more than weakens the claim. It is a nice question whether Guernica can still be seen as Berger saw it, when he wrote of it 40 years ago. Even his surviving contemporaries may find it hard to do so now - unless they hold themselves aloof from the spectacle that popular film and television generally make of violence and war. Coming back to the business of whether painting can explore what war has become, perhaps all one can do is take some likely work - one which appears toward the end of painting's development as an art, just before practice settles into the post-historical stasis it has now supposedly entered - and try to assess that as a war picture.

Picking an American work seems appropriate now; and something like James Rosenquist's F-111 looks like a good candidate. The picture appeared in 1965, just as the bombing of North Vietnam was being stepped up and some controversy attended its inclusion in a show titled History Painting: Various Aspects mounted in 1968 by the Museum of Modern Art. Although the work was initially dismissed as superficial, it has lately come to be looked at seriously. Rosenquist is nominally a Pop painter, but his pictures seem neither `cool' nor `detached' in the special ways Lichtenstein's and Warhol's are supposed to be, which alone would have sufficed to make F-111 look naive to its first beholders.

Apparently, the picture is meant to run along all four walls of a room. In a suitable space its width would make the images surround the viewer, one thinks, and they may strike the eye otherwise than they would were the work seen as it is laid out below. Of course, much of what one sees here derives from daily advertising - in some large sense of the word "derives". That seems too tame a way of putting things though. The work relays all its motifs through the billboard, one should rather say, no matter how likely or unlikely it might be that any particular image would actually have been seen on an American billboard of the time.

Since the look and daily presence of advertising has changed a good deal since the 1960s, one hesitates to draw conclusions from how the picture comes to the eye now. The needled nose of the jet laid across the spread of spaghetti at right still seems to work well, as does the tire and the cake set with pennants - which list, apparently, the vitamin `supplements' there - but the little girl `helmeted' for coiffure has become formally inscrutable. That, very likely, is because child-stars are no longer the social phenomenon they then were - children have become another sort of fetish altogether in Hollywood cinema. Still the beach umbrella fronting the mushrooming explosion seems a legible `take' on living with the Bomb. One is tempted to think that by juxtaposing blue sky with roiled cloud on the outer side, and cutting each to fit the umbrella's panels, Rosenquist tried to pictorially register just how American citizens accommodate themselves to having a stake, as voting consumers, in the lethal power of nuclear weapons. Had he succeeded in doing so one might fairly claim that the work comprehends in some singular way the social fact, so to say, of annihilation distantly conceived. But it appears that the picture was neither intended nor understood so by its intended beholders and recent readers have not seen it that way either.

"The imposing profile of the newly deployed F-111 fighter-bomber runs the entire length of the mural" and so "underlies everything", one informs us, "just as the public's concerns over the war did in 1965". So direct a transcription of public sentiment would be a condition of meaning at best, and uninteresting in itself. But that seems not to worry this interpreter.3 Another enthusiast has Rosenquist working in some "ambiguous area separating displaced imagery from the meaning its selection and unexpected assemblage should convey" and producing "complex pictorial machines that now seem strangely specific yet abstract, private yet universal, dense with impacted feeling yet veiled in mystery". One could not very well ask more of a picture. But let us see what sort of meaning it is that should be conveyed by images taken from billboards and assembled in `unexpected' ways. The "lethal but wondrous technology" of the pictured jet "stretching the full length" of the work - from the "deeply treaded Firestone tire" and the "crater-like angel-food cake emblazoned with its ready-mix nutrients" past the "diabolically sweet child-star face of a little girl coiffed in hair dryer shaped like the nose-cone of a jet" on to the "roiling sea of vermicular canned-goods-orange spaghetti" - that is supposed to have left in the minds of its first beholders "little doubt about a content of concern over a society on a suicidal course with its own mindless consumerism and military-industrial power". It is not clear how anyone would expect all these motifs to be assembled. So the `content of concern' has to be gathered from the mere fact of their being put together, rather than from anything unexpected in their assembly. "With time, however," we are next told, "closer and more informed observers" have discovered "new, deeper layers of meaning, such as that arising from the presence of innocent, even pleasurable technology as well as the destructive sort. And since the F-111 was never built," we now find, "the painting would also seem to contain musings on the ultimate futility of all technology, which in a viciously competitive world so often proves obsolete even before it can be applied".

James Rosenquist's F-111.-

Someone who infers `the ultimate futility of all technology' from the fact of one machine or technique making another obsolete probably finds a good deal `veiled in mystery'. Writing on art has to take risks, of course, and must often shake off logical restraint. But to discern in F-111 `musings' on the futility of technology, from the circumstance that no F-111 was ever built, points to a more than usual freedom of thought. Although the interpretation of visual art is not always so carious, it has been so more often than not for quite some time now. The reason for quoting at such length was not to make that point though. The description of F-111 we just had is convenient, luckily, for talking a little more about whether painting can get any purchase on what war has become.

What makes one fighter-plane more lethal than another cannot be pictured; and neither can the `wondrousness' of the technology that makes it so. The relation between the image of the jet in F-111 and its putative referent is as specular, one might say, as the relation between the pictured treading of the tire and the physical fact of traction. No visible feature of these images gives us any purchase on those attributes which make their referents the objects of material use they actually are, and whatever visual interest or excitement the motifs afford gives us no sense of how these objects might have been conceived by those who made them. Both painting and advertising place us at a specular remove, as it were, from the physical processes and human agencies that have come to shape our material lives. Now this is so obviously the case that a painter, one feels, cannot but acknowledge the circumstance and try to turn it to account. Our specular remove from process and agency, as beholders of F-111, prevents the work from comprehending the material fact of war. But keeping that very remove in mind may acquaint the picture's American beholders at least - if in some oblique way only - with the share they have had in the destruction distantly dealt by the American state.

THAT will seem a leap. But what went before the talk of `voting consumers' above has, I hope, prepared the ground a little. Anyway, such acquainting would have to be a sensuous affair finally, however oblique. That seems a condition of the picture's being a work of art, and it may be scrutable as such only to American eyes then. So considered, one wonders whether F-111 should be regarded as a war picture at all in any way that anything from Uccello's Battle of San Romano to Delacroix's Massacre at Chios, say, may properly be regarded. One has to cast about for points of entry now. Reaching a very long way, it is tempting to claim that the picture reflects the social fact of American war in a manner exactly inverse to how an Assyrian image, for example, would have so reflected archaic war. The hunt reproduced here is a good sample of Assyrian carving. Treating this as a work of art risks much as we do not know how it was taken in by its intended beholders. But an image of combat carved so would have confirmed in some sensuously specific way, one thinks, the status of the martial elite whose exploits it records; and been frankly enjoyed as such by that elite. F-111 seems, on the other hand, to address the `commons' on whose notional behalf the American elite wages war: and disturbs their bodies somehow, it may be, with intimations of weird complicity.

Of course, the Uccello and the Delacroix pictures were convenient signposts from painting's past as an art. But European painters between Delacroix and the early modernists, the canonised ones at least, seem not to tackle war. The Futurists and Expressionists were fascinated by it - the trenches of the First World War sobered most of them though. All told, the painting of war between Massacre at Chios and Guernica would be scanted, one thinks, by most historians - nothing deemed historiographically pertinent would be settled by considering it.4 The early modernists' fascination with violence came in good part from a careless reading of the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche; the young Picasso had come under Nietzsche's spell too, but his pictorial dealings with violence seem a more nuanced affair. Picasso did not see combat in the First World War; so the `genealogist of morals' may have remained some sort of a presence in his painting between the Wars. Guernica marks a turning point, though, on Berger's reading of it at least and Berger sees Picasso's joining the Communists after the Second World War as a commitment, made in earnest, to an idea of human community which Nietzsche very likely thought aberrant. It seems proper now, in some odd way, that Guernica should be the last war picture.

This essay was begun as the bombing of Iraq got under way. That seems not to have been as `total' as it might have been, and we are now told that not much damage was done to `essential infrastructure' and so on. The Americans have announced that `Operation Iraqi Freedom' heralds a new mode of war entirely - where destruction distantly dealt will selectively eliminate `rogue' regimes without destroying the lands and peoples they rule. One wonders if so surgical a business ought to be called war at all: painting's show, at any rate, will likely not light that any more clearly.

End Notes

1. Putting it so may be misleading though; Picasso was asked to do a picture for the Exposition some time before Guernica was bombed.

2. There are infants born without the capacity to feel pain at all. They do not survive very long since being able to feel pain seems to be a requisite for the development of brain functions.

3. I have taken this from a recent Thames and Hudson publication titled Art Since 1940: Strategies of Being written by Jonathan Fineberg. This is the sort of text that would be recommended to American undergraduates in a survey course; perhaps it was written with such readers in mind even, and one might, charitably, ascribe its seeming naivete to that circumstance. The rest of the quoted text in the paragraph comes from a Thames and Hudson publication of 1991 titled Art Since Mid-Century by Daniel Wheeler, who, the book informs us, "has written widely on art and art history, and is co-author of H.H. Arnason's classic History of Modern Art".

4. Histories of 19th century painting under the aegis of modernism would very likely treat Massacre at Chios as only incidentally a war picture. Perhaps that is appropriate. It seems pertinent now to note that Beckmann, who counted himself Delacroix's heir, never referred to the happenings of what his contemporaries called the Great War in any of his paintings. Most writing on modernist art deals summarily with futurist work, but its usual dismissal as "Fascist" is surely too facile.

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