Humanities in the Modern World
Guernica: Cubism as Art and Political Response
Next to Pablo Picasso, few artists are as recognizable by the masses for befuddling our aesthetics and bringing utter confusion to the modern aesthetic perspective. Until cubism, art was mostly mimetic, whereby measuring the value or success of a work of art meant measuring its verisimilitude with the scene or subject it depicted (Gaiger 135). Subject matter was strictly confined to objects in the natural world, seen from a single perspective, and enduring for only the moment in which the subject was composed. Thus, until cubism, art for the most part was involved in the project of capturing subjects in state, with all surrounding subject matter relating only to the primary subjects within a given work. However, cubism did not form as a spontaneous reaction to such strictures, as prior departures had already occurred and continued to occur as cubist artists began to compose their first works. Impressionists, Expressionists, and others had already begun to experiment with avant-garde means of expression, though some of these attempts could hardly compare to the extent to which cubist methods would change aesthetic values (Gardner 156). However, cubism seemed to be the culmination point of what each of these aesthetic views sought to change about modern art. In this way, Picasso’s later work, Guernica, may be evaluated on the basis of a response to emerging modern aesthetic and political values.
Picasso’s well-known 1937 work Guernica forms a strong example of developed cubist techniques, although Picasso’s techniques began their development much earlier in other works such as Les Desmoiselles d’Avignon of 1907 (Gardner 155). This work is important both from an intellectual perspective representing cubist art, but also from the political and historical perspective of representing the Nazi bombing of a Spanish city. Guernica, for all its familiarity, provides no easily discernible perspective from which to absorb all of its elements and perspectives in a single, comforting manner. Rather, each apparent subject in the work may represent several different subjects at the same time, fragmenting the view of the work as a unified whole. Similarly, subjects link and form parts of the “whole” of other parts, such that the each apparent subject is woven into the adjacent subjects. For example, a dominant image in the painting is the image of a horse’s head projecting over the carnage below it, while the nose and teeth of the horse also form the image of a human skull. In this way, each subject within the painting may represent part or whole of multiple subjects, shattering the singularity of subjects within scenes that are stabilized by a single perspective (Tankard 47).
In terms of aesthetic technique, the general presentation of the subjects is accomplished through the contrast of adjacent colors and the bisection of various spaces into triangles, curves, and other asymmetrical shapes and planes. As with many of Picasso’s works, the human form itself, the aesthetic symbol of ideal beauty in the past, is presented in a grotesque and primitivistic fashion. Faces are contorted in various states of suffering, while others are physically distorted, disembodied, and severed from their bodies. More importantly, in the arrangement of these elements the planes of these subjects overlap and interfere with one another in such a way that foreground and background, as perspective-forming elements, are obliterated by their multiplicity. In this way the idea of a figure-ground relationship of elements is turned upon its head. As Jason Gaiger elaborates,
by abandoning the banal illusions of optics, including techniques such as the use of linear perspective, consistent lighting and chiaroscuro to represent objects in three-dimensional space, the cubists broke with the fundamental conventions of picture making that governed western painting since the Renaissance. Instead, they were supposed to reveal in their paintings a different and higher truth. (150)
In this way, the perspective-forming planes of the painting transform and contradict one another, sometimes portraying the viewer as though they were above the scene, while at other times portraying the viewer as though they were simultaneously below the scene somehow. As a result, there is no stable position or duration of experience from which to witness the scene within the painting. If one attempts to view them from a single perspective, the images merely become flat and thematically opaque because of their contradictory representations (Tankard 39). In these ways, Picasso’s technique deprives the viewer of a stabile viewing ground, not allowing them to penetrate the opaqueness of his aesthetic with any formal, old guard means of evaluating its internal artistic elements.
Additionally, Picasso’s work contains visual puns that pertain directly to the contemporary culture of Spain. The effect of such references is that the work is not confined to the realms of ‘high art’, but maintains a certain connection with the everyday. Picasso is quoted as being against any conception of art as apolitical, “I have always believed that artists who live and work with spiritual values cannot and should not remain indifferent to a conflict in which the highest values of humanity are at stake” (Gardner 179). In this way Picasso’s work can be seen as art abstracting from life, not life abstracted from a completely independent form of art, and signs of this connection between art and life can be found in Guernica. While the work is an intentional mixture of contradictory semiotics in terms of its signs and symbols, Picasso acknowledged directly that the horse is a symbol for the people of Spain, while the image of the indifferent bull is an indirect allusion to fascism (Gardner 177). Thus, while still portraying a pluralistic perspective of a real event, there remains an underlying political dimension to the work that indexically places its subject matter within the framework of contemporary events and unifies its message about humanity in the modern age.
It would be difficult to impose a particular political view upon Picasso, as with most avant-garde artists, he evades easy political identification. However, if in its form and its subject matter Picasso is posing some sort of aesthetic criticism of the emerging modern world, then a reception of his work may be stabilized by such a critical view. First, in terms of subject matter, the circumstances of the Guernica incident reflect the effects of dehumanization, mechanization, and a fanatical desire for a single world view to control and expel any pluralistic aesthetic view of the world. The Nazis, in support of Spanish fascism, bombed Guernica to test out their new war machines, an event which sadly conveys twentieth century attitudes (Chipp 24-36). Similarly, if fascism may be seen as the fanatical desire — psychological, social, and political — for the prevalence and domination of a single world view, then cubist techniques may be seen as a direct contradiction. Cubists counter the desire for a single perspective by discomforting viewers with multiple perspectives, contradictory meanings, and confusing imagery. Yet, in this way the work is all the more realistic, reflecting not only a reaction to fascist modern aesthetics, but also an acknowledgement to emerging philosophical views of the world as a distant and relative construct. The bombing of Guernica, then, is portrayed with this multiplicity in mind, using cubist methods to convey the simultaneity of the carnage and the inability to comprehend such an event, let alone capture its meaning within some unified framework.
As such, Picasso’s works may be shown to have been conscious of the importance of aesthetic views as being the primary artifice within which the coalescence of modern circumstances could produce mass atrocities. Even if accidental, his works respond to the modern reflexive tendency toward fascism and other forms of totalitarianism, the aesthetic goal of which seems always to control and impose a single aesthetic view of the world, evidenced by the rise of political propaganda during the early twentieth century. The National Socialist “Exhibition of Degenerate Art” provides little evidence to the contrary, as any art that did not conform to some pre-configured mold was displayed as the art of classifiable varieties of sub-humans. While polarizing Guernica on the basis of a response to modern aesthetic values may categorize it as only reactionary, in relation to Picasso’s other works it maintains its status as an autonomous work of art through his representation of human forms. It is much less a reaction than a response, and as such the work satisfies a requisite political dimension in modern art while maintaining, without contradiction, an art-for-art’s-sake quality.
Arnheim, Rudolf. Picasso’s Guernica: The Genesis of a Painting. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1962.
Chipp, Herschel B. Picasso’s Guernica: History, Transformation, Meanings. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.
Gaiger, Jason. “Approaches to Cubism.” Art of the Avant-Gardes. Ed. Steve Edwards and Paul Wood. London: Yale University Press, 2004.
Gardner, Howard. Creating Minds: An Anatomy of Creativity Seen Through the Lives of Freud, Einstein, Picasso, Stravinsky, Eliot, Graham, and Gandhi. New York: Basicbooks, 1993.
Tankard, Alice Doumanian. Picasso’s Guernica after Ruben’s Horrors of War: A Comparative Study in Three Parts-Iconographic and Compositional, Stylistic, and Psychoanalytic. Philadelphia: Associated University Presses, 1984.