Please note that on our website we use cookies to enhance your experience, and for analytics purposes. To learn more about our cookies, please read our privacy policy. By clicking ‘Allow cookies’, you agree to our use of cookies. By clicking ‘Decline’, you don’t agree to our Privacy Policy.

No translations available

Powell vs Picasso

5 August 2009

Picasso’s Guernica was created to publicise an atrocity committed during the Spanish Civil War, so that the international community would never allow a similar incident to happen again. Yet in a speech given last month, MRG’s Executive Director Mark Lattimer discussed how the painting is even more relevant in today’s politics than it was at its last instalment in the same gallery 70 years ago. Patrick Bodenham, an intern with the media department of MRG, discusses.

In April, Picasso’s controversial Guernica returned once again to the Whitechapel Gallery in East London. This time however the piece is a tapestry copy of the genuine article, commissioned in 1955 by Rockefeller, and, since the 1980s, permanently displayed at the UN Security Council in New York.

Guernica at the Whitechapel Art Gallery
Guernica at the Whitechapel Art Gallery

A primal expression of sorrow, anguish and torment, the tapestry’s fragmented symbols are woven in dull tones of brown, cream and black – the colour of the rubble of the Basque city of Guernica, razed to the ground in history’s first example of the saturation bombing of a civilian population. It is a graphic depiction of the impact of war – specifically aerial bombardment – on innocent bystanders.

Goshka Macuga, the artist behind the exhibition, brings Guernica into its modern context by setting it alongside symbols of the UN’s failure to stand up to pressure from the USA and UK about the necessity to invade Iraq. The space is lined with the kind of corporate upholstery you find in UN boardrooms: a light blue carpet and a polished, round mahogany table in the centre of the room.

Bust of Colin Powell
Bust of Colin Powell

A bust of Colin Powell, based on a famous photo taken of him as he brandished a test tube while making his case for the invasion of Iraq, rises from a pile of rubble. Minutes after he made this speech, Guernica became the centre of another controversy as journalists discovered it had been covered up by a blue curtain during the subsequent press conference. The excuse officials made was that the weave of the tapestry would interfere with the cameras. I found looking Powell in the face in the presence of Guernica a powerful and unsettling experience.

A quick glance across Whitechapel High Street shows what was in store for the civilians of Europe – and indeed the world – in the years following Guernica’s last visit. Situated in the heart of the most heavily bombed district during the blitz, it is a surprising the gallery remains intact at all.

Since the UN was founded there has been a dearth of binding legislation relating to aerial bombardment. The Hague Convention of 1907 addressed the issue of bombardment, but there were no clauses specifically on aerial attack. Despite various diplomatic attempts in the lead up to WWII, there were no amendments to the convention. Protocol I of the Geneva Conventions – developed in 1977 – does address the issue, but the bombardment of targets which could endanger the lives of civilians becomes legal provided it complies with three ideas of ‘military necessity, distinction and proportionality’. These parameters however, can easily be manipulated by careful legal consultation. The United States, Israel, Iran, Pakistan, Turkey, Afghanistan, and Iraq have not ratified Protocol I.

As armies become more professional aerial bombardment is increasingly endemic within modern warfare. In a political world highly influenced by public relations, decision-makers are less prepared to send out a force on the ground and risk the deaths of their own people, as this demoralises the army and incurs the wrath of the national media. Their main goal, therefore, becomes minimising their own casualties. Aerial bombardment allows one side to inflict maximum damage while remaining in an external and safe position.

Since the amendment of the Geneva Conventions in 1977, it appears lessons from history have not improved anything. Other than a few restrictions on cluster munitions, the only real factor that has prevented widespread use of the most lethal weaponry has been the threat of ‘mutual assured destruction’ under which the Cold War took place. Other than this, humans have killed one another as efficiently as the technology they developed allows. As time goes on and tactics change, the ratio between the number of civilians killed compared to the number of tonnes of bombs dropped becomes slowly less and less favourable to the innocent human being.

What is even worse is the poor judgement with which these countries justify aerial bombardment. In a table charting the most dangerous countries in the world for minorities, MRG’s recently published report Peoples under Threat found Pakistan to be the fastest rising country on the list. As the campaign in Afghanistan spills over the border, U.S attacks by unmanned aircraft on Pakistani territory have intensified. According to the LA Times, at least 40 drone attacks have hit tribal areas since August.

The consequences of such attacks are not the ‘winning of the hearts and minds’ of the local population, instead, militants are portraying the attacks as an invasion of Pakistan.

However any impulse to assign blame to Powell or the Bush administration, I quickly realised, would have been a misreading of Macuga’s intentions. Her naming of the exhibition ‘The Nature of the Beast’ illustrates how political and ideological misrepresentations are a theme running through all wars. Encased in the circular table are various documents which tell us about the various mistaken readings of Guernica. Macuga discusses having discovered the piece was originally brought to Whitechapel to inspire a ‘Communist spirit’ in the East London community. Vandalised in a 1974 protest against the Vietnam War, the image has also appeared on murals in Belfast, and more recently been associated with the destruction of Fallujah in Operation Shock and Awe.

Aligning two sets of atrocities in this way – one committed by the fascists in the Spanish Civil War and the other by the US and UK more recently in Iraq – Macuga leaves you to make your own mind up about political legitimacy. The ‘Nature of the Beast’ to which she refers is the nature of the international system not to learn from the mistakes it has made in the past, but to repeat them. And I couldn’t help leave without wondering what lessons we will still have to learn next time Guernica returns.

This article reflects the sole opinion of its author and does not engage MRG’s responsibility.