Four Aspects Of A Civilization Victimized By A Belligerent Fight For International Domination

Picasso at the age of seven
Picasso at the age of seven

We entered a phase of art history in which beauty is of less importance to artists than the meaning they might convey through a work of art… works of art are embodied meanings.
Arthur C. Danto, Art News, p. 58, Sept, 2013

Left-wing parties won most votes at the elections and set up a Spanish Republic to replace the old monarchy… When the Republicans win again at the 1936 elections, General Franco and the section of the Spanish army decide to take military action against the Republic. On 18 July 1936, they launch a coup d’état, starting three long years of bloody civil war.
Alain Serres, “And Picasso Painted Guernica”, Allen&Unwin, p. 17

Bombing of Guernica occurred on April 26, 1937, during the Spanish Civil War… Guernica (is) the cultural capital of the Basque people… The all-out air attack had been ordered on Franco’s behalf to break off Basque resistance to Nationalist forces. Guernica had served as the testing ground for a new Nazi military tactic – blanket bombing of civilian population to demoralize the enemy. The Germans bombed Guernica with no military target in mind, just for the sake of eradication of the population. In 1935, Nazi general Erich Ludendorff had published “The Total war’ (Die Totale Krieg) in which he argued that modern war was all encompassing and that no- one could or should be spared by the military. He argued that civilians were combatants and should be treated accordingly. The German bombers appeared in the skies over Guernica in the late afternoon… It was a market day. For over three hours twenty five or more of Germany’s best equipped bombers, accompanied by at least twenty more Messerschmitt and Fiat Fighters, dumped one hundred thousand pounds of high explosive and incendiary bombs. Those trying to escape were cut down by the strafing machine-guns of the fighter planes.

Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica” (1937)
Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica” (1937)

In four semantic segments symbolizing four monumental achievements of worldly civilization, Picasso registers the destruction of the meaning of civilized life by the megalomaniacal barbarity of war-making. If the military destruction of civil population is tragic enough especially as it reaches genocidal proportions, the terror of massive destruction of life’s cultural symbolism is even more horrifying as the destruction of the very code of human culture and the future of humankind. It transforms not only the civilization but its “genetic code” – the human culture, into rubble, and the human potentials and meaning of life into entropic inorganic mass.

In the very right segment of the painting we see not only agony and death of a person who was resting/relaxing after a working day, but death of human moments of benign solitude as a prerequisite of human contemplative ability, of freedom to think independently from the world around, of looking at the world with a renewed, rejuvenated gaze, when “existential everydayness” (taking a bath) is combined with the ability to contemplate about life while being alone with oneself.

In the second segment (to the left from the first one just mentioned) we see two women, perhaps, two sisters or a mother and daughter, who during panic provoked by the bombing, are trying to search for the victims and salvation. Let’s pay attention to the details and see how the artist depicts the human reactions on terror. The both women, as if, got additional eyes – the eyes of horror located in between the reality in the process of being blown and the “archaic” human eyes. These additional eyes are tiny and, as if, are, rather obstacle for seeing clearly than helping vision. We see the upper woman’s left hand (the right, stretched one is with candle) under her head in between her two breasts with nipples transformed into stings. Similar transformation we see with the nipples of the woman beneath. But why Picasso makes her feet so big and heavy? Is it because each step can be road to death or to salvation, to finding the dear ones alive or dead, and her feet for her in this moment are as important as her whole destiny? This segment shows how women’s mind, under the sway of panic is ripped off from women as psychological wholeness, as beings with existential thinking, perceiving life not through technical – manipulative intentionality, but through emotional wings of human soul. Here, Picasso already is not only addressing especially inhumane military operation but alluding to the predatorily over-intense technologico-economic modernization transforming women in their pursuit of socio-economic success into an imitation of men with instrumental minds cut from existential/humanistic aspect of reality. The loss of feminine (holistic) thinking is an important factor of militarism and technological development as a profit making enterprise.

In the third segment of the painting (third bloc of human civilization destroyed by military intervention) Picasso depicts the shattering of the very collaboration between man and nature (signified by the dying/petrifying rider and his horse). The human ability for writing – for registering human experiences in the alphabetical system of signs was one of the most significant steps humankind made towards meaning as such. Writing on papyrus and lotus and training animals (writing on the very alive bodies of nature) are about nature inside the human perception. Writing is transforming nature into human – more encompassing meaning, uniting nature and human reasoning in one cognitive embrace. Each accomplishment of human race with nature was a human achievement in collaboration with flora and fauna of the earth. But look at the wounded horse – wounded nature, wounded human cognition on the body of nature. Her body was hit and now is covered with drops of sweat as a sign of her panic and horror of dying. Her tongue, in response to the attack on the part of, as she perceives it – the whole world, produced fang, a futile self-defense against military technology. The horse is in a process of falling on her knees. Her body not only becomes a symbol of a murdered nature, but that of murdered history of collaboration between humankind and creatures of nature who in collaboration with humans participated in human and natural history. From the ability to write on the nature (to teach nature to collaborate – horse’s body as a carrier of human text) to the horror of dying (when writing is transformed into the sweat of the panic of dying) – here we have the “evolution” of a civilized life to death of a civilization. By the power of the impact of the bombs the rider was thrown to the ground. And his death (death of human ability to collaborate with nature and the beginning of pernicious destruction of the natural environment) transforms the human being into a stature – a memorial of him who having been part of nature capable of enriching it, registration of the moment when this unity between man and nature was radically shattered.* Picasso, as if, transformed the treacherous act of bombing of Guernica into the catastrophic moment in human history – he attributes this attack on civilians to military-industrial style of international behavior which is soon to produce the most extreme examples amongst the most extreme of human wars. The destruction of the alliance between rider and horse as a metonymy of the death of collaboration between humans and nature confirms the ever growing trend of total domination over nature in the cult of fossil fuel, Monsanto, various types of hydraulic mining, radiation from nuclear stations and high-tech weapons, chemical destruction of air, water and soil, etc.

In the fourth segment of the painting (at its left margin) Picasso represents the fourth aspect of destruction of civilized life by military-industrial sectors of various countries’ economy and technology. It is destruction of civilized bonds between men and women. The military power applied to life destroys women and children and brutalizes men (when they were able to survive) – it transforms them into metaphoric bulls. When women and children are killed or became physically or/and psychologically crippled, men are emotionally transformed into Minotaurs. Where women appeal to god for help, men become blind brutal power. Picasso depicts the bull’s tail as a volcanic fury.

In his “Guernica” Picasso has showed how military violence destroys the creative potentials of human aloneness, woman as the incarnation of psychological wholeness, the very relations between human beings and nature and human intimacy between men and women (we today are acquainted with all this by seeing so many injured, crippled American soldiers with PTSD unable, after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, to continue to live with their families and in their neighborhoods, in amorous and communal life).

We have to learn from Picasso’s comprehension that military solution to the problems between individuals, groups of people, and nations cannot be productive, it will always be barbaric, historically regressive and directed against future.

*The third segment of the painting brings also the image of cry of a killed bird, and that of a flower as a part of the very embrace between human hand and the handle of the sword. This visual semantic detail – a flower between a warrior and his weapon emphasizes the very incompatibility between a just and an unjust wars. The flower dies together with the sword, when the war is unjust – a strategy of conquering other countries for the purpose of one’s financial enrichment and ideological, political and military domination. This combination of sword and flower in the hand of the warrior is the ultimate symbol of just war (war of genuine, not fraudulent (preemptive strike) self-defense.