PICASSO HO HUM:The Banality of Evil?

The story of Picasso’s Guernica is in itself a study of myth and of enduring magic….Even Picasso could not a foreseen the impact of Guernica and his own struggles living in occupied France.

The political situation forced Picasso into isolation. First, he was cut off from his homeland by the Spanish Civil War and the victory of Franco’s Falangists. And then, after the German invasion of France, the Paris art scene changed in a way that peculiarly affected Picasso, the great practitioner of Modernism. As in the First World War, when everything was in a state of flux and upheaval, but even more so now because of the alien occupational rule, the arts in France were dominated by the summons to traditional French values. Independence in the arts was now viewed with deep suspicion.

What the journalists and arts officers wanted instead was applied art. Maurice de Vlaminck, once a leading member of the Fauves, was foremost in this new line, branding Picasso-in a malicious article written for “Comoedia” magazine in 1942- as the pre-eminent modern artist who must bear the responsibility for the decline of the arts. The old, defamatory cliches revealingly made their appearance in the piece, particularly the claim that Picasso was a pernicious foreigner whose un-French spirit was having a destructive influence on the culture of the great French nation.

"His work recorded the wartime situation indirectly. The version of "Still Life with Steer's Skull" (1942) now in Diisseldorf records the German commandant's order to black out Paris at night. The gloomy, claustrophobic "L'Aubade" conveys the oppressive mood of the war years too. The subtly allusive mode of these paintings reflects a practice common among contemporaries. The younger French abstract artists, for instance, preferred the French national colours of red and blue for their non-representational paintings, for expressly political reasons."

A group that had previously been marginalized, a group whose anti-modern position had rendered it unimportant for the evolution of the arts, was now dominant in the official scene in France. As in Fascist countries, so too in France, political change had brought with it the triumph of reactionaries in the arts.

…But if Guernica is a condemnation of war, it is also a peculiar symbol of peace. No artwork has ever achieved such a transformation so swiftly: from reality to journalism to art to worldwide celebrity in the space of just a few months. Franco made it a criminal offence to own a postcard of the picture.The painting reflected the civilised world’s revulsion at a new type of mechanical warfare. Picasso painted Guernica in a state of shock and wonder. To George Lowther Steer, the journalist, surveying the devastation, the decision to kill civilians from the air seemed both strange and horrible, a reversal of accepted military rules. Indeed, so improbable did the bombing appear that Franco denied it had ever happened, and insisted that the Republicans had torched the town themselves.

"A tapestry copy of Guernica hangs in the UN building, outside the Security Council meeting room. In 2003, when General Colin Powell came to the UN to make the case for war, the image was discreetly swathed in a blue shroud. How could the general make the case for bombing Baghdad with the most powerful indictment of aerial bombing openly accusing him a few yards away? A UN spokesman claimed the Guernica had been covered up because television cameras needed a bolder backdrop than Picasso’s subtle greys. The truth, however, was that Picasso’s denunciation is as black and white today as it was seven decades ago. "

From a distance of 70 years, however, the scenes that inspired Picasso seem grimly familiar. After Guernica came the London Blitz, Dresden, Hiroshima, Hanoi and Baghdad. The bombing of civilians is an accepted, indeed a central element of warfare, despite the euphemisms of “strategic bombing” and “collateral damage”. When the Luftwaffe’s Condor Legion swept down on undefended Guernica, it was pioneering the use of “shock and awe”. In 1937 Steer wrote with fury that the “the object of the bombardment was seemingly the demoralisation of the civil population”. Today that would be a statement of the militarily obvious.

"With his Charnel House of 1945, Picasso concluded the series of pictures that he had started with “Guernica”. The connection between the paintings becomes immediately obvious when we consider the rigidly limited color scheme and the triangular composition of the center. However, in the latter painting, the nightmare had been superceded by reality. The Charnel House was painted under the impact of reports from the Nazi concentration camps which had been discovered and liberated. It wasn't until then, that people realized the atrociousness of the Second World War. It was a time when the lives of millions of people had been literally pushed aside, a turn of phase which Picasso expressed rather vividly in the pile of dead bodies in his Charnel House. "

In Picasso’s painting – a riot of twisted limbs, maddened animals, a woman keening over her dead baby – the cause of death is not apparent: it has simply fallen from the sky. Today you may watch grotesquely similar scenes on television, in colour.

“…An additional complexity was that although Joseph Goebbels demanded that France’s arts be subordinated to Germany’s, many of the Germans in Paris as enforcers and censors were cultivated men who greatly admired French culture. The German ambassador to Vichy, Otto Abetz, would sometimes intervene to help artists in trouble with the authorities. When German officials banned the singing of “La Marseillaise” in one of his plays, Sacha Guitry appealed to a ranking German general. Not only did the general revoke the ban; he and his aides attended the performance and

for the singing. German officers would visit Picasso’s studio even though some of his paintings were being burned as decadent. A much-told story has one officer holding up a “Guernica” reproduction and asking: “Did you do this?” Picasso, polite but scrupulously aloof, replied: “No, you did.” ( Richard Eder)

Pete Hamill:There would be no “Guernica” from Matisse, and some ideological fools later condemned him for the omission. But his answer can also be seen on the walls of MoMA. Here is the world that the Nazis hated: filled with a voluptuous Mediterranean light, the bodies of desirable women, red rooms pulsing with intimacy, lemons in a bowl, goldfish in a tank. That is, the world we think about when we use the word “civilized.” Go find a book on Nazi art, with its Nordic imbeciles, male and female, pumped with the steroids of hate, and you will see its opposite. It is no accident that the works of both Matisse and Picasso were among those labeled “degenerate” by the Nazis.

“…Olga had gone out of the studio and her voice came to us calling Pablo. Pablo left the studio and Nadia, who suddenly felt a rush to ask Olga for the meaning of some Russian word in French, followed the child. Without really wanting to, because his presence overwhelmed me a little, I found my self alone with Picasso.

---The author describes a string of romances between German officers and such iconic figures as Coco Chanel, the fashion designer, Mistinguett, the singer, Colette, the writer, and Arletty, the pseudonym under which Léonie Bathiat, the actress and star of Les Enfants du Paradis, was known. Arletty later justified her affair with a dashing young Luftwaffe captain by saying: “My heart is French but my body is international.” ---

Picasso came closer to me. I was looking at the portrait trying to find something to say that would not reveal my almost complete ignorance of the subject when he looked at me and smiled. Sensing my predicament he said: “Don’t worry, I actually don’t like it”.

Picasso went to the painting and lifted it off the easel. With the painting in his hands he turned to me and said: “This painting would have a certain effect, but that effect would be exactly the same one, in the metaphysical meaning of it, if I would wrap it in paper and abandon it in a corner. It would be exactly the same as if ten thousand people would have admired it”. ( Ernst Junger)

"France's Top Madames Were Jewish “I’m almost ashamed to say it,” Fabienne Jamet, a madame at one of the top addresses, is quoted as saying, referring to debauched, champagne-drenched soirées, “but I’ve never had so much fun in my life. Those nights of the occupation were fantastic.” The money was fantastic."

After his years of travels to the Cote d’Azur, or lengthy sojourns at Royan on the Atlantic coast, he was now compelled to lead an unsatisfying life in occupied Paris, cut off from an arts scene with any life to it, and confronted every day with the troubles of wartime, such as the impossibility of heating in winter. Throughout that difficult time, Picasso adhered to a policy of non-intervention. He took no sides: he refrained from direct involvement in the Resistance (in contrast to his friend Paul Fluard), but also kept a polite.

Picasso. L'Aubade 1942

distance from the Germans. True, his studio was open to German visitors; but when they came he would give them postcard reproductions of “Guernica”, and on one famous occasion, when a German officer asked Picasso, “Did you do that?” the artist replied, “No, you did.” Moreover, when he ran out of fuel, he declined to accept special favors as a non-French national, and observed: “A Spaniard is never cold.”

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