Picasso’s Guernica, Walter Benjamin, war and peace

A remarkable exhibition, “Pity and Terror, Picasso’s Path to Guernica,” has been mounted at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid. Curated by TJ Clark and Anne M Wagner with Project Directors Manuel Borja-Villel and Rosario Peiró, it opened in April of this year and will continue until September. The exhibition begins with Picasso’s works from 1924–25 and continues drawing the path from the last of his Cubist images to the commission in 1937 of Guernica, concluding with works that followed that epic painting—a route of sorrowing, grieving women; anxious, death-tinged still life paintings; and also drawings no less fraught. Examining Guernica so thoroughly and presenting antecedent and subsequent work is right for the present time. Now, the monstrous prevails and there is no comfort in habitude; we are destabilized. All security is gone. The once celestial sky is the source of terror, where drones dart out of nowhere like malevolent dragonflies—and I regret my metaphor—carrying death or unwelcome surveillance. Children, where these devices are deployed, fear being out of doors, and looking up and dreaming possibilities in cloud shapes have been taken from them.

For Picasso, the bombing of the Basque city of Guernica in April 1937 marked a new terrifying industrial and anonymous warfare, a warfare of the modern period. Since then we have been on an accelerated continuum of splendid deadly invention to which Picasso’s ravishing mural is the first monument. This painting, which anticipated the horrors of the war that followed, and for which Germany in particular but other fascist countries as well had been preparing assiduously from the outset of the decade, clicks into place a close focus on Europe and the period of the Second World War. Thinking, then, about that period and about writers located inside it, I go first but not solely to Walter Benjamin, whose work ended with his death in 1940 at his own hand, as all possibilities and exits for him closed.

Picasso, “Guernica”, 1937. Oil on Canvas. Currently at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid.

What, I wondered, was Benjamin writing in the period in which Guernica and surrounding works were produced? The notes to Walter Benjamin Selected Writings, Volume 4, 1938 to 1940 (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London, England, 2003) comment that in the years from 1938 to 1940 Benjamin continued to be productive even though he struggled to do so. He’d been forced to leave Berlin in 1933. Living in Paris with inadequate resources, always seeking to place his work with appropriate publishers, obliged because of meagre resources to move and move again, and being unable to retrieve his own papers, archives, library and the few goods remaining in Berlin was dispiriting and had physical and psychic consequences. In 1939 an article he had published in Paris in 1936 came to the attention of the Gestapo and his German citizenship was revoked. Not French, living in Paris, no longer German, he was now stateless.

In this period he wrote extensively on Baudelaire, completed the final version of his seminal essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility,” produced much on Bertold Brecht, a colleague and friend, as well as many substantial essays and reviews, and was always researching and working on his monumental Arcades project. The despair that increasingly tracked his life didn’t intrude on the pages, but he continued the charge to be vigilant about governments, about unrooted, easily swayed politicians, about guarding whatever freedoms remained, and not to confuse being bound and limited by tradition with memory fragments that could actually spark action. He wrote, “Articulating the past historically does not mean recognizing it the way it really was. It means appropriating a memory as it flashes up in a moment of danger,” a motivation, I suspect, that carries more relevant truth than would a fixed custom. He went on, “The danger threatens both the content of the tradition and those who inherit it. For both, it is one and the same thing: the danger of becoming a tool of the ruling classes. Every age must strive anew to wrest tradition away from the conformism that is working to overpower it.”

TJ Clark, co-curater of the exhibition and key essayist for the accompanying book, moves us back in time from Guernica to Picasso’s Cubist works, and to Cubism, which he said represented well the fragmentation being felt in the 20th century, a fragmentation contained, however, inside a frame that was a room or “room-space.” Clark tells us, “Having a world at all for Picasso, seems to be premised on containment. Art is enclosure. Being is being in.” He continues, “Rooms, interiors, furnishings, covers, curlicues are the ‘individual’ made flesh. No style besides Cubism has ever dwelt more deeply, more exultantly, in the space of possession and manipulation. The room was its model of beauty.” He tells us that, for Picasso, the room is a twofold reality—a space of safety and pleasure that also houses threats; often, for Picasso, threats of domesticity. So, he is drawn in and then frightened by what the rooms might contain. Think now of the blasted space that is Guernica, the twice-bombed city and the painted shattered space, at once inside and outside, the viewer standing where? The inhabitants—women, a dead baby, animals—located no place they can name.

After the bombing, and with this painting, which is itself as large and absorbing as a room, Picasso shows us a place that should provide refuge and has become instead a nightmare. All the eyes are open but no one can see—see to comprehend what has taken place. All the mouths are open to silent screams and there are no words. John Berger has written about Caravaggio, who introduced chiaroscuro into painting as though his life depended on it, and Berger suggested it did. Like Picasso, Caravaggio was comfortable only inside and, like Picasso, had no interest in either painting or inhabiting landscapes. Berger wrote, “His chiaroscuro allowed him to banish daylight. Shadows, he felt, offered shelter as can four walls and a roof. Whatever and wherever he painted he really painted interiors.” And, like Picasso, “He only felt at home—no, that he felt nowhere—he only felt relatively at ease inside.”

Guernica reads like a proscenium stage on which is presented a tableau—a single static picture of horror and disruption, frozen as though by the light of a single flash but without the illumination that could bring understanding. There are sources of light but insufficient to bear on the scene. A ceiling lamp—a single bulb inside an aureole like a sun, a lamp held aloft by a woman leaning in as though bringing help from outside to the chaos enclosed in the jumble of bodies—and there is a window high up in the wall cut like the opaque aperture in Caravaggio’s The Calling of Saint Matthew, offering neither light nor visibility. A triangle of light like a strobe or aerial search light includes in its geometry the head and arched neck of the woman who, with one knee on the floor and body lifting, appears in search of air and answers, and includes as well the chest and foreleg of the horse, which twists its body in a contortion of panic, nostrils distended in fear.

TJ Clark introduces the idea of the Tragic Scene, which he describes as the moment when death and vulnerability are recognized by an individual or group of people as inevitable, and, helpless to intervene or forestall the mortality that follows, they respond not just with horror but with Pity and Terror. This response, he says, frightens but also strengthens.

Invited by the government of the Spanish Republic to produce a mural for the Spanish Pavilion at the 1937 Paris International Exposition of Art and Technology in Modern Life, Picasso was unsure of his ability to provide the painting they wanted. TJ Clark asks, what was the path or connecting route that led Picasso from having dealt with the subjects of violence and the monstrous to being able to conjure and present tragedy so effectively as to produce an image that became and maintains its status as a universal icon of pity and terror? What was the way, he asks, from monstrosity to tragedy? He looks to Aristotle, who described tragedy as an imitation of an action sufficiently persuasive to produce in its audience a response of pity and terror, which experience would then be cleansing or cathartic, “cleansing the audience of these emotions.” TJ Clark queries why would this be cleansing or cathartic. I separate the words, removing lavation and leaving catharsis, which I read as more transformative, and see pity moving to empathy as the result.

Among the texts he has prepared for the book accompanying the exhibition of Guernica, TJ Clark included responses to the painting by Anthony Blunt, Roland Penrose and Herbert Read when it was shown in London in 1938, where it had toured in order to raise money in support of Spanish refugee relief. Herbert Read wrote in the London Bulletin, “Picasso’s great fresco is a monument to destruction, a cry of outrage and horror amplified by the spirit of genius,” and further, “The great canvas is flooded with pity and terror, but over all it is infused with that nameless grace which arises from their cathartic equilibrium.” Empathy and pity—in our destabilized, up-ended time, when horror and tragedy abound on every stage and are presented to us at a staccato tempo by all media—are responses that should be encouraged. There is no surfeit here.

Walter Benjamin wrote the 18 sections of “On the Concept of History” between February and May 1940. By September he was dead. He was fully engaged with his period and acutely cognizant of what was taking place all around him. He held consistent to his political reading of history and to the period in which he lived, and continued to the end to counsel vigilance and recommend appropriate skepticism and wariness of all governing institutions. In Section VII of “On the Concept of History” he asks rhetorically, with whom does history identify or sympathize? and the answer he readily provides is, the victor. Whoever is victorious, whatever the struggle, participants in what he describes as the “triumphal procession in which current rulers step over those who are lying prostrate” are what struggle produces. Carried in the procession are the spoils of the victory, which are the “cultural treasures.” With some sangfroid or resignation, having seen it all before, Benjamin points out that historical materialists observe these objects with some distance: “There is no document of culture which is not at the same time a document of barbarism. And just as such a document is never free of barbarism, so barbarism taints the manner in which it was transmitted from one hand to another.” To the extent that he is able, the historical materialist declines to participate: “He regards it as his task to brush history against the grain.” Not exactly a call to revolution but an ongoing and effective irritant.

The sustained response Guernica engenders is based on what, TJ Clark asks. He had looked to Hannah Arendt’s book On Violence, and argues that her rejecting the idea of fraternal feelings being spawned by collective violence is sound. She asserts that this isn’t firm ground on which to build a polity. Clark makes reference to American philosopher Judith Butler’s idea of a “collectivity founded on weakness,” what she describes as “vulnerability, affiliation and collective resistance.” Brushing history against the grain could be an applicable gesture here. TJ Clark concludes his essay “Picasso and Tragedy” by suggesting that what Guernica offers as a “last best hope” is an image that moves us to acknowledge and perhaps enact vulnerability, affiliation and collective resistance.

Walter Benjamin owned a painting, actually a small ink-wash drawing, by Paul Klee from 1920, titled Angelus Novus. He described it: “It showed an angel who seems about to move away from something he stares at. His eyes are wide, his mouth is open, his wings are spread.” Benjamin assumes this is how an angel of history must appear: incredulous, as he looks toward the past. With the distance that time allows he sees not the chain of events on which we stumble but one single, ongoing catastrophe, a continuum of missteps and wrong deeds that “keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it at his feet.” The angel, Benjamin posits on its behalf, wants to stay and fix the wreck, “But a storm is blowing from Paradise and had got caught in his wings.” As reluctant as he is to leave the mess and debris of history behind unrepaired, “the storm drives him irresistibly into the future, to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows toward the sky. What we call progress is this storm.” ❚