Picasso's Guernica

September 23, 2016

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

“The world today doesn't make sense, so why should I paint pictures that do?” - Pablo Picasso

Last week, I attended a local seminar dedicated to understanding Picasso's Guernica. There is so much written about Guernica alone, that analysis is overwhelming. But part of the truth behind Guernica is the way that it affects each viewer. Picasso's large mural painted in response to the bombing of the innocent village of Gernika, Spain by Nazi forces and Franco's regime, represents a kind of witness that seems very important for society. And yet, I find myself unable to express how the idea of witness functions in society. The painting represents a truth, but that truth is different for everybody. I believe it addresses a level of anguish that exists within each of us – it recalls our own personal experience with tragedy. Atrocities like these make us question our own strength. Part of that strength, I feel, must come from generations of witness. In other words, these are things that we want to both remember and forget. They evolve into mythic discussions, passed on orally. It is this ripple effect that interests me. The truth of Guernica will not be the same to someone who physically witnessed it as it will to someone who has heard of it. Furthermore, the idea of trying to remember and trying to forget causes an internal conflict. I wonder how this internal conflict acts upon our memories.

Everyone connects with Picasso's Guernica in some way. Whether one feels overwhelmed, or finds it ugly, hateful, beautiful or otherwise, the massive figures in the painting act upon every viewer. I find it both ironic and not that the painting never made its way to the north of Spain. Instead, after a few travels, followed by a long stay at MoMA, the painting now resides in Madrid, the capital of Spain. In one sense, the painting need never return to Gernika, which witnessed atrocity firsthand. Those who rebuilt the town already know the utter depth of the town's pain, anguish and loss and therefore do not need to see the visual reminder. On the other hand, the powerful painting expresses something to them that very possibly only they can understand. Some claim that the painting is entirely Spanish – with the bull and the horse – while others claim that it offers universal truths.

Witness, therefore, is a type of truth-act. One that expresses some knowledge gained, though this knowledge comes at great expense. In the introduction to Ethics: An Essay on Understanding Evil by Alain Badiou, Peter Hallward writes, “[F]or Badiou, an ordinary (replaceable) individual becomes irreplaceable, becomes a (singular) subject, only through this very commitment itself; it is only the commitment to a truth-process that 'induces a subject'.”  In other words, humans become irreplaceable only after “an event”. This event need not be as grand or obscene as something like the destruction in Gernika, but an event that plants a Truth into an individual, thus making them unique. Their uniqueness cannot be reconstructed, but is now singular. Also, two witnesses of the same event may arrive at very different realities, which then creates two separate accounts of witness. Hallward continues, “[T]he whole question is precisely whether such deliberation is variable, in the sense of so many variations on some kind of minimally invariant process, or forever different, in the sense of so many inventions ex nihilo, each one literally peculiar to a given procedure.” Whether or not humans achieve connection is at the heart of Badiou's search in his essay on evil. The importance of this question cannot be overstated. It is the heart of how humans process not only memories of war-acts, but any memory, and whether or not that memory can be translated to another. In this case, I feel that Picasso's Guernica demonstrates a successful act of communication, one that functions on many levels and among many cultures. However, I am not sure if it speaks to something inherent in all humans (variable) or is unique in each response (forever different).

To me, this question strikes at the very heart of what we do, not only at Harrison Middleton University, but in all discussions. How do we make our thoughts known? We use universal reference points – just as Picasso has done with Guernica. We stick directly to one text, trying to understand that single thing from many perspectives. I believe that even our own internal reference points can mean more than one thing at any time. And perhaps this is what grows our imagination. Perhaps this is also the cause of misunderstandings. Each time that I look at Guernica, I see more. Each time I discuss it, I feel more. Essentially, then, an act of witness transfers both emotion and knowledge.

“An idea is a point of departure and no more. As soon as you elaborate it, it becomes transformed by thought.” - Pablo Picasso


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