One of the world’s most famous paintings generates a profound turbulence.
Black and white on a huge canvas, Picasso’s Guernica
imagines the frenzied destruction of an aerial bombing.
It has become an iconic image of the madness of war.
But while Guernica is an image of war, there are no soldiers to be seen.
Instead, the painting depicts a very particular kind of war.
A war against humanity.
The bombs that fell in 1937 on the small town of Guernica
in the Basque region of Spain fell on women and children
and old men and animals.
It was no accident. They were excellent targets.
Which reminds me, have you ever dreamed of flying?
In his masterful The History of Bombing, Sven Lindqvist shows us
that when man first began to dream of flight…
He began to dream of bombs.
Early popular fiction depicted bombers high in the sky,
safe and dedicated to their sacred mission:
the absolute decimation of entire cities and races below.
And then, the dream became real.
Man learned to fly, and quickly, very quickly,
he learned to bomb.
It proved an impressive way of keeping order.
Let’s say you had valuable colonies filled with inferior people
who possessed an entirely different skin color and religion than your own.
And say the colonies were disobedient. They opposed your occupation.
Or interrupted your removal of their resources.
Or gave comfort to your enemies.
You merely had to fly over the homes where their children
played and their wives cooked and their elders sat,
and drop your bombs.
The fiery transformation was considered most effective.
You had delivered a clear message on the law of civilization:
Never resist your superiors. Never think of resisting.
Submit and serve.
In this way, early aerial bombing massacred civilians
in the villages and cities of Morocco and India and
Iran and Ethiopia and many, many other countries.
Only you never heard of these bombings.
They had no Picasso to tell the tale of their devastation.
Their stories went up with the smoke.
Of course, the civilized powers dropping the bombs
did not endorse the brutal killing of innocents. They would never do that.
They were nations of laws and justice and religion.
They enacted strict international laws forbidding such actions.
Only these laws applied to humans like themselves.
Humans unlike themselves,
Africans or Arabs or Asians or Indians,
were naturally inferior and fell outside such legal constraints.
They could be slaughtered for their own good.
That’s what was interesting with Guernica.
Europeans bombed innocent Europeans.
That was new in 1937. And deeply unsettling.
Picasso began working on his masterpiece almost immediately
after hearing reports of the atrocity, and his Guernica painting
soon toured widely through Europe.
When viewers gazed upon it, did they sense
it was an image more from the future than the past?
No matter. A single painting, no matter how strong, no matter
how celebrated the artist, was not enough. Not enough at all.
Soon the people of the civilized nations would learn
what their darker-skinned brothers already knew.
Everyone was at risk from the sky.
In a few short years, civilians living in huge cities
would be incinerated by the tens of thousands.
Dresden, Hamburg, and Tokyo would be
decimated in a new kind of war where everyone
was a target and innocence was irrelevant.
Of course, that was another time, another world.
Nothing like that could happen today.
The important work of our greatest artists tell us so.