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April 16, 2006

Overrated Paintings (1): Picasso's "Guernica"

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

There are paintings you are expected to like.

No, you won't "get disappeared" or be sent to a "reprogramming" camp if you don't toe the line. Though there seem to be some colleges and universities that place a high premium on Groupthink and things might get a tad dicey there if you express some of the views that I'm about to present.

For as long as I can remember, Pablo Picasso's "Guernica" has been described as "a masterpiece" that is an indictment of war and its horrors as exemplified by the evil Nazis, Fascists and Falangists of Nationalist Spain in the 1936-39 civil war against innocent, peace-loving, democratic, progressive Republican Spain.

(For a personal report by someone who fought on the Republican side and barely escaped the Reds with his life, read George Orwell's "Homage to Catalonia." Both sides were pretty bloodthirsty during the war and the Falangists carried this forward into the aftermath, for which they have been properly criticized. What's unknowable is the size of the post-war bloodbath the Communists would have inflicted had they won, for there surely would have been one. To Franco's credit, for whatever his motives, he kept Spain out of World War 2 and established the conditions that led to Spain becoming a democracy following his death.

I'm pointing these things out because most reporting, commentary and even literary accounts of the Spanish Civil War were heavily slanted toward the Republican side at the time and since. The Republic wasn't as wonderful as has been depicted. And Franco, dictator that he was, paled in comparison to the evil of Hitler and Stalin -- whose minions had effectively highjacked the Republic before the war ended.

A story: At a cocktail party in Spain back in the 60s an American asks a Spaniard what he thinks of Franco. The Spaniard places a finger to his lips and with his other hand beckons the American to follow him. They silently cross the lawn and climb into a rowboat. The Spaniard rows the boat to the middle of the lake and stops. He carefully scans the horizon, then leans close to the American and whispers, "I rather like him.")

It's often stated that we art consumers should ignore the politics of the artist and focus on the work of art. Well, I'll do my very best to do just that in the rest of this post. But it might be hard, since "Guernica" is a political painting given the context of its creation. (Though not as political in its content as was the case of Diego Rivera's inclusion of an image of Lenin in a Radio City mural. The Rockefellers paid Rivera off and had the mural destroyed.)

For some sympathetic background, here is an article on "Guernica" on the PBS web site and here is the Wikipedia entry about the painting.

Let me add that I've seen "Guernica" several times. I saw it when I visited the Museum of Modern Art in the early 1960s. It has been in Madrid for the last 25 years.

Here is what "Guernica" looks like.

Guernica - 3.jpg
Picasso's "Guernica"

This is going to be difficult, but try looking at "Guernica" as if you had never heard of Pablo Picasso and knew nothing about what the painting was supposed to depict. Close your eyes, click your heels twice, spin around three times and pretend really hard that you're seeing it for the first time. Okay?

Open your eyes. What do you see? It's a value-painting: no real colors, just various shades of gray with tendencies towards brown or blue. There are straight lines serving as edges of flatly painted or patterned areas. In the top-center is a crudely-drawn light bulb and reflector. The rest of the painting is populated by images of people and animals that are crudely-drawn, distorted. A hand attached to what might be an arm is clutching what seems to be an oil-lamp. There is a crudely-drawn woman at the left who might be screaming while holding a crudely-drawn baby who is sick or dead. On the right is an extremely crudely-drawn human with raised arms. To the lower right is a very crudely-drawn woman leaning forward. Along the bottom is a crudely-drawn man on his back whose eyes are at angles to each other. He seems to be grasping a broken sword in his right hand and might well be dead. There are three creatures depicted. The smallest could be a bird whose head for some reason is raised to the sky. Towards the left is what seems to be a bull gazing back at the viewer: it too is crudely drawn. At the center is what might be a horse.

The compositional effect is jarring, not placid or soothing. Composition aside, the painting has whatever impact it has because it is large, being a mural.

A curator or art historian would likely pigeonhole "Guernica" as a mix of Cubism and Expressionism.

Asked to tell what the painting represents, an ignorant viewer might stumble on the fact that it has to do with war (there is that possible broken sword) but might well come up with a different interpretation.

When I viewed "Guernica" I knew its background and knew that it was supposed to be a masterpiece of Modernism. I tried really hard to like it. But I failed.

As a matter of fact, I don't like it. And I don't like almost everything Picasso ever produced. On the other hand, I don't hate his stuff either. When I see Picassos in a museum I shrug and keep moving because I don't see anything worth looking at regardless of whatever importance he holds in the history of art. The Art Establishment will beg to differ and so might you.

We're in the realm of opinion here, not objectivity. And I say "Guernica" is a large-format nothing.



posted by Donald at April 16, 2006


Totally agree on Guernica & Picasso in general. It's mostly epochcentrism; we'll see if in 200 or so years if he still has the same stature as he does today (doubt it!). Velazquez & Goya -- now they've stood the test of time.

Just one bone to pick, though (you opened the door): almost no one was a Communist in Spain during the Civil War. Most of the radicals were (non-capitalist) Anarchists -- Council Communists, Libertarian Socialists, Anarchosyndicalists -- whatever you wanna call 'em. They bitterly opposed the Communists, not unlike the Anarchists who fought against Lenin & Co in the Russian Revolution. They descend from Mikhail Bakunin (not Marx or Lenin), who had more influence in southern Europe. I was involved in various activist groups in college -- probably the most seething hatred is that b/w Communists & Left Anarchists. The Spanish Revolution is the only big Left Anarchist revolution that lasted any appreciable length of time. Inevitably, these are the radicals idolized by most punk groups; not Leninists.

You're right that all sides commit horrors, but if I felt the Communists and Fascists on either side of me -- I'll kill 'em too, even while recognizing they're human beings and all.

Posted by: Agnostic on April 16, 2006 5:38 PM

Picasso's reputation is inflated by various extra-artistic criteria dear to the hearts of the Art Establishment. He was a "character"; he is associated more than anyone with the revolt against realistic representation (although the true revolutionary was Kandinsky, a greater artist); he practiced in France, which gives his work a special cachet; and finally, he was leftist in his politics, with Guernica being an earnest of his "correct" views.

If he had announced that Guernica was a depiction of the death and destruction caused in an attack by the Communists in the Spanish Civil War, would the picture enjoy its celebrity? As the saying goes, to ask the question is to answer it.

Posted by: Rick Darby on April 16, 2006 5:43 PM

I've been patiently sneering at the mention of "Guernica" since 1968 or 1969, when it was exhibited at the Chicago Art Institute, and I dutifully made the pilgrimmage to see the professed "masterpiece." I'd been less than overwhelmed in my minor manifestation as an art student by the reproductions in art history texts, and even by the slides ooohed and aaahed and pontificated over in class. It was suggested that such reproductions did not do full justice to the tragic majesty of the great work, and that it needed to be viewed in the full awesomeness of its scale (meaning it was very big) and immediacy of presence ("You had to be there") for complete comprehension. Okay. I liked modernism. Some of it.

The long and the short of it is that I came, I saw, I listened to fellow students have their prescribed "Aha!" epiphanies, and I found the painting itself considerably weaker in its full glory than it had seemed even in the feeblest of reproductions, which had at least benefited from condensation -- and not being 100 miles from college.

When I seemed to waver in proper appreciation, I was reminded that the painting "evoked the horrors of war." In actual fact, it made war look faintly comical -- and I wondered what intrinsic merit the painting might possibly have if one had to be constandly reminded of its "message" and its "impact." Insofar as I could tell, the topic might just as easily have been three or four random Greek myths jumbled together -- or a bad day at the circus.

Of course I knew nothing then about the (yawn) political background of the work, or about the pietistic moans that were elicited among a certain sector of the intelligentsia at the mere mention of the anti-fascist "struggle" during the Spanish Civil War. It was Orwell who set me straight, too, a few years later.

You're the first person I've run across in the years since who's diverged from received opinion about "Guernica." I'm sure that there must have been others -- haven't there? -- but I've just never bumped into them. Good work.

Posted by: Bleak Mouse on April 16, 2006 5:57 PM

I've several times seen a quote from Picasso himself reproduced--in which he freely admits that all his so-called genius is a put-on.

Posted by: winifer skattebol on April 16, 2006 6:19 PM

"When I see Picassos in a museum I shrug and keep moving because I don't see anything worth looking at ..."

There is in Barcelona a museum with early Picassos, works done when he was in his teens. Some great works. He was a great artist, who abandoned art in favor of sesationalisn and ugliness when he grew up.

Posted by: Jacob on April 16, 2006 6:41 PM

Picasso is overrated, Franco is underrated.

Picasso is a guy who got famous due to great early work, then stayed famous due to great self-promotion and striking the right poses.

Franco was the least bad of two options, as hard as that is for some people to choke down. The communists taking over Spain and running the place during the two years that Stalin was Hitler's ally (Sept. 1939-July, 1941) would have been a much worse "fascist" victory than Franco's victory. There was no international fascist movement, at least not one that Franco was part of. He was a nationalist more or less of the old school. He found something useful to do with his hard-core fascists. When the Germans invaded Russia, he let the fanatics join the "Blue Division" which volunteered to fight communism. The Germans gave Franco weapons to equip these guys. He kept the weapons and sent them to their deaths in Russia with old junk to fight with. Multiple problems solved at once -- he placated the Germans, equipped his own army better (to hold of the Germans if necessary) and he got all the young and fiery genuine fascists out of the country and safely into graves in a foreign country. Franco was a wily bastard. But surviving in that place and time was not for nice guys. The authoritarian regime he established was harsh, but a Stalinist regime established by the communists would probably have killed a lot more people.

It is not PC to say it, but the leftists who went to fight for "the Republic" were a bunch of dupes. Orwell's book is the best one to read, because he tells the truth about how the communists took over and massacred the people who were supposedly on "their side". The supposedly idealistic leftists rarely mention these inconvenient facts.

Posted by: Lexington Green on April 16, 2006 7:48 PM

Donald –

RE: “What's unknowable is the size of the post-war bloodbath the Communists would have inflicted had they won, for there surely would have been one.” We only know the murders and atrocities that Franco inflicted on Spain, and cannot measure them against a pointless hypothetical that can never be proven one way or another.

RE: “To Franco's credit, for whatever his motives, he kept Spain out of World War 2 and established the conditions that led to Spain becoming a democracy following his death.” It’s hard for me to credit the man who once said "Our regime is based on bayonets and blood, not on hypocritical elections," as establishing the conditions for democracy, but each to his own taste.

That said, although much modern and post-modern art leaves me cold, I rather like“Guernica,” -- and have seen it and numerous other Picasso works in person. The cold hard reality is that much purely representational art has become a dead end, of interest only to the middle-brow, the antiquarian, and the sentimentalist, in part because the tradition had been made obsolete by photography and cinema, and because the most creative artists have moved on to other art forms. This happened before when the best artists abandoned long-form epic and narrative poetry for theater and the novel, and it is happening today as poetry, the novel, much classical music, and almost all of jazz is being left behind in favor of film, television, popular music and Internet-spawned art. When was the last time that you read about someone being praised for having written the Great American Novel or being hailed as a major new poet?

You talk about the muted colors and the crude renderings in the painting as though this is an artistic error. And to suggest that “the painting has whatever impact it has because it is large, being a mural” is as pointless as saying that Michelangelo’s “David” would be less effective if the work was only 18 inches tall. Also, the large size of the painting helps get across the little joke of the skull hidden in the central portion of the painting.

The black and white and muted colors were deliberately selected to invoke a newspaper photograph, while the obvious lack of “realism” in the figures depicted transcend mere photography (after all, what would be the point?). The crudity and jarring angles of the humans and animals suggest the agonies of death. At the same time, the elongated, soft heads which almost seem to float away from their bodies in the middle and lower section of the painting suggest human tears.

Oh yeah, the “crudely-drawn light bulb and reflector” suggests a detached (or sorrowful) Deity taking in the whole scene – and also reminds of the flash of a detached and godlike photographer’s camera.

By the way, I recall seeing a series of 12 drawings of a bull Picasso did over a short period of time. Some were deliberately classical, some suggested the solidness of Greek statues. The last drawings were increasingly abstract. All were effortlessly excellent, as Picasso emphasized the point that he could handle realism or abstract forms with ease. It works for me, but your mileage may vary.

Posted by: Alec on April 16, 2006 8:22 PM

I can second what Jacob said. I've seen one of Picasso's sketches, reproduced in a book, from his teenage years. It's a drawing of a statue (torso only). The quality is jaw-dropping. Whatever made Picasso turn to primativism, it wasn't weak draftsmanship.

A while back, Friedrich von B. explained the historical context and message of Demoiselles D’Avignon, which explained why such an off-putting painting made such an impact on French artists of Picasso's generation. Whether paintings like Demoiselles D’Avignon or Guernica are great art -- defined as possessing qualities that can move people far removed in time and space -- seems doubtful to me. Add me to your list of Picasso skeptics.

Posted by: Fred on April 16, 2006 8:42 PM

but a Stalinist regime established by the communists would probably have killed a lot more people
Again, please discriminate b/w anarchosyndicalists (call them whatever) and Stalinists / Leninists. There were certainly Leninist / Stalinist types there, as everywhere, but they weren't a big factor among the radicals (though they had more international support, from the USSR). They certainly weren't running Barcelona -- that was the anarchosyndicalists, mostly under the National Confederation of Labor (CNT, huge anarchosyndicalist union), the Iberian Anarchist Federation (FAI), and other local fellow travelers. The anarchosyndicalists' basic principle was bottom-up running of things -- thus the Communists' goal of a top-down state and economy was antithetical to them.

In fact, in the Mediterranean in general, ordinary people were more into Left Anarchism than Stalinist Communism -- it's probably better suited to their fiery blood. That's why there are always huge popular demonstrations in Barcelona, Rome, and Athens, vs few in Moscow or other former Soviet capitals.

So, it was not "Franco or Stalinist Communism." It was Franco or Stalinists or anarchosyndicalists or social democrats or ... and in reality, the Stalinists weren't in control. Who knows whether the anarchosyndicalist country would've worked? To run even slightly modern industries, you need high-IQ people doing managerial-type stuff. So maybe it would've devolved into a market socialist economy. But it definitely was not on the verge of becoming another Stalinist USSR.

The other argument in favor of authoritarianism is to keep regional feuding under tight control, like in the former Yugoslavia. But, while people from Catalonia view those from Andalusia the same way New Englanders view those from Mississippi, there wasn't a cauldron of ethnic tension that needed a strong state to subdue it.

Posted by: Agnostic on April 16, 2006 8:51 PM

And I second the warmer feelings for Picasso's earlier work -- I know which museum Jacob's talking about. Pro-science nerd though I am, there's a nice painting (from 1897) showing how modern medical doctors vs religious nuns attend to an obviously moribund patient: the doctor by coldly, futily continuing to monitor her pulse, and the nun by bringing her something to drink and carrying her son/daughter so she doesn't die alone.

Science and Charity

Posted by: Agnostic on April 16, 2006 9:00 PM

I've seen Guernica in person and found it a stunner. Just like some people are ideologically committed to disliking "cute" representational art, I find others are (perhaps in reaction to the first set?) committed to disliking jarring, defiantly unpleasant and even "ugly" modernist art like later Picasso. Granted his later work is by no means charming or pretty, it is raw and brutal, but IMO profoundly revealing. Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (to my mind an even greater painting than Guernica) sets forth that aesthetic brilliantly. More than any other artist in Western history, Picasso brings out the animal in the humans he paints. But it's a totemic kind of animal, full of a raw, disturbing vitality and energy. Also a coldness; the energies he tries to reveal are almost pre-emotional.

And yes, you need to see both Guernica and D. d'Avignon in person for their full effect. A little 6 inch by 6 inch video thing on your internet screen isn't going to do it.

My local museum, before it was shut down for repairs (grrr.....) had some brilliant paintings from Picasso's early blue and rose periods. He was a genius prodigy, his early work is stunning as well. It is softer and more accessible and conventionally beautiful, but the desire to strip down the human form and reveal chthonic energies beneath is already present.

Finally, I think Guernica is separable from its politics. I'm not a Franco fan (certainly no Hitler, but he still killed hundreds of thousands), but I don't think that's relevant to the quality of the work.

Posted by: MQ on April 16, 2006 9:27 PM

It's only my non-professional opinion, but I believe the greatest artist of the 20th century was Paul Klee. Picasso has his points and his moments, but there were plenty of others who were far greater, including Mondrian, Kandinsky and Matisse. In particular, I direct you to two works by Klee: "Golden Fish" and any of the ''Senecio" series. Picasso never did anything close. It would be interesting to know how Picasso fares in another 50 or 100 years.

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on April 16, 2006 9:29 PM

I didn't see Fred's link above to Freidrich von B.'s excellent discussion of "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon". Nor had I read that post before, it's really good. I encourage people to check that out for a deeper discussion of the power of Picasso's best work. Picasso was going to deep places; he deconstructs the body and strips it of the conventional sources of its attraction (beauty), but under the surface he finds a more mysterious, iconic, striking sort of visual power. His expression of that was completely original. Yet at the same time it feels very old, timeless, primitive (his use of primitivist motifs is well known).

Posted by: MQ on April 16, 2006 9:36 PM

"Picasso has his points and his moments, but there were plenty of others who were far greater, including Mondrian, Kandinsky and Matisse."

Whether Picasso was a great artist is a different question from whether he was *the* great artist of the 20th century. 1910-1940 was a very great period in visual art, maybe the last great flowering of painting as an art form. There were a lot of masters there, and I do think Picasso may be overrated in the sense that he is so much better known than his best contemporaries. But that is another question. Who knows what will happen to Picasso's reputation, but I think that in 50-100 years the giants of that period, including Picasso, will still be enjoyed and venerated.

Posted by: MQ on April 16, 2006 9:41 PM

Picasso sure didn't think a lot of museums:

"Museums are just a lot of lies, and the people who make art their business are mostly imposters. We have infected the pictures in museums with all our stupidities, all our mistakes, all our poverty of spirit. We have turned them into petty and ridiculous things."

Posted by: winifer skattebol on April 16, 2006 10:04 PM

Agnostic wrote:
So, it was not "Franco or Stalinist Communism." It was Franco or Stalinists or anarchosyndicalists or social democrats or ... and in reality, the Stalinists weren't in control. Who knows whether the anarchosyndicalist country would've worked?

I don't think my friend Lex was defending authoritarianism in post-civil-war Spain. I think that in that time and place only the most ruthless leaders and political movements could have survived. The social democrats and anarchosyndicalists had as much chance of gaining and keeping power as did Orwell's POUM and other idealistic leftist groups whom the Stalinists slaughtered. Franco was the best of a bunch of bad alternatives. In hindsight it's clear that the outcome for Spain could have been much worse.

Posted by: Jonathan on April 17, 2006 8:06 AM

Picasso was not an artist. He was a charlatan with the brain of a flea. "Modernism" such as cubism and expressionism intentionally distorts and hides reality, it doesn't interpret and explain it, as real art does.

Posted by: Robert Speirs on April 17, 2006 9:31 AM

As a result of being forced to look by an art buff older brother, I am familiar with some of Picasso's earlier work, which reveals some very genuine artistic skill, if nothing else. Guernica is not among them. In fact, I think it is in fact paintings like Guernica that turn most people severely "off" the whole idea of "modern art" (and huge numbers of people don't know the official definition of that, they just know James Joyce's "Ulysses" and Picasso and they gag). That said, I do think his dove of peace was pretty cool, but I fully agree with Donald that there do seem to be certain paintings that we're all "supposed to" gasp over (and not just Picasso---da Vinci's "The Last Supper" has always kind of left me cold, at least purely as something to look at, which I know isn't the only issue. Just like some of Michelangelo's sculptures on that Pope's tomb where the women creepily look like steroided men with breasts stuck on). It's like announcing your rubism to the world to say "huh?"

Posted by: annette on April 17, 2006 9:44 AM

It's a great pity that books about Spanish Civil War, as it's called in Russia, aren't translated to English.

There is much written on the subject: from propagandists of the 30's who faught behind Republican lines, experienced Stalin's change of heart in 1939, during his short-lived pact with Hitler, and either ran for deer life (which didn't helped them) or went to Moscow as heroes of International Brigades to end up a bloody mess in cellars of Ljubyanka.

The most famous and most opportunistic weatherwane of them all, Ilia Erenburg, redeemed himself (after serving Stalin for 30 yrs) with the book that was a sensation of Samizdat for decades after it was published during the Thaw (he was the one to invent the term, tw): "People, years, life".
There is a chapter there about the Spanish War, talking quite frankly about the Stalinist practices that International Brigade members introduced outside of Soviet Union: shooting your own side in the back during the action, to get rid of "bad apples", the comissars, the troikas, etc. Spanish War was a lab for Stalin, to try and master the technique for future use.

Alec, for pretty accurate approximation of what the Spain would look like if Republican side, led by their Kremlin "advisers", won, you only have to look at 1936-39 Soviet Union - or Eastern Europe post 1945. It is very naive to think anarchists would stand a chance against Stalin.

Posted by: Tatyana on April 17, 2006 10:46 AM

I'm no big expert on the Spanish Civil War but I don't understand why it's been built up into some kind of "Lord of the Rings"-style confrontation between Good and Evil (with Sauron winning). If you look at much of the left-wing British blogosphere, the "anti-fascist" struggle of the Spanish Civil War is viewed as some kind of eternal moral touchstone and a template for all future political action. From what I can gather: democracy and the rule of law had irretrievably broken down before the war broke out, so there was not much of a "Republic" left to save; all the major groups involved (Falangists, Anarchists*, various shades of Communist) were murderous scum with gallons of blood on their hands. It might be legitimate to speculate which was the least bad option. Franco was at least able to contemplate his own mortality (unlike Tito, for instance) and ensure a bloodless transition to democracy after his death, and he didn't mess with the economy as much as his rivals would have done. As a country, Spain circa 1990 was in a lot better state than any of the former Eastern Bloc nations are today.

* No, the anarchists weren't nice people either. According to Trevor of Kalebeul, who really knows a bit about Catalan history: "In my estimation, the savagery in 1936 in Catalonia of Orwell's friends, the anarcho-syndicalist and POUM death squads, far exceeded anything perpetrated by the Stalinists and their friends or by the Francoists in later years. Sometimes victims were killed where they were found, sometimes they were dragged out of villages, tortured horribly, and left to die, and sometimes they were picked up by the "ghost car" (cotxe fantasma), the name given to stolen vehicles manned by local militiamen, which delivered them to execution squads waiting at Montcada cementery, just north of Barcelona."

Posted by: J.Cassian on April 17, 2006 10:48 AM

There's a copy of 'Guernica' in the UN Headquarters, in New York.

When Colin Powell made his deceptive speech there, about the alleged threat of the alleged WMDs in Iraq, they pulled a curtain before the painting. Regardless of the quality of 'Guernica', it still stands for something. Even now.

Posted by: ijsbrand on April 17, 2006 11:57 AM

Guernica is intentionally "jarring." That's its whole point. As for "crudely" painted figures: it is no small thing to distort a figure in such a way that it conveys terror and distress more powerfully than an academically drawn figure would. That is what Picasso was after in Guernica -- and he succeeded.
Picasso is the case of an artist who often churned the stuff out without much involvement. But when he was deeply committed he could be a very great artist indeed -- in both painting and sculpture. There is a sculpture of his, Man Holding A Lamb, which has great power. It's in the Philadelphia Museum Of Art.

Posted by: ricpic on April 17, 2006 12:02 PM

Let's sum it up: the choice was between Franco and the Anarchist-Communist-Stalinist camp. No dilema at all. Franco wins by an enormous margin. Thanks to him Spain was lucky, luckier than most European countries.

Posted by: Jacob on April 17, 2006 12:04 PM

Correction: that should be Man With A Lamb.

Posted by: ricpic on April 17, 2006 12:09 PM

"Guernica is intentionally "jarring." "

And "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon". too ?

I don't like "intentionally jarring" art. I don't like conscripted art - art intentionally serving a political cause.

Posted by: Jacob on April 17, 2006 12:45 PM

ijsbrand, alleged threat of alleged WMD?
I started to think Bush indeed made a mistake: he should've made Iraq expressing itself chemically and in all probability, nuclearly, but against our so called NATO allies in Europe. Would that be a sufficient proof? Pity he's a good Christian.

Posted by: Tatyana on April 17, 2006 12:54 PM

Maybe if I speak louder, Jacob will understand -- there was no Anarchist-Stalinist-Communist camp, as the Anarchists & Stalinists were ideologically & practically opposed -- like, diametric opposites. Read and learn.

Tatyana -- you're right that it's possible that even if the anarchosyndicalists had won, their lack of military prowess might have left them vulnerable to the USSR. But we don't know for sure -- Italy was also like Spain, very anarchosyndicalist and anti-Stalinist, but they eventually opted for social democracy instead. Maybe the Spanish would've tried anarchosyndicalism, found that social democracy was better, and altered their system accordingly.

All I'm saying is that it's their choice to try what they like, so long as that system doesn't threaten the use of force against other countries (unlike Communism and Fascism). If the Spanish people wanted to elect a dictator-for-life, in order to maintain order, that's surely up to them -- but they wanted no such thing.

The other reason I'm unconvinced about Franco's greatness is that he waited until he died to transition to democracy. If he was merely a reluctant dictator trying to stave off the Soviets, why wait 30 years after WWII? It's not like the Kremlin was constantly at the Pyrenees. Take control for 5 or 10 years, yield to standard European social democracy, and you're done. But it didn't happen that way.

Moreover, the one fiery, Left Anarchist, Mediterranean country that eventually became a G8 country was Italy -- the one that lacked dictatorship (unlike backwards Portugal, Spain, and Greece). So I'm not saying anarchosyndicalism is obviously superior to social democracy. And when push came to shove, the big Spanish anarchosyndicalist unions joined in the government, so I'd bet they would've gone the way of Italy if not kept under Franco's boot -- i.e., initial experiment with anarchosyndicalism, then transition to left-wing social democracy.

Saying that Franco is the reason Spain made progress is simply silly -- the one region responsible for Spain's economic growth was the one most bitterly opposed to Franco's politics & economics: Catalonia, with fiery red Barcelona leading the way. Spain's current politics are also the opposite of Franco's -- not just democratic, but highly federalist, with lots of regional autonomy.

Posted by: Agnostic on April 17, 2006 1:00 PM

Ricpic -- yeah, it's intentionally jarring, but I think it's too intentionally obscure as well. If the point is to shock the audience into realizing how horrific it was, why not paint something like Goya's paintings of Napoleon's army in Spain? They're also jarring, but easy to understand. The impact is thus more immediate and penetrating compared to Cubist works like Guernica. NB: I'm not against distorted, Modern art -- Expressionist accounts of war are also in the rough vein of Goya (esp his Black Paintings), though decidedly Modern.

Posted by: Agnostic on April 17, 2006 1:06 PM

"Anarchists & Stalinists were ideologically & practically opposed -- like, diametric opposites. Read and learn."

No, YOU read and learn. The Stalinists KILLED the anarchists. Shot them. Their supposed allies. In cold blood. A dead guy who used to have diametrically opposite opinions is no longer a politically relevant person. There was no third choice after the Stalinist crackdown happened.

Posted by: Lexington Green on April 17, 2006 1:54 PM

Boy, it's amazing how closely one's like/dislike for Picasso/"modern art" seems to hew to political leanings. I don't know if I'm surprised by that, I guess I just haven't really thought much about it. I wonder, are there any cubist-loving conservatives or modern representational-loving liberals? Or are those realms mutually exclusive?

I'm making vague assumptions of political affiliations based on past comments. Personally, I find Guernica, and much of Picasso's work, extremely powerful. His stuff is brutal and beautiful simultaneously, which is almost a unique quality. ricpic nails it here:

"As for "crudely" painted figures: it is no small thing to distort a figure in such a way that it conveys terror and distress more powerfully than an academically drawn figure would."

Of course, people like what they like, there is almost no chance and little reason to change a person's mind about art once he/she reaches a certain age.

Posted by: the patriarch on April 17, 2006 1:56 PM

Meant to say I find it astounding that Picasso can convey much feeling in a few lines. Also, I saw Guernica in Madrid a few years back, stood in front of it a good 20 minutes. My son, who was 8 at the time, said it was his favorite. He liked "the horse" in particualar. Jokes about "my kid could paint that" go here:______________________.

Posted by: the patriarch on April 17, 2006 2:06 PM

My point is that Guernica does not clearly convey anything - it's a muddled mess by a hypocritical poseur. The only reason I can see that one's emotions could be stirred by such a farrago is if the cool guys of the Artistic Establishment had said you should be oh, so profoundly moved and you always feel the way the cool guys tell you to.

Posted by: Robert Speirs on April 17, 2006 3:39 PM

As for politics and artistic opinions: I'm fairly right-wing, and I think that Guernica, as a painting, is pretty good. It's not a holy experience to view it; it's not the work of art that I would most choose to save from a tsunami. But it does what it does well.

But there surely is a political split here, because if you separate out the holders of the "greatest, most powerful, etc." opinion, I'm sure that a solid majority of them will be left-wing, with a similar inverse correlation for the "distorted junk" camp. These people are coming to these opinions for a number of different reasons, which in this case have pretty good correlations.

Some of those reasons are reactions to Picasso himself, and to his reputation. For whatever reasons, his name has entered the language as a synonym for "famous artistic genius", like Einstein's for science. Some people take that at face value, other people are irritated by it.

Me, on the average, I prefer Chagall. But perhaps I'm a rube.

Posted by: Derek Lowe on April 17, 2006 3:48 PM

Speirs, really? Your analysis, that anyone who enjoys things like Picasso paintings are either being duped or simply following the "cool guys of the Artistic Establishment" (or both), is satisfying to you? No room for differing tastes in your world?

Posted by: the patriarch on April 17, 2006 4:12 PM

All -- Thanks for all the thoughtful comments; unfortunately too big an avalanche for individual replies from me. And, especially, since political issues were raised I want to thank you for keeping the conversation civil -- something we Blowards strive for.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on April 17, 2006 6:20 PM

Jacob -- in 1934, the two largest anarchosyndicalist unions (CNT & UGT) had a combined membership of just over 2 million members.

So a tiny, marginalized group of Stalinists (Communist Party membership = low thousands) wiped out 2 million people? Nope. Now, did they backstab and kill individual anarchists? Certainly. Was there a Stalinist "crackdown" like that in the USSR? No way; they were never that numerous or powerful. I don't doubt they would've if they had full control, given what they did in the USSR. Thus, the Kremlin was not at the gates as you suggest.

Also recall that the Anarchists were not pacifists. Nothing short of an all-out invasion by Moscow would've stopped them if they'd beaten Franco; yet Stalin didn't invade even after it was clear his counterparts had lost, thus little reason to assume he would've if another group of his opponents had triumphed. Stalin probably didn't care about Spain -- it was almost all rural w/ some heavy industry, all the way across the continent, behind a mountain range. Not worth it to him.

Posted by: Agnostic on April 17, 2006 10:26 PM

*Make that, CNT & UGT had a combined membership of over 3 million members...

Posted by: Agnostic on April 17, 2006 10:26 PM

Not regarding the picture, but the incident it "depicts" (or not): I read in Stephen Bungay's excellent history of the Battle of Britain, The Most Dangerous Enemy, that the attack on Guernica was not a deliberate terror bombing, but a botched attempt at a precision strike on a bridge in the middle of the town. From this incident and others like it apparently the Luftwaffe learned that precision strikes were not really possible given late 1930s technology, and switched to just bombing cities indiscriminately - preferably ones with some kind of large, not too hard to find and hit, justifiably military/industrial target like the London docks. Much the same lesson, in fact, that the Royal Air Force learned a couple of years later.

Posted by: Alan Little on April 18, 2006 4:24 AM

this post shows us clearly how the blowhards are nothing but a bunch of bushite neocons and... exoectedly, philofascists

Posted by: acne on April 18, 2006 8:03 AM


Posted by: acne on April 18, 2006 8:05 AM

Well, so much for civility...

Posted by: annette on April 18, 2006 9:13 AM

Thanks for the info.
I can't say that my knowledge of Spain in 1936 is so deep as to be able to asses whether the anarchist would have turned into murderous totalitarians or not...
I have seen to many "noble hearted" lefties turn into totalitarian regimes...
And, during their rule in what was "Republican" Spain, they murdered several tens of thousands of civilians (same as Franco's forces).
The speculation that maybe the anarchists would not have turned into a full communist regime seems to me a little far fetched.
But I can't know what would have happened if...

Posted by: Jacob on April 18, 2006 12:42 PM

Cry "Havoc," and let slip the moonbats of war.. .

Posted by: Jonathan on April 18, 2006 3:07 PM

"...modern representational-loving liberals?"

Well, I am not sure if I quite qualify for the first although most people would say I meet the second. I don't pay much attention to current or recent painters, but the vast majority of my wallpaper is pre-1920. I spend a lot of time downloading and looking at jpgs. I don't dislike modernism, most of it is at least okay, but I don't seem to find it very interesting.

Representational? Is the Sistine Chapel or Botticeli "Birth of Venus" or "Primavera" representational" Odile Redon or Gustave Moreau? Poissin? Bierstadt? Painting is not photography, and never was. I don't completely understand what is going on in my relationship to the typical portrait or "Vanitas" still life. Probably a lot more than we realize, there are many ways we are trained to look.

I do believe there is some kind of relationship between art preference and politics, or conciousness, or whatever. I deliberately study pre-modernist art because it is supposedly at conflict with my politics. It does feel a little alien, and I am hoping to learn something about myself, about why I am a little repulsed by certain styles and subjects. But I am also probably less liberal than I suppose.

Posted by: bob mcmanus on April 18, 2006 8:39 PM

I haven’t been lucky enough to see the real piece. In any case its only my personal opinion. By seeing the piece from books and magazines, I think even if I forget the political aspect of the painting, I would still like the painting. It’s “crudeness”, “distortion” and “jarring presence” are quite appropriate. I believe seeing the real piece could be possibly more disturbing.

In my opinion, this piece of work is generally better then the other portraits drawn with the same crudeness and distortion. His works are generally not my cup of tea, but then maybe that was exactly how he felt about people and the world ?

look from studioLDA

Posted by: look on April 21, 2006 8:00 AM

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