The greater portion of humanity’s history can, unfortunately, be told in terms of conflict and war. Whether driven by territorial desires, religious zealotry, political expediency, or inherent ethnic / racial divides, wars large and small, tribal, national or international have pockmarked the stories of successive civilisations. With the 21st century just into its 23rd year, we have already witnessed some 27 significant conflicts and wars around the globe – roughly twice the number seen within the first two decades of the 20th century.
Little wonder then, that London Junkers has chosen as he latest installation – opening on Wednesday, January 11th, 2023 at 13:00 SLT – to bring back Guernica, his 3D reproduction of Pablo Picasso’s famous oil painting, regarded around the world by many through the years as the most moving and powerful anti-war painting in history.
For those unfamiliar with the painting, from mid-1936 through until late 1939, Spain was torn apart by a civil war between the then-Republican government (notably aided by Soviet Russia and by Mexico) and the Nationalists, lead by a group of generals who had failed to seize power in a coup d’état in mid-July 1936 and were aided by Fascist Germany and Italy.
As a part of that conflict, General Francisco Franco called upon the German Luftwaffe’s Condor Legion and the Italian Aviazione Legionaria to bomb the small – but to the Basques, historically and culturally significant – town of Guernica. Ostensibly, the raid was to deny retreating Republican army use of the town’s bridge to cross the Oka River. However, the use of incendiary bombs later the later raids carried out by the German Condor Legion and which set the town ablaze, does suggest the the bombing was intended to break the spirit of the Basque army.
The attack levelled almost all of the town, with it and the strafing of roads and streets by fighters was seen as a war crime. On hearing about the raid at his home in Paris, Pablo Picasso was horrified. Already been commissioned by the Republican government to produce a painting for the Spanish pavilion at the 1937 Paris International Exposition (and to raise funds for the Republican cause via exhibitions around the world), he decided to express his outrage at the murder of women and children – both of whom he saw as “the very perfection of mankind” – through a painting commemorating those lost.
In all, the painting – over 7.5 metres long and around 3.5 metres high – took Picasso 35 days to produce, and while it was the result of a commission by and for his nation’s Republican government, and he was himself an anti-fascist, and thus vehemently opposed to the likes of Franco, Hitler and Mussolini, he saw the painting as a means to express his overall abhorrence to the war and the effect the actions of both sides was having on his homeland.
The Spanish struggle is the fight of reaction against the people, against freedom. My whole life as an artist has been nothing more than a continuous struggle against reaction and the death of art. How could anybody think for a moment that I could be in agreement with reaction and death? … In the panel on which I am working, which I shall call Guernica, and in all my recent works of art, I clearly express my abhorrence of the military caste which has sunk Spain in an ocean of pain and death.
– Pablo Picasso
Interpreting the painting tends to be subjective; while there is clear symbolism throughout, some of which is clear – such as the woman on the left mourning the loss of her babe-in-arms; the woman with arms upraised to the right, the lick of flames both above and below her, the fallen, dismembered soldier -, so to is there symbolism (or metaphor) which is harder to discern. The presence of the bull and horse, for example; both animals have enormous significance in Spanish culture, and would appear to have significance here – but Picasso himself warned against reading too much into their presence other than, perhaps, as symbols of his nation.
But that said, the overall horror and destruction, the pain, death and sorrow that surround war is all too clearly evident throughout the piece. As such, when visiting London’s installation, I strongly recommend viewing it from far enough back so you can see all of the piece in a single frame such that it might be viewed as the original. From here all the nuances of the piece can be seen, such as the way the horse’s nose, nostrils and teeth offer a stylised human skull, for example. By moving / camming close helps to bring individual pieces within London’s interpretation of Picasso’s work, allowing us to ponder their meaning.
This symbolism also extends to the landing point / event stage for the installation. Sharing the same black / white / greyscale tones as the painting, this area features two Junkers dive bombers (not actually used in the Guernica raid, but utterly symbolic of the terror of warfare), swooping down on the stage. Between them, a dove – the symbol of peace – sits trapped within a sphere, a symbolism which speaks for itself. Above this sits the trunk of a tree, representative of both the line of Gernikako Arbola, or [oak] Tree of Guernica – a central facet of the Biscayan people (and by extension, Basques as a whole); and the third tree in the series (1858-2004), which miraculously survived the bombing of the town. Finally, two board on the stage provide, respectively, an introduction to the installation and London’s own indictment of war, in the form of a poem, might be read.
When writing about the original presentation of this installation in 2012, I noted it might be said that the bombing of Guernica washed away the last vestiges of the romanticism so often afforded war through word, verse and idealism. Sadly, it did not bring an end to war itself, as witnessed by the events that followed on the heels of the Spanish Civil War, and all the conflicts since, per the opening comments of this piece.
In this, and given all that is occurring within Ukraine in particular (and before it, Georgia), the return of Guernica to Second Life at this time helps reminds us that so long as we are driven by the need for power, for dominance (and dominion) over others and in elevating politics and / or religion above our fellow humans, the innocent will continue to suffer under the yoke of war.
- Guernica, Aster’s Dream (Montague Island, rated Adult)