In 1937 Pablo Picasso paints Guernica, probably what became his most well known painting, in order to express his opposition against the atrocities of Franco’s regime. In particular, Picasso’s work was a commentary on the destruction of the city of Guernica in the Basque country of Northern Spain. During the Spanish civil war in 1937, the city of Guernica was associated with the Republican resistance movement and was regarded as the epicentre of Basque culture. This is what made the city a significant and symbolic target for the Spanish Nationalist forces, which collaborated with Hitler’s Germany and bombed Guernica. Picasso’s oil painting on canvas is regarded as one of the most powerful anti-war artworks in the history of art and has since become a globally recognised symbol of the role and the power of artists in times of war, crimes, and atrocities.
In February 2003, United States Secretary of State, Colin Powell was presenting the evidence in favour of going to war against Iraq at the United Nations Security Council. After the meeting with the officials, a press conference was scheduled outside of the UN council room that informed the world of the reasons and justifications for the US-led attack on Iraq. Yet, a very large tapestry reproduction of Picasso’s Guernica is located on the wall outside of the council room. Powell asked for the tapestry reproduction of Guernica to be covered with a blue curtain during this press conference. Replying to the questions of the journalists, United Nations officials claimed that the cover-up was simply a matter of creating a more effective backdrop for the television cameras: when we do have large crowds we put the flags up and the UN logo in front of the tapestry’ (Walsh, 2003). Of course the presence of mutilated bodies, distorted faces, and chaos on the background would be an ineffective and unappealing backdrop for justifying to a global audience that the US was planning to start a war in Iraq. The covered Guernica was a symbolic statement that spoke volumes about the power of art to raise consciousness, the representations of the horrors of war and fascism, and the inconvenient ‘art’ of UN’s diplomacy.
In 2015, the cartoonist Jovcho Savov revisits Picasso’s Guernica in order to create a visual cry against the horrors of the ‘refugee crisis’. Savov uses the powerful nightmarish faces from Picasso’s painting provoking an intense feeling of suffering, fear, and inescapability. In Savov’s re-appropriation the figures are now in a boat drowning in the Aegean sea. In 2015, these bodies are named ‘refugees’ trying to escape wars and atrocities declared (or remaining undeclared) in front of covered Guernicas. Savov’s artwork has colour – while Picasso’s painting is black and white- and depicts on the background a cruising boat on the Aegean sea, perhaps a commentary by the artist that not all crossings are dangerous, not all bodies are drowning in the Aegean. The Aegean Guernica is a powerful reminder of the normalisation of war and not its inescapability.
Walsh, David (2003) ‘UN conceals Picasso’s Guernica for Powell’s presentation’, World Socialist Website, https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2003/02/guer-f08.html