Sunday, February 05, 2006

Picasso: a painter is also political

A scientist is also political.

February 8, 2003

No place for art in debate? A tapestry at the U.N., depicting a slaughter, was covered this week for Powell's visit.
By Christopher Knight,
Times Staff Writer

The riverside at New York City's Turtle Bay, on which the headquarters of the United Nations now stands, was once the site of a slaughterhouse.

Over the years much has been made of the poetic transformation of a killing ground into a space for peaceful diplomacy.

But that was before the flap this week over the Great "Guernica" Cover-up, where slaughterhouse and diplomacy collided. The fuss began with the appearance last week by U.N. arms inspector Hans Blix before his diplomatic colleagues, reporting on the recent duplicitous shenanigans of Saddam Hussein. It took flight Wednesday for Secretary of State Colin L. Powell's presentation to the Security Council of the U.S. case for war against Iraq.

A tapestry version of Pablo Picasso's black-and-white antiwar masterpiece, "Guernica," hangs just outside the Security Council chamber. For the first time ever, it was covered up during Powell's visit. A blue drape featuring the U.N. logo was fronted with a row of international flags.

"Guernica" is the most famously harrowing painting of a slaughterhouse made in the modern era. Painted by Picasso for the Spanish pavilion at Paris' 1937 Exposition Universelle, it records the artist's revulsion at the bombing of innocent civilians in the Basque town of Guernica by Nazi allies of Gen. Francisco Franco.

Picasso's painting put a grim modern twist on a venerable artistic subject -- the massacre of the innocents. The dying horse, the brooding Minotaur, the weeping women and other archetypal images from his earlier work mingle here with a baby's corpse, a
fallen man clutching a broken sword and lamps illuminating the darkness to reveal the stark horror. Guernica's bombing was a terrorist assault. A military base and a munitions warehouse near the town went untouched. The Fascists' aim was not killing soldiers and destroying materiel in Spain's civil war but filling ordinary people with dread.

Then-Gov. Nelson Rockefeller had the "Guernica" tapestry made for the New York statehouse in Albany. In 1985, when Picasso's painting left the Rockefeller-created Museum of Modern Art for its present home in Madrid, Nelson's widow put the tapestry on permanent loan to the U.N. (John D. Rockefeller had put up the money to buy the U.N.'s slaughterhouse site.) It's been there through every warring catastrophe since, from Rwanda to Bosnia.

As my colleague Maggie Farley reported Thursday in The Times, U.N. officials said they covered the tapestry after TV reporters complained that its wild lines and screaming figures made a bad backdrop for interviews. If true, this is a rare instance of television cameras shunning violent images.

The wobbly explanation recalled the one made a year ago by Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft's office, when the 121Ú2-foot-tall, bare-breasted aluminum Deco statue of the Spirit of Justice, which has stood in the Justice Department's Great Hall since 1936, was similarly covered up with blue drapery.

Blue is the photogenic color of choice for TV backgrounds -- though Ashcroft's critics quickly noted that it's also the hue of a prude's nose. There was a history for this. When Reagan-era Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III held a news conference in the Great Hall to release his notorious 1986 report on pornography, news photographers reportedly fell to the floor to take their shots, the better to capture the breasts of spiritual justice looming over Meese's head.

"What do you think an artist is?" Picasso wrote in answer to queries about the sharp political thrust of "Guernica." "An imbecile who has only his eyes if he's a painter, or ears if he's a musician, or a lyre at every level of his heart if he's a poet ... ?"

No, he said, a painter is also political, and painting can have a grave civic function: "It is an instrument of war for attack and defense against the enemy."

Pictures matter, in other words. Today, television pictures do tend to matter most, but at least art sometimes manages to get in the way. #

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