Monday, 8 July 2013

Art and the moral obligations of being human

Even in 2013, the horror of war still remains with us. For people living Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia, Sudan and Mexico, among others, war is still a reality of life. It is inescapable. Tens of thousands of people die in these conflicts every year.

Of course, for those of us living in the West, it is becoming increasingly easy to ignore wars happening in other continents. It's not our business, you'll hear it said. We should let them sort it out by themselves.

In times like this, one needs to go back and examine the great masterpieces to get an idea of the real horror of war. You may say, what can art do in the face of a horrific war crime like, say, the bombing of Guernica by the Germans in 1937? Maybe art should just stick to showing us what haystacks look like in a certain light. Or maybe, just maybe, while the bombs are falling and killing thousands of people, it turns out that art is the only way of properly explaining such atrocities...

Art and war often have gone hand in hand. In fact, when you think back to when the central purpose of art was to be at the service of power, all you can think of are scenes of triumph, the glory of the winners and processions of victorious soldiers. From the scenes depicted on Roman triumphal arches to the Bayeux Tapestry, from The Surrender of Breda by Velázquez to Bonaparte crossing the Alps by Jacques-Louis David, war has always been represented in the most positive way possible and always from the point of view winners.

This all began to change in the nineteenth century, as art started to replace the role that previously belonged to religion, philosophy and politics: to give a consolation against the evils of life. Art for art's sake.

Alongside this change in the role of art, the depiction of the war in art also started to evolve. Gone were the scenes of triumph and glory, instead we started to see the other side of war: death, suffering, pain, destruction, cruelty, hatred, and the absolute uselessness of violence.

The first painter to show the horrors of war in this way was the Spanish artist Francisco Goya. The dark genius of Spanish painting was the first to see the true brutality of war. In his series of etchings, The Disasters of War, Goya vividly recreates scenes of atrocities committed during the Dos de Mayo Uprising, with particularly graphic scenes of death and destruction.

Goya painted then El dos de mayo, 1808, again showing a scene of that same revolt, only this time in a particularly chaotic moment of battle.

However, his masterpiece is The Third of May 1808. In this painting, Napoleon's troops are executing a group of Spanish rebels. It is a tragic scene, with soldiers in the dark and sinister act of murdering the terrified rebels, who stand amidst a pile of corpses, while another group to their left waits its turn. Despite the gesture of defiance against his executioners of the man in the white shirt, his arms flung wide like Christ on the cross, Goya makes no effort to hide the horror of the story.

The first time it was shown to the public, the piece didn't cause a stir and was only really appreciated after the Goya's death.

With the end of the First World War the representation of war as a glorious thing finally ended. Although there were still official war artists, with the role of spreading government propaganda, the most striking art was that which emphasized the horror of war. In fact, many artists fought in the Great War and retold their experiences in painting. Two artists of this kind were the Germans George Grosz and Otto Dix, members of the German Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) movement. However, while Grosz liked to portray the consequences of the war and other negative aspects of society (burly businessmen, corrupt politicians, wounded soldiers, prostitutes, sex crimes, orgies, etc.)., Dix wanted to show the war itself, in its full brutality.

In a series of etchings produced in 1916 during the war, Dix graphically depicts scenes of war, based on events he observed firsthand. The three works are part of the collection The War, inspired by Dix's experiences in the trenches during the First World War.

This is Wounded Man, the first of the series. It's likely that this is based on something that actually happened to Dix: perhaps the man was a friend of his. Here Dix shows all the brutality of the war in the face of this soldier. There is suffering in the face, but there is something else: he is shocked, heartbroken, petrified. It is the face of a man who is about to die and he is understandably terrified. This is the effect of war on those who experience it.

Shock Troops Advance under Gas, the second image in the series, is a work far more threatening piece. There is a strong sense of dread. This also probably happened to Dix and, if indeed this is the case, you will immediately feel the fear that struck the artist at that time.

Skull, the third incision, is a symbol of the cruel reality of war. The worms coming out of the mouth symbolize everything that's horrible of war: death, destruction, degradation, ugliness.

But the Dix's real masterpiece, in this field, was War Triptych, painted in 1934.

In this piece we see the three stages in the day of a soldier: starting off at dawn, the bloody and devastating battle and the return of the survivors in the evening, who go to sleep knowing they will be repeating the whole thing the next day and every day until they are killed. It shows the reality of war: long periods of boredom and routine, interrupted by periods of utmost fear and terrible destruction. It's a window into the nightmares of Dix, who was never able to lose the memory of what had happened to him.

Anti-war art, however, only reached its pinnacle in 1937, from the most unlikely of sources: the apolitical Spanish artist Pablo Picasso.

As fascism was spreading throughout Europe and artists such as Grosz and Dix were trying to satirise it, Picasso was trying to break the barriers of classical art, transforming the beautiful in the grotesque and the serious into the ridiculous. He was not interested in politics, because he found it boring: he liked destroying idols and insulting art critics, all possible thanks to the revolutionary new artistic movement he had helped create, Cubism.

When the Spanish Civil War began, Picasso sided with the Republicans, though not with great dedication. His only initial contribution was a series of cartoons, The Dream and Lie of Franco.

His apathy did not last long, however.

On the afternoon of April 26, 1937, in the small but strongly Republican Basque town of Guernica, a small black dot appears in the sky: it is a fighter aircraft of the German Luftwaffe. It turns over the town and then, almost casually, drops six bombs.

Waves of German and Italian aircraft unloaded bombs, creating an unstoppable storm of chaos. More than 5,000 bombs were dropped on the defenseless town. About 4,000 people died that day.
There was nothing special in Guernica. The goal was simply to terrorize and execute countless innocents and to show the world their awesome strength. Their message was simple: this is what we can, and will, do.

George Steer, who chronicled the war for the London Times, went immediately to Guernica. Here is an excerpt of his report:

“When I entered Guernica after midnight houses were crashing on either side, and it was utterly impossible even for firemen to enter the centre of the town. The hospitals of Josefinas and Convento de Santa Clara were glowing heaps of embers, all the churches except that of Santa Maria were destroyed, and the few houses which still stood were doomed. When I revisited Guernica this afternoon most of the town was still burning and new fires had broken out About 30 dead were laid out in a ruined hospital.”

Steer's testimony stuck in Picasso's mind, who then decided to do the impossible: to tell the truth about what happened. What Picasso tried to do was almost completely foreign to modern art, an art that he helped create: create a work of modern art that retold a historical event. It was the hardest work of his life, to go from icon destroyer to icon manufacturer. It almost seems that his whole life had been leading to this moment. This painting contains who Picasso was, what he had been and what he would become.

In the original sketches were many symbols of hope: for example, a closed socialist fist and a small horse emerging from the large hole in the side of the horse, symbolising rebirth. The soldier was originally a much more noble figure with a classic greek helmet. All these elements were removed. The few remaining are small, but important: the flower in his right hand of the soldier and, more surprisingly, in his left hand, a small hole to represent the stigmata of Christ's martyrdom.

It's an allusion that every Spaniard would have recognized, as it also appears in The Third of May 1808: Goya was also furious about a massacre committed against innocent civilians by foreign invaders. Both contain a Christian message of hope that was deeply rooted in Spanish culture: the hope of salvation in the face of death.

Another similarity with Goya is the use of light. Traditionally in art, light has represented all that is good and decent. Goya, however, changed the role of light from good to bad. It became an instrument of carnage, the glow that allows murderers to carry out their atrocities.

Now, look at Guernica. All the characters are centered around a light source coming from the top of the image: an evil eye, with an electric bulb in the center, the search light of the ruthless death squad and of enemy bombers, the bare bulb the torturer's cell.

Against it stands a candle, held out by an outstretched arm. This contrast symbolizes an epic battle between good light and bad light, art against evil.

Guernica is undoubtedly a work of modern art, but it also forces us to face one of the tragedies of that era. It's a piece of cubist confusion, but also a classical monument, with weeping women flanking a pyramid of death. It never leaves our heads. It's only paint on a canvas, but it has the authority of the stone. It's indestructible.

Guernica does exactly what modern art should do: it challenges our habits, our way of life. With Guernica, Picasso tells us not to let evil go unpunished, it must not be ignored because it would interrupt our lives. Guernica is there to wake us up from our slumber, to prepare us to confront evil.

I asked earlier, "But really what art can do when faced with a war crime, such as the bombing of Guernica?" Well, this is the answer: it teaches us the moral obligations of being human.

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