Massacre in Korea – Picasso (Part 2: The painting itself)

So, you’ve read the backstory, now for the technical analysis of Picasso’s Massacre in Korea

The key points of the analysis are listed as follows with the full descriptive text after the jump for those that want to read it:

Massacre in Korea (1951) Pablo Picasso

Massacre in Korea (1951) Pablo Picasso

  • Massacre in Korea was painted using oil on plywood on 18th January, 1951 and measures 110 x 210cm.
  • Compositional separation of men and women into geometrically shaped groups – weakly defined triangular shape denotes female and child victims, strong square for aggressive male soldiers. Guns and a leg protrude from square to indicate invading force.
  • Ruined building and fire in the background prefigure the massacre
  • Compositionally the painting borrows heavily from Goya’s The Third of May, 1808 (and Manet’s The Execution of Maximilian) but the references fall flat and feel lazy and out of place. It’s not a harmonious integration of an idea into Picasso’s oeuvre but ham-fisted borrowing.
  • Picasso titled the work but all it provides is an explicit reference to the conflict in that area. The identities of victim and aggressor remain ambiguous. There are no markers of nationality or geography, plus some of the figures are based on sketches done of Western women Picasso knew.
  • Presenting the proletariat as victims went against the dictates of socialist realism. The working classes were heroic. End of.

Overall the painting is clear in its basic sympathies. Picasso uses a variety of techniques, both formal and chromatic, to create the impression of civilian strife as a result of war. He borrows motifs and compositional elements from already renowned paintings (his own and those of other artists) which contribute to the speed at which the basic message can be communicated. However, in doing this the impact of the borrowed elements is lessened and the chaos and pathos we find in Guernica, conveying a similar idea are largely absent, as is the brutality we see in Goya’s The Third of May, 1808.

Full analysis in unrelenting and microscopic detail:

Massacre in Korea was painted using oil on plywood on 18th January, 1951 and measures 110 x 210cm. Picasso chooses a grisaille palette similar to that of Guernica but with accents of yellow and green. Generally these touches of colour are restricted to the background but yellow is used intermittently as highlights on the figures. Compositionally the painting is divided in half with the left hand space given to the women and children while the right is dedicated to the male warriors.

Massacre in Korea (1951) Pablo Picasso

Massacre in Korea (1951) Pablo Picasso

The grouping of the female and child figures on the left is in a very loosely triangular arrangement which peaks at the elbow of a pregnant woman, directly above a mother and child while the male figures to the right are arranged as a neat square. This organisation highlights the differences in strength between the factions – the innocent victims form a more vulnerable and less well defined shape while the attackers are protected by their robust formation. This contrast is accentuated by the fact that both groups of figures are nude but, while the women and children are totally unprotected, the soldiers wear helmets and masks in addition to holding various weapons.

The geometry of the background is used to denote belonging. Behind the left group the background is raised to form hills, surrounding the monochrome figures with colour and anchoring them to the the land. The male group is placed in front of a lower background framed mainly by pale sky. This contrast of dark and pale grey causes the soldiers to stand out and become divorced from the scenery. They are an invading force not connected to the country; threatening yet ephemeral.

The space between the groups is also interesting. A winding path divides the canvas in half and, at the very central point of the painting, there appears to be a fire composed of several dark brush strokes over a concentration of strong yellow. Both these devices describe visually the divisions of the Korean War as Picasso saw them and the fiery central space alludes to the destruction in this image and in the war as a whole. A ruined building sits on top of the hill slightly to the left of the centre accented by the same deep yellow as was previously mentioned. It also happens to be the area directly between the tips of the soldiers’ guns and the group of women and children. This ruined building becomes a prefiguration of the massacre and the placing makes the destruction specific to this group of Koreans as opposed to a more general statement about the massive loss of life during the war.

Picasso’s strategic use of dark and very pale grey in the emphasis of particular areas and aspects is important. When considering the figures, the areas with the greatest tonal contrasts tend to be those which contribute most to the understanding of the painting. Examples of this technique are in the pregnant belly of the second figure from the left, the leg of the male figure appearing closest to our space, and the barrels of the guns. The gleaming upper of the woman’s swollen abdomen draws our attention. Our fear and sympathy are intended to be excited by the idea of a mother’s inability to defend her unborn child and the inhumanity of the soldiers. The left leg of the man appearing closest to our viewing space strides out of the  square arrangement of soldiers and the disproportionately large foot is placed parallel to the gun barrels which also protrude through the boundaries of the square. These protrusions mark the forceful invasion of space by the soldiers. The other function of the foot and the guns is that they combine with the leg of another soldier and a girl making a Venus Pudica gesture to form an incomplete square frame for two young children – one oblivious, one frightened – intended to evoke our pity and horror at the suffering of ordinary civilians.

Massacre in Korea also makes use of visual references to Goya’s painting The Executions of the Third of May, 1808 (1814) depicting the massacre of a group of civilians by an anonymous crowd of soldiers. Borrowing of the basic composition has the advantage of using predefined characters. If the viewer knows the famous Goya painting, or indeed Manet’s reworking of the same theme in Execution of Maximilian (circa 1967-8) then he or she is already aware of which group is being treated sympathetically and thus the painting has a more immediate impact. The criticism here is that, as with Manet, Picasso has taken a successful painting tied to a specific event and lessened its meaning by trying to apply it to a different situation. As Utley says:

“One of the problems with the painting resides in its anachronistic desire to recreate history painting in a time of Modernism. As Roland Barthes wrote: “To be modern is to recognize what is no longer possible.” This is what Malreux apprehended when he said about Manet’s Execution of Maximilian that is was Goya’s Third of May without what the painting signified. Whereas Manet opted for Modernism in his painting, which deprived it of some of its pathos, Picasso, in emphasizing the emotional content, does not seem to find in Modernism the appropriate language to express it.”

The Third of May, 1808 - Goya

The Third of May, 1808 - Goya

As a result the picture seems to reveal more about the barbarism of soldiers and of war in general, showing socially unacceptable acts and a condemnation of universal civilian suffering. something which only partially coincided with communist ideology. The intention was indeed to represent the suffering of the ordinary people but the prescribed manner was that which put them in a heroic and determined light. Victimhood was not a characteristic desired by the Communist Party since it was not congruous with socialist realist visions of the heroic and active proletariat.

However, at this juncture Picasso shies away from being more specific as to the identities of the victims. The facial features are not discernably different from Picasso’s paintings of European figures and any clothing or ornamentation which could furnish them with an identifiable nationality are absent. The title of the work makes it clear that this event takes place in Korea so we can assume the victims are most likely Korean but there is no way of inferring from the picture alone whether they are from the North or South – a crucial distinction from the point of view of communism. It is this ambiguity which was to lead to problems regarding communist acceptance of the work. The lack of specificity which permeates the work was, as stated elsewhere, heavily criticised by the communists. The Soviet Union had ruled that for art to be validated and acknowledged by the Communist Party rather than denounced as degenerate its message must be transparent, elevating the proletariat to heroic status, and it must follow the style of socialist realism (something this work plainly does not do).  There are specific references to the Korean War – this was one of the rare instances when Picasso titled a work himself (Massacre en Corée) placing it within a defined event. Picasso also gives the painting an emotional slant by his use of the word ‘massacre’. However, these touches are not enough to make the painting truly didactic as the communists desired.

There is some scope for a rebuttal of this criticism as Picasso’s political allegiance and the fact that he intended to give it a very public showing at the Salon de Mai mean his fellow Party members were well equipped to assume that the work shows the suffering of North Koreans at the hands of American soldiers but, crucially, at no point does this become explicit. The women and children Picasso paints are reworkings of Western figures in his other paintings (for example, the woman holding a child bears a clear relation to a painting Picasso made of Francoise Gilot holding their child Paloma – Maternité, 1951 – on the same day he painted Massacre in Korea). Utley also notes compositional precedents in other works by Goya, for example One can’t look from the Disasters of War (1810-14) which had been part of an exhibition in Paris several months prior to January, 1951 and also reproduced a month before in the L’Humanité.

As in Guernica, the focus of this work is on tragedy of war and the loss of civilian life. The women and children show a mixed response of resignation, fear or (in the case of the child picking flowers) obliviousness. They have no means of fighting back as demonstrated by their nakedness and their fate is alluded to in the ruins and fiery yellow of the background. Guernica contains similar imagery although the fate is explicit rather than hinted at – on the far right there is a desperate figure in front of a burning building. Enemies, are not explicitly referenced in the earlier work and the emphasis is placed entirely on the equivalent of the left hand group in Massacre in Korea.

It is possible to view the later work as a reaffirmation of Picasso’s more general sympathies. The group of soldiers who wear no uniforms wield a strange combination of modern, futuristic and archaic armour and weaponry – the figure furthest to the right appears to be dressed as a medieval knight. This corresponds more with the idea of the conflicts of human history carrying on into the present day and beyond than it does with the condemnation of the American army and has a certain implied futility in the face of human nature instead of the possibility of attaining social change through revolution.

Overall the painting is clear in its basic sympathies. Picasso uses a variety of techniques, both formal and chromatic, to create the impression of civilian strife as a result of war. He borrows motifs and compositional elements from already renowned paintings (his own and those of other artists) which contribute to the speed at which the basic message can be communicated. However, in doing this the impact of the borrowed elements is lessened and the chaos and pathos we find in Guernica, conveying a similar idea are largely absent, as is the brutality of The Third of May.

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