Massacre in Korea – Picasso (Part 3: versus Guernica)

The comparison between Massacre in Korea and Guernica, painted by Picasso in 1937, has been touched on several times in part one and two but it is worth engaging in a more lengthy study of the two. This is because, although they share Picasso’s distinctive aesthetic and received similar critical reception when they were first unveiled, one has become an international success while the other has faded into obscurity.

Guernica - Picasso (1937)

Guernica - Picasso (1937)

Guernica is a huge canvas (seriously, it’s ENORMOUS – 27.3 square metres) painted for the Spanish Pavillion of the 1937 World Fair in Paris. In contrast to Massacre in Korea it is entirely monochrome and takes a broadly triangular composition. Motifs are arranged with respect to this shaping but the compositional lines are not restrictive. This automatically gives the image more fluidity than the ultra-static arrangements found in Massacre in Korea.  Light and dark areas draw the eye from one point to the next.  The overall effect is one of harmony and complexity.

Guernica was inspired by the aerial bombardment of the Basque town Gernika by German Luftwaffe under the orders of General Franco. For three hours on 26 April, 1937, planes bombed the town leaving a fiery ruin and civilians fleeing the area were mown down by machine gun fire. Overnight 1,645 people lost their lives and 889 were injured. The attack was unprecedented in its ferocity and terrifying in its indiscriminate nature. Guernica was to become symbolic of the horrific, unnecessary civilian casualties of war. Picasso began work on the piece on 1 May, 1937 and it was completed five weeks later.

Vernon Clark wrote that “We are immediately struck… by the strange lack of relationship between the subject and the method of presenting it.” He goes on to describe how Picasso felt the need to go to great lengths, both formally and chromatically, to maintain his control over such an emotional subject. The lines and highlights, as Clark sees them, exude harmony and balance while the details betray the horrors suffered at Gernika. It is this gradual revelation of sentiment which differentiates Picasso’s style here from that of Massacre in Korea. With Guernica, one must work hard to understand the imagery and to detangle the many layers of meaning we can find therein. There is certainly an anti-war message which Picasso allows to become universal even though it was certainly motivated by the events at Gernika.

As a simpler work we could, perhaps, expect Massacre in Korea to be thought the better painting, at least from a propagandist point of view, but this is not the case.

On July 11th, 1937, one day prior to the Spanish Pavilion being opened to visitors, Max Aub is recorded as having made the following statement:

It is possible that this art be accused of being too abstract or difficult for  a pavilion like ours which seeks to be above all, and before everything else, popular manifestation. This is not the moment to justify ourselves, but I am certain that with a little good will, everybody will perceive the rage, the desperation, and the terrible protest that this canvas signifies… To those who protest saying that things are not thus, one must answer asking if they do not have two eyes to see the terrible reality of Spain. If the picture by Picasso has any defect it is that it is too real, too terribly true, atrociously true.

Guernica was already being perceived by some as a statement against such events as those at Gernika, however, since this speech is one which defends Guernica as well as praising it there must have been other contemporary criticisms which found the painting to fail in some way or another (there is the implication that although this is not the time to justify the work there will come a time when that is necessary). The most immediate negative responses were the indifference of the Basque government who had commissioned the work and the rejection of Picasso’s offer for it to be dedicated to the Basque people. Apparently (and amusingly given the current status of Guernica) the work was not partisan enough, suffering from similar complaints to Massacre in Korea – the canvas wasn’t legible enough, the political statement wasn’t glaring enough, the opportunity of such a huge public event had been squandered!

The events at Gernika had provoked Picasso’s own visceral response to the threat posed by Franco (either to Picasso’s own lifestyle – “is this merely the self-pitying wail of a bourgeois Brahmin who sees in the ruin of Spain a threat to his own cosily introspective life?” – or to the freedom of the Spanish people). Yet despite this intensely personal involvement, or perhaps because of it, he was reluctant to speak in any depth about the meanings and elements within the work. Picasso felt that the interpretations of others were as valid as his own and once remarked to Jerome Seckler “If you interpret it that way then you are correct, but still it wasn’t my idea to present it that way”. Initially the absence of a defined and definite breakdown of the image led to the polarising of opinion as to the success or failure of the work, but ultimately the possibility of a wealth of different interpretations has resulted in many articles and books being written and countless discussions regarding the painting and its different meanings. Its complexity and the apparently ambiguous nature of the symbology also allows the canvas an enduring relevance since the motifs can be read both as specific and universal. The bull alone can be said to represent Spain, Franco, power, virility, sacrifice, fascism, anger, and courage. Ambiguity has meant that Guernica appears relevant to current problems as well as the event it marks – possibly more so. A tapestry version hangs in the headquarters of the United Nations in New York, while they do not even have a Massacre in Korea tablecloth. Van Hensenbergen, in his recent biography of the painting, writes that Guernica is afforded special status because it “succeeded as propaganda, while still remaining original and true to the artist”. Guernica was and remains a powerful and personal creation, linked to but not governed by an event.

We find that the reverse is true for the Massacre in Korea. While Picasso was most likely concerned by the threat of war and the conflict in Korea, he had no strong personal affiliation to the area or its inhabitants. The bombing at Gernika represented the threat to Spanish people from within and a threat to Picasso’s own heritage and country. The Korean War gave no such concerns beyond raising the general level of paranoia and humanitarian concern.

The Communist Party reported a very selective and distorted account of the fighting and espoused the belief that in fact the South Koreans, aided by America (hell-bent on destroying communism) were the aggressors. Massacres of innocent civilians were announced to bolster this opinion and American soldiers were reported as indiscriminate Korean-killing machines.

By selecting this topic as the subject for the painting Picasso was apparently stating his allegiance to Party dogma. His technique and style mark a departure from those he would normally have used and this too implies conformity. Unfortunately by working in an uncomfortable style Picasso’s work loses its natural flow. The balanced elements we find in Guernica which encourage our gaze to wander and allow the painting to remain vital are lost and the image is awkwardly static. Attempts to rectify the problem, as with the soldier who thrusts a leg forward, are only partially successful at best. Any sense of drama evaporates because the soldiers are not sufficiently animated to use the guns they wield.

Looking for a generalised anti-war message quickly runs into trouble because the work is trying to be didactic. This would be well and good if you could actually tell what it was trying to be didactic about. Primarily there is the problem that this scene is not actually taken from a specific time or place within the Korean War. It is, instead, a generalized synthesis of all the Party reports of American and South Korean injustices and atrocities perpetrated against fellow communists in the abstract sense and which occur in various locations. Picasso remains thematically true to the communist cause but here his work is without the powerful emotional anchor of a well publicized and almost universally condemned act (as is the case for Guernica).

How, then, did the painting fare as a piece of propaganda? As far as I can gather this was to be the main function of the painting and that which would facilitate Picasso’s acceptance by his communist critics if he was successful. By working to capture the spirit of Party hostility to South Korean and American troops, and in a style which was a closer approximation of socialist realism than previously, we can see in the artist a genuine attempt at reconciling the aesthetic ideology of the Party with his own.

Unfortunately, for a piece of propaganda to function effectively it needs to meet at least two criteria: that of being as intelligible and accessible as possible; and that of clearly and unequivocally expressing that which is being supported or denounced. Massacre in Korea can only be partially successful in these areas. It is intelligible in the broadest sense – the naked and vulnerable versus armed soldiers. moving beyond this needs a modicum of familiarity with the arts – Goya’s Executions of the Third of May, 1808 in particular. Digging any deeper than that leads to huge difficulties – even with the additional explanation of the title the association with Korea does not emerge readily since neither the aggressors nor the victims are painted as anything other than Picasso’s typical Western characters. The indefinite nature of motifs, which evolved into universality and versatility in Guernica, remains ambiguous and obscure. Picasso’s stance, that of his party, and the reality of the war are confused. As such, Massacre in Korea is hopeless as propaganda.

It is worth noting, as an extension to the argument above, that perhaps Picasso’s choice to reference works by Goya may also be partially responsible for the painting’s ambivalence. Prints from the Disasters of War series are invoked but Goya did not create them to give a political denouncement, they were to form a record of his own thoughts and experiences of the Peninsular War and as such allow no particularly cohesive partisan reading. Guernica cannibalised motifs and elements both from past works, and from Picasso’s personal artistic vocabulary, but these were assimilated and adjusted to fit his aims. They are appropriate to their use and do not disturb the picture. The same cannot be said of Massacre in Korea where the references lack the reappropriation we see in Guernica. As a result the echoes and borrowings from Picasso’s national artistic heritage which were so applauded in L’Humanité when welcoming the artist to the Party became a cause of criticism.