Syria reflections of Guernica

26th April 2017 marks the 80th year from the bombing of the town of Guernica in northern Spain. In 2016 UK MPs made links between the attack on the civilian population of Guernica in 1937 with the aerial attacks on the people of Aleppo, Syria in 2016. There are similarities between the two conflicts notably they both started as civil wars and they have involved air forces that come from outside of the country to carry out aerial attacks. In the case of the bombing of Guernica the Spanish General Francisco Franco ordered this attack which involved the combined fascist air forces of Italy and Germany. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has accepted the assistance of Russian President Vladmir Putin to use the might of the Russian Air Force to bomb his own people. Mike Gapes Labour MP for Ilford South, UK denounced Putin’s actions in Syria during the Emergency Debate on Syria in the week of the 10th October 2016. He drew parallels between Putin and Hitler in an exchange with the Conservative MP for Sutton Coldfield Andrew Mitchell who had related the attacks on Aleppo by the Russian Air Force to the bombing of Guernica. This is from the transcript of the Debate published on the Labour MP’s blog:

Mike Gapes MP (Labour): “The right hon. Gentleman mentioned Guernica. In the 1930s, there was united condemnation of what the Nazis and their air force were doing in Spain in support of the fascist regime. Is it not time that we had a united, unambiguous, explicit, direct condemnation of what Putin is doing in support of Assad in Aleppo at this moment, not just from the Government but from the Opposition Benches unanimously?”

Andrew Mitchell MP (Conservative): “The hon. Gentleman is on to an extremely good point. What is needed is a concerted effort by the international community uniting to make Russia feel the cost of its support of and participation in the barbaric bombardment of Aleppo.”

Jonathan Jones writing in the Guardian on the 12 October 2016 discusses this reference to Guernica in the Debate. He states: “Mitchell referred to the bombing of the Basque capital as a comparison to wake us up.” Jones goes on to discuss the translation of Picasso’s Guernica by Vasco Gargalo to focus on the bombing of Aleppo. Jones reflects upon the importance and longevity of Picasso’s Guernica, this is an exert from his article:

“In 1937 the courage of this painting was to tell the truth in an age of lies. That is still what it does. The most awful analogy between today and the 1930s is that truth is being crushed by lies and propaganda – we are in a post-truth age. Politicians such as Putin and Donald Trump say whatever they like. The internet muddies every fact with a counterfact and there are so many conspiracy theories that no one believes anything.

Yet we have been here before. In the 1930s, totalitarian propaganda machines attacked the very idea of truth. Hitler and Stalin waged permanent war on facts using radio, cinema, censorship and brainwashing mass rallies.

Picasso knew exactly what he was doing when he painted Guernica. He was trying to show the truth so viscerally and permanently that it could outstare the daily lies of the age of dictators. Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia had huge pavilions at the 1937 exhibition where Guernica was unveiled, but Picasso – just one man bearing witness to the truth – painted the human reality of that vile time. It has outlasted all propaganda. [1]

We need to fight for the truth as bravely as Picasso did. It is not only bombs that are killing people in Aleppo, but Putin’s lie machine as well.”

Aleppo(nica), 2016, Vasco Gargalo
Aleppo(nica), 2016, Vasco Gargalo

Remaking of Picasso’s Guernica for Aleppo

Eight decades have now passed from the creation of Pablo Picasso’s Guernica. Picasso began his painting in May 1937 shortly after the bombing of the town of Guernica and yet its image has been translated over and over used to represent loss to a civilian population in many conflicts. Notably Vasco Gargalo translated Guernica from the Spanish Civil War to the Syrian conflict bringing together some of the key political figures in this particular moment published on the 4th October 2016. In an interview with Kassy Cho posted on the 4th October 2016 Gargalo spoke about the meanings of the figures he has drawn in his Guernica for Aleppo titled Aleppo(nica). The bull’s face is morphed into Vladmir Putin’s signifying his pivotal part in the aerial bombardment of Aleppo, Russian War Planes hang ominously in the sky to the left of Putin’s horns whilst a mother cradles her dead baby below Putin and his war machines. President Barak Obama is depicted as the dying horse in the centre of the piece that can be interpreted as an allegory of the political position of the United States. [2] Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is the figure with the outstretched arm clenching a missile looming out of a top floor window, whilst the Syrian resistance fighting against the al-Assad forces in the city of Aleppo are represented by the decapitated arm holding the gun just below the horse. The civilians of Aleppo who are dead and injured are symbolised through the skulls lying on the ground. Below the al-Assad figure is a refugee holding her distressed baby whilst carrying a suitcase with the stars of the European Union emblazoned on it signifying the direction she is headed. ISIS are present in the form of the lone dark figure with the belt of explosives on the far right of the image. The spilled barrel of oil below this figure alludes to the possible motivation for such international interest in the Syrian Civil War and the alarming fact that there is no end in site.

Guernica Remakings Videos

Tapestry After Guernica. Courtesy of the owner: “Private Collection, New York.“ Photographer Nicola Ashmore.
Tapestry After Guernica. Courtesy of the owner: “Private Collection, New York.“ Photographer Nicola Ashmore.
Tapestry After Guernica. Courtesy of the owner: “Private Collection, New York.“ Photographer Joe Hague.
Tapestry After Guernica. Courtesy of the owner: “Private Collection, New York.“ Photographer Joe Hague.

In the third and final research video on Goshka Macuga’s The Nature of the Beast exhibition posted below, Cynthia Altman the Curator responsible for the Rockefeller collection of tapestries made after Picasso paintings talks about the Guernica Tapestry (1955) and Picasso’s involvement. Cynthia Altman refers to the circumstances surrounding Nelson Rockefeller asking Picasso to authenticate the tapestries in his collection. Wallace Harrison a good friend of Nelson Rockefeller’s encouraged him to make contact with Picasso. Harrison was the architect of the United Nation headquarters in New York where the Rockefeller Tapestry After Guernica has hung since 1985. It was at the U.N. where the Tapestry was covered with a blue drapery prior to the weapons of mass destruction speech by Colin Powell signalling the invasion of Iraq in 2003. In the The Nature of the Beast exhibition a direct link is created to the moment Colin Powell made his speech by featuring  bronze statue of Powell giving his speech.

Courtesy of the artist and Whitechapel Gallery Archive. Photograph by Patrick Lears.
Courtesy of the artist and Whitechapel Gallery Archive. Photograph by Patrick Lears.
Courtesy of Mark Garten / UN Photo. 5 February 2003.morning.
Courtesy of Mark Garten / UN Photo. 5 February 2003.morning.

The pose captures the moment Powell held up a vial whilst talking about the threat a chemical attack poses. He argued that Saddam Hussein’s forces had not revealed the fate of vast quantities of liquid Anthrax. As we now know no stockpile of chemical weapons was ever found. Interestingly there is another more obscure connection between Iraq and the bombing of Guernica and that relates directly to Saddam Hussein for he was born two days after the bombing of the town of Guernica on the 28th April 1937.

[1] Jonathan Jones, “As Aleppo burns in this age of lies, Picasso’s Guernica still screams the truth of war,” The Guardian (12 Oct 2016).

[2] Kassy Cho, “This Cartoonist came up with a heartbreaking and perfect response to the conflict in Syria,”Buzzfeed ( 4 Oct 2016).

 

6 thoughts

  1. Marc Schulman writes that in Tel Aviv, protesters against Russian involvement in the civil war in Syria carried signs with pictures of Aleppo on one side and a picture of Picasso’s “Guernica” on the other.

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