Comrade Picasso

This is an extremely interesting article from the New Statesman by Jonathan Vernon:

Picasso's 'Guernica' on view at the Reina Sofia museum in Madrid. Photo: Getty
Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ on view at the Reina Sofia museum in Madrid. Photo: Getty

One would expect a game of word association on a busy street to match many a ‘Picasso’ with ‘Guernica’. Commissioned for the Spanish Republican Pavilion at the 1937 Paris World’s Fair, Guernica took as its subject the aerial bombardment of the eponymous Basque town. Heinkel bombers flying for General Franco had razed it to the ground across three days earlier that year. The visual language Picasso wrought from that event gave form to human suffering with unparalleled potency.

But it also gave birth to a reputation. It is with Guernica that we are introduced to the defiant pacifist, the Picasso that would stand firm during the Occupation of Paris, and join the French Communist Party (PCF) upon its Liberation. The story goes something like this: exiled from Spain, and fully aware of the threat its Falangist occupiers posed to civilisation, Picasso joined ‘le famille communiste’ and became its most distinguished voice in the struggle against fascist and capitalist tyranny alike.

The breast, at this point, is prompted to swell uncontrollably. After all, this tale boasts every trope of our most loved and recyclable yarns: the rustic warrior exiled from his homeland, the surging rebellion yearning a voice, and the depraved autocrat condemning it to silence. It telescopes Homer and Hemingway in equal measure. It is almost enough to make us forget that we are talking about a painter.

And yet the demands of history have a way of reasserting themselves. Such is the nature of research conducted by Genoveva Tusell Garcia, published earlier this year in The Burlington Magazine. Citing correspondence within the Franco government, Garcia makes an extraordinary claim. Although the regime’s prevailing attitude toward Picasso was one of hostility, certain of its members came to see an advantage in taming his reputation and sharing in his achievements. In 1957, they approached the painter to discuss the possibility of his work returning to Spanish collections, and even a retrospective.


Is the conflict in Syria the new Spanish civil war?

As reported in the ALBA veterans magazine, Barry Rubin is the latest commentator to suggest that Syria is the Spanish civil war of our time, a contention contested from the right by Daniel Larison. Already in March, veteran journalist Arnaud de Borchgrave had made the same point: Is Syria 2011 the same as Spain 1936

And a fortnight ago, the great human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell tweeted “#Homs & #Houla are the #Guernica of our era. Fascist-style bombing by killer”. That point too was made by the nutty LaRouchite pseudo-historian Webster Griffin Tarpley in an interview with the propaganda outlet of another totalitarian regime, Press TV:

It is also beginning to resemble the Spanish civil war, I think, of Guernica, the bombing of this little town in the Basque country by German Nazi and Italian fascist aviation that killed about a thousand people. This time it is Guernica but undercover; it is a stealth Guernica that has been imposed and I think it is important for people in the world that are interested in truth to trumpet this from their house tops.

One blogger, Trenchant Observer, writes:

An image from the Spanish civil war, Pablo Picasso’s painting “Guérnica”, may express the terror which confronts the Syrian people. Ironically, a tapestry based on that painting, which symbolizes the horrors of war (see above), adorned the entrance to the Security Council chambers until Colin Powell insisted that it be removed before his press conferences justifying the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. It is now on loan to a gallery in England, pending “remodeling” at the U.N.

So should the “international right of protection” be forgotten at Homs, just as constitutional government was left to shift for itself in the 1930s in Spain?

And, of course, the same points were made about Libya last year – see e.g. here and here.

Is there any justification in the comparison?


Well, the problem is that the people making these comparisons (not Barry Rubin, though, by the way) tend to remember Spain as a two-sided struggle between Bad fascism and Good freedom. The Right Thing to do was to sign up in the International Brigade and for democratic nations to arm the Republicans. In this analogy, the Right Thing must be to become foreign fighters in the Free Syrian Army or at least to arm it.

In fact, though, the Spanish war was at least three-sided: Rubin mentions a “coalition of democrats both social democratic and liberal; communal nationalists [e.g. Catalan]; anarchists, Communists, and independent Marxists”, but of course this coalition was a tense one, with Communists (including the International Brigade) killing anarchists, democrats and independent Marxists at the same time as they were fighting fascism. In fact, though, this is the real situation in Syria, with Assad’s fascist regime challenged by democrats and “communal nationalists” (Kurds, Druze, etc) and the left – but also by the right-wing brotherhood and a small current of jihadi Islamists who make Franco look benign.

So, I don’t know what the Poumist position on Syria should be, but I think it is actually helpful to think about it.

Published in: on June 9, 2012 at 1:44 pm  Comments (7)  
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Published in: on April 28, 2012 at 9:05 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Clement Atlee for today

Clement Atlee speaks before Picasso's Guernica at the Whitechapel GalleryAlthough he is a little reformist and socialism-from-above for me, I have a soft spot for Clement Atlee, not least because he went to Spain in 1937 to support the Republican cause, and because he was involved in getting Picasso’s “Guernica” to the Whitechapel gallery. Here is Carl Packman on the relevance of Atlee in the economic crisis today (version 1, version 2).

While we’re kind of on the subject (well, very loosely), here’s one labour movement activist’s thoughts on Tolpuddle. And here’s Champagne Charlie on the last British veteran of World War I.