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Guernica: Painting the End of the World (The Landmark Library) Hardcover – 5 Oct 2017
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'An impressive overview ... Succeeds in showing how influential Guernica has been, and how it continues to be used as a reference point in political and military conflicts of today' The Sunday Times.
'Attlee digs up rich examples of the debate and devotion that invariably attended the paining ... Guernica literature abounds; but this book is a worthwhile addition' The Spectator.
'[James Attlee's] slim book, which is clearly written and beautifully produced, both updates the tale and adds something fresh to the mix ... Attlee's book helps you appreciate [Guernica's] daring and resonance' Literary Review.
A brilliant, concise account of the painting often described as the most important work of art produced in the twentieth century.See all Product description
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Post religious icon. It has inspired other art works. Guernica sounded a warning which each has been ignored.
The Spanish. Civil War was vicious, bloody and its consequences still reverberate throughout the nation. In July 1936 Emilio Mola held a meeting of the mayors of Navarre and told them that the Basque Country would be subjected to a reign of terror. On 22 July 1937 two planes bombed the village square of Otxandio killing 60 and seriously wounding 80 . 24 of the dead were children. In early August German and Italian aid arrived to support Franco forces. Hitler and Mussolini saw in Spain a golden opportunity to trial the effects of bombing civilians. The Italian Douhet had argued in his book Command of the Air that wars could be now won by destroying civilian morale . Fighting ground battles were no longer necessary.
Atrocities became all too common. Hundreds of executions took place. Basque priests were a prime target. Sporadic bombing raids continued on Bilbao. Increasingly, Franco emphasised tight liaison between ground forces and the Condor Legion which Franco welcomed as part of his forces. Bombing of towns increased causing many casualties. Incendiaries were used alongside high explosives. What people experienced was a new and terrifying kind of warfare.
On 26 April 1937 it was market day in the small town of Guernica. Some 10,000 people were in the town. There were no anti-aircraft defences. In three hours the town was virtually destroyed by aircraft of the Condor Legion and elements of the Italian air force. The bombing was carried out by over 41 planes with fighter escorts. First hand accounts are horrifying. The ancient capital of the Basque Country was almost obliterated.
Guernica had a deep symbolic significance. Franco denied that the town had been bombed. He claimed it had been destroyed by the government forces using mines and other explosives. Guernica became Franco's great crime. Fortunately, four journalists, three of them from Britain, were present and able to attest what had happened. George Steer of The Times recorded the horrors he saw, as did the other journalists.
In America, Senator Borah denounced the bombing and machine gunning of innocent people in language that was prophetic of Pablo Picasso's painting. He said the outrage showed how 'fascism presents to the world its masterpiece. It has hung upon the wall of civilisation a painting that will never come down-never fade out of the memories of men'. It nevertheless took almost 35 years before Steer's report was fully vindicated. Fascists and their supporters continued to deny the bombing.
Picasso began his painting on 1 May. Guernica and many other bombings had outraged him. Attlee has written an excellent account of the painting, its conception and history. Initially not everyone liked it. Some of the reasons were political not artistic. Attlee demonstrates how the painting became very influential among the public and those opposed to war. The painting became a sum of of the horrors of war. Churchill said it depicted human hell.
After examines the painting itself and the meanings that art historians and museum curators have ascribed to it. He traces its journeys across America and Europe until it arrived in Spain in 1981. The author believes Picasso's message is still relevant today. Picasso said that painting is not done to decorate apartments. It is an instrument of war.
On the other hand, sometimes it reads like a thesis with stock phrases such as, “we have already discussed...” and “let us start our investigation...”. Judicious editing could easily have avoided such donnish tropes but, on the whole, this book is very well put-together.
If you are looking for a gripping narrative non-fiction, which bends the truth to fit its maverick purpose, one which has a jaunty disregard for facts, like Edmund De Waal’s Hare with the Amber Eyes, for example, this is not the book for you. Attlee’s Guernica gives you the straight dope on Picasso’s great painting and its impact on our culture over the last eighty years since it was first displayed at the World Fair in Paris in 1937, without straying from brass tacks. It never indulges fanciful notions, conspiracy theories, it does not posture or proselytise; it presents a clear-sighted, hard-nosed, unyielding unpicking of the mass of criticism that has gone before it and, in so doing, offers fresh insights into this pivotal work of modern art for generations to come.
Despite the author’s admirable adherence to the facts, this book only really takes off when Attlee departs from the script. It’s always the ad libs, the asides, the extempore leaps of imagination that make this writer’s work stand out. Sticking to a linear narrative was never his forté and the book is at its weakest when its author pays lip-service to his duty as a serious historian by following a traditional narrative path. The upside of Attlee’s new-found orthodoxy, however, is that the casual reader can merrily follow the painting’s journey without feeling misled or chronologically challenged by the fascinating diversions, of which there are still ample to satisfy Attlee’s less sequentially inclined fans.
Alongside the catalogue to the 1939 New York World Fair and conventional media such as The Spectator and The Telegraph, Attlee’s diverse sources include the World Socialist website and Vimeo. He even manages to slip references to Fake News and Jay-Z (entirely unrelated, I hasten to add) into the main text, bringing it right up to the moment.
Attlee admirably circumnavigates the jargon of art criticism, keeping it real for an amateur audience. He describes photomontage, for example and the importance of film and new media and their impact on Picasso and his contemporaries after Walter Benjamin’s seminal 1936 essay in an avuncular but unpatronizing way. He talks about Josep Renau and Feminism as to a lay audience without alienating the more knowledgeable reader. He makes no attempt to downplay the visionaries of the period, who were already upstaging misogynist exile Picasso and his fuddy-duddy Greek Classical allusions whilst venerating the painting without fetishizing it.
The author is well-read, right-on and forever rational. He never indulges the arcane, the whacky or the overbearing. He is a steady guide, although perhaps one might wish from time-to-time he were to take some of the flights of fancy or heady rock ’n’ roll road trips, for which he found literary fame in his previous works. Nevertheless, it is refreshing to read interpretive art history unfettered by the highbrow neologisms and recondite shibboleths, which are so often employed to obscure the discipline to all but a handful of experts. This book is not preaching to an inner clique; it does not indulge the arcane ideologies or incomprehensible pronouncements, that have been made about Guernica in the past; it is a straightforward and credible revision of previous writings and a concise, unequivocal analysis of a single work of art tailored to the world today, in which images abound and great works of art adorn bags, T-shirts and umbrellas the world over.
Sometimes the writer might sit on the fence, which can make him appear naïve. Dora Maar (her fascinating photographs of the work in progress apart), for instance, strikes one as a wholly unreliable witness wherever Picasso is concerned. Her revelations contradict all other critics. She goes so far as to claim she painted the last few brushstrokes herself. Unfortunately, Attlee takes her testimony at face value.
Do I detect prudishness or the blue pen of a censor perhaps? Attlee demurely recounts how Picasso had a view from under the table to witness Alice Toklas’ knees knocking during an air-raid, whereas in more ribald versions of the tale, certain wags would have it, that she actually pissed herself.
About the painting, a great deal is made of the absence of male protagonists and, with regard to the bombing of the city of Gernika, the perpetrators. The author points out that the aggressors were indeed invisible to the inhabitants of the town, raining anonymous terror down from the sky for the first time in history - the dawn of the age of the H-bomb.
An exciting and revealing chapter detailing the painting’s legacy in contemporary art appears, logically, at the end of the book. Perhaps a more Cubist approach to the structure would have served it well. If, for example, this section had been placed at the beginning to give background to how art is abused, commandeered and misinterpreted by subsequent generations (its exploitation in a recruitment advertisement for the Bundeswehr being particularly troubling, for example). Whilst well edited, one wonders whether the chronological narrative was the right choice. After all, the author gratefully abandons the straightforward perception of time at the end, opting for a repetitive view of historical events. Unfortunately, he sees a circularity in darkness only and does not take into account the counterbalance of the cycle of light.
Attlee always has some fantastic, throwaway one-liners - on the security measures surrounding the painting on its return to Spain, for example, he muses, “whether this is to prevent attacks on the painting or contagion from the unanswered accusations it contains is not clear.”
Although there is plenty of contemporary context, the tragedy of the bombing of the town is barely within living memory, which makes this study truly historical, although the author does meet a woman working at the Guggenheim Bilbao, who recounts that her grandmother survived the attack. This is one of the most comical sequences in the book as, each time the author returns to the museum’s front desk, he is sent on yet another mission to a different part of the museum in search of the sacred spot supposedly reserved for the painting, upon which no-one in the museum’s administration can quite agree.
Appropriately, his conclusion is right on the money – Attlee does not indulge in the bitter polemic of Antonio Saura nor the idealistic partisanship of André Malraux, but instead offers a rational reading appropriate to this day and age. Attlee concludes, quite rightly, that the painting will never lose its meaning, it will always exist in the present. He even prefaces his final chapter with a quote from Picasso himself as irrefutable backup to this theory, “If a work of art cannot live always in the present it must not be considered at all.”
This is art history at its streetwise best. You’ll come out of a few pleasant hours reading this book feeling jolly clever, forewarned, forearmed and ready to joust with the silver-tongued, arty-farty boffins off the telly. Highly recommended.