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October 2, 2011 | by  | in Arts Visual Arts |
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Guernica

One universal factor for artists is that they are unable to exist or to create inside a vacuum.

Anything they produce will be to some degree defined by the temporal and cultural environments in which they were created. Having said this some art products reference their time and place far more emphatically, and often do so with some form of political or social agenda; the most striking example of this in the 20th century is Pablo Picasso’s 1937 painting Guernica.

Stretching an epic 3.493 metres by 7.766 metres this dystopian, gruesome, yet strangely enticing image defined art as a political force in the in the 20th century through its subject matter and the immediate and visceral international reaction it inspired. Guernica was the name of a town in Spain which was bombed heavily by the Luftwaffe to the point where it was virtually destroyed. The Spanish Civil War began in 1936 and lasted until 1939, providing a testing ground for the new weapons, tactics and technology of warfare that would be put to more widespread use in World War Two. Picasso clearly expresses a sense of profound rupture in this work; a destabilisation of the order of the world as well as the nature of mankind. Cubist and surrealist techniques create an alternate world within the work, one where human life has been reduced to tortured body parts and animals are twisted into demonic, unnatural figures. The smoke motif found across the work is complemented by the glare of the light bulb, casting the world of the work into a fragmented, chaotic space. These stylistic features also imply a human destruction without clearly stating it.

For this work to assume the political mantle that it did in the 1930s, and has retained until this day, the title was required. By naming it after the Basque town dismantled in 1937 Picasso leaves no doubt as to the purpose of the work. Guernica is a poignant and compelling letter to humanity asking to not allow this kind of destruction again. It still holds this political relevance today and is particularly poignant in 2011 in terms of the civilian casualties in Libya, Afghanistan and Iraq. Despite its titular subject, the real political relevance of this work lies in the timelessness of its agenda; it reflects its time and place but also transcends them to assert its importance in the temporal space of the viewer.

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