One more question on Memorial Day

I didn’t see this one in time to include it on my list of Memorial Day links. In it, Brett confesses:

Here’s a confession: I don’t really get Guernica — the painting, that is, not the event.

Read the whole thing and see what he means.


  1. #1 Theodore Price
    May 28, 2007

    I understand his point (and I suppose yours as well) but, the author admits he has not seen the painting in person. I have seen it in person (after seeing and admiring its power in books) and can say that you cannot really appreciate how that painting moves you until you stand in front of it. I’m not a Spaniard, but know many who are old enough to know the problems of war and military dictatorship in Spain all too well and I suppose the actual images are very painful for many of them. While the painting conveys the violence and suffering of war dramatically there is also a majesty to its detail and scale that gives one hope. I doubt if I would have thought of it in that way if I had not seen it in person.

  2. #2 Ali
    May 28, 2007

    i’ll try not to repeat the comment i left on his blog verbatim, but i don’t think the photos are a reaction to war like picasso’s guernica was. the photos he showed of the devastation of war are literal representations of that devastation, while picasso’s piece was a symbolic representation as well as a reaction. i think most people actually relate to the literal in a more visceral way, hence the photos would be more powerful representations. but again, the photos are not a reaction in the way that his painting used symbolism, so it’s hard to even compare the two in that way.

  3. #3 Skeptyk
    May 28, 2007

    Screaming horses, crying people, eyes of wild terror, the dead baby. One may project these onto the photos Brett posted, or not. Picasso does not give you choice. His skill, the scale (“Guernica” is BIG), and the subject, all are part of the power.

    The painting, unlike the photos, is of people, and people respond to the suffering of people. As shocking as the photos after air raids are (and they are) they are not of people. We must add the people in our heads, based on knowledge and imagination.

    All the photos I saw of air raids paled in contrast to the stories told by friends who “survived” the Dresden bombing, running, running into cellar restaurant to find piles of asphixiated dead, running past charred dead and dying people in the streets, two children running, their families lost…

    …or when Michio Kaku told me of his relative (uncle?) who “survived” the Hiroshima bombing…

    We are probably “wired” to react more viscerally to individuals in pain, to others with faces, rather than in the abstract. It is a human, perhaps a civilized, ability to be able to know understand harm to others at distance of time and space and at scales uncommon in a lifetime. Vesuvius killing Pompeii and the Lisbon Earthquake. Huge and rare such things were in the past. In the past century we figured out how to do that kind of damage ourselves.

    Even ancient gorgeous buildings bombed to ruins, even the awareness that people lived in – and many died in – these buildings, will not effect most people as strongly as will that dead baby in “Guernica”.

  4. #4 Joshua
    May 28, 2007

    Unfortunately, it seems like he tripped over the point, picked himself up, and shuffled along oblivious.

    “Is art more powerful than reality?”

    Frankly, yes. If it isn’t, it’s failed as art.

  5. #5 AnnR
    May 29, 2007

    Skeptyk has it right.

    The painting is the screams and shock of the people and beings that were impacted. The broken sword, a woman reaching up for mercy. The panic and attempts to escape something that can not be avoided.

    Burned out buildings have ghosts and horrors, but the jumble of bodies takes less of an empathetic leap to understand.

    I think we’ve moved to a more visual culture in the past years, and the painting is a forerunner of that kind of historical re-enactment.

    It may represent a flattening of our understanding, that we can’t look at bombed out buildings and see the horrors that occurred there. These days we expect it all to be animated. Picasso did that in a pre-digital era by combining different scenes into the one painting.

  6. #6 trrll
    May 29, 2007

    I’d say that he is indeed “irredeemably literal,” no so much from his reaction to this particular painting (even today, there are plenty of people who don’t “get” Picasso) as from his uncomprehending question, “Is art more powerful than reality?”

    Because, of course, that is pretty much the entire point of art, particularly in this post-photography era.

  7. #7 Brett
    May 29, 2007

    Joshua and trrll, thanks for your condescension, but actually the whole point of my post was to question whether art is more powerful than reality, or rather, to ask why most people would agree that it is. In this case, I personally don’t think so; I assumed most people would disagree with me (and it seems I was right on that!) and wanted to understand why. Saying, in essence, that the painting is necessarily more powerful just because it is art is not exactly persuasive.

    Everyone else — thank you for taking the time to think about why Guernica elicits the reactions it does and for trying to explain it to me without the put-downs 🙂

  8. #8 nm
    May 29, 2007

    Buildings have no flesh; they have no nerve endings. They can’t feel pain. If we feel (emotional) pain over their destruction, we are ourselves creating art, or at least taking a step away from a literal representation and reaction. Whereas humans and cattle feel pain, and suffer in their flesh.

  9. #9 Uncle Dave
    May 31, 2007

    Its like the discussion I had with an art teacher once. A simple question really;
    Is photography art? Should photography be considered art?

    All images are art. The way we view the world is in a way an abstraction from the onset – like or Rorshac (sp) ink blot. I can look at a building with shadows and lines and not see what the photographers eye sees through the lens until it is printed. Two poeple can view the same image and it evokes two different responses. I frankly have no idea what the big freakin deal is with the Mona lisa? I find most of Leonardo Divinci’s technical drawings of the anatomy and other sketches to be the most fascinating pieces of work because it is or was a giant leap at understanding the literal. But then, I’m an engineer, my apologies to all….

  10. #10 fenerbahce resimleri
    December 27, 2007

    Unfortunately, it seems like he tripped over the point, picked himself up, and shuffled along oblivious.

    “Is art more powerful than reality?”

    Frankly, yes. If it isn’t, it’s failed as art.

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