The horrors of the bloody century past—from the Great War through the Holocaust and Hiroshima to the genocide in Rwanda—all but defy human imagination. Some artists, though, have summoned skill enough to warn us of the sorrows humanity can inflict upon itself. Their imagery bears pondering at the beginning of another century, when peace, especially in the Middle East, seems each day more agonizingly distant. Max Ernst and Salvador Dali, for example, both provided major signs of their times as they saw them. When New York’s Museum of Modern Art held its comprehensive retrospective of Ernst in 2005, few canvases were as arresting as “The Fireside Angel” (1937), Ernst’s virulent reaction to Franco’s fascism in Spain. On a barren landscape a monstrous figure, clothed with seductively brilliant colors, dances in savage fury, trampling the earth beneath it in mockery of all moderation and reason. The snout of the sneering head bares dagger-like teeth, and a ravenous reptilian creature grows fantastically between the “angel’s” right leg and arm. Twenty years of exploration in Dada and Surrealism had given Ernst a repertoire of revulsion for this still terrifying protest (which also pitilessly parodies a centuries-old tradition of representing divine intermediaries). “It was the impression I had at the time of what was likely to happen in the world,” he later wrote, “and I was right.”
Dali, on the other hand, famously claimed to have no interest in politics. But when the Philadelphia Museum of Art held a splendid exhibition of his work, also in 2005, his fierce reactions to the outbreak of the civil war in Spain again stood out. Some think of “Burning Giraffe” (1936-1937) as Dali’s major antiwar work. In it a deformed woman with desk drawers in her chest and left leg propped up by a series of crutches. Behind her a second woman with something like knives in her back is also supported by crutches and holds a blood-red cloth (or body part?) in her right hand. In the further distance flames burst from the back of a giraffe in profile.
More often, though, “Soft Construction With Boiled Beans” (1936) is thought to be Dali’s most evocative “civil war premonition.” Here, on another hallucinatory landscape and against an ironically romantic blue sky full of turbulent clouds (one thinks of El Greco), a shrieking head appears above dismembered but wildly recombined human limbs. The beans lying about suggest that Dali sees this as a disaster of nature. But long before the term was current, he in fact shows us mercilessly and unforgettably the deconstruction of the human.
Though “The Fireside Angel” or “Soft Construction” may one day claim the title of the century’s most iconic antiwar protest, currently that distinction goes to Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica.” Picasso had been commissioned by the Spanish Republican government to create a large mural for Spain’s pavilion at the 1937 World’s Fair in Paris. He began work on May 1 and a few days later, learning of the bombing of the Basque town of Guernica by the German Air Force in collaboration with Franco’s troops, took that carnage as his theme. (The French newspaper L’Humanité carried appalling black and white photographs of it.) Picasso’s enormous canvas was conceived as a poster, with a grim palette of gray, black and white.
Last summer in Madrid, the Prado and Reina Sofia Museums held joint Picasso exhibitions to celebrate the 125th anniversary of the artist’s birth and the 25th anniversary of the arrival of “Guernica” in Spain. (Until the restoration of democracy in Spain, Picasso had entrusted it to the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where over the years many made pilgrimages to see it on the second floor at the top of the stairs.) Temporarily housed rather awkwardly in a building near the Prado, “Guernica” became the glory of the new Reina Sofia when it opened in 1992.
Goya’s emblematic “May 3rd 1808 in Madrid” (1814), which shows French troops executing Spanish patriots, was borrowed during the summer from the Prado to hang opposite it in conversation. Another axis of protest art was established between Manet’s “Execution of the Emperor Maximilian” (1868-69), borrowed from the Kunsthalle Mannheim, Germany, and “Massacre in Korea” (1951), borrowed from the Picasso Museum in Paris.
No matter how often one sees it, “Guernica” is all but impossible to remember exactly. One can describe the woman breaking through the roof with a lamp of warning, the harsh light bulb (that stands also for the sun), the raging bull (Franco), the gored horse (the Spanish Republic). To the right are the women in flight; the fallen soldier with his broken sword; perhaps especially, the desperate mother with her dead child. But the slashing diagonals and compressed space of the houses in which the scene is set allow the eye no rest or focus. This is cruelty colliding with chaos, each time you see it more horrifying than the time before.
Picasso finished the painting on June 4, 1937, but continued to explore the motif of the weeping woman obsessively for months afterward. (Dora Maar, whom he had met through Paul éluard, served as his principal model.) The Reina Sofia holds dozens of preparatory drawings, etchings and paintings that vividly demonstrate the intensity with which the artist analyzed his outrage and theme, developing both the iconography and its impact. As for the series of weeping women, one of the most powerful, an oil on canvas painted in October 1937 and shown at the Prado, portrays an anguished figure with typically splayed hands and contorted, displaced features. (Her eyes are tilted bowls from which her tears pour.) Against a roughly painted background in two shades of gray, her face and dress are rendered in strident, expressionistic colors—acidic green, harsh blue and violet, dark brown, black—and she pulls at a pale blue handkerchief with fang-like teeth. Combining elements from Picasso’s Cubism and his Surrealist aesthetic, the canvas seems at the very edge of madness.
What might compare with the tragic image? Opposite it the Prado boldly hung its “Mater Dolorosa” by Titian, an oil on marble from 1555, commissioned by Charles V, who saw the weeping Virgin not only as a witness of Christ’s suffering but also as an intercessor for himself. (He took the painting with him when he retired to the Monastery of Yuste in Caceres.) Here the blue mantle and purple dress over a white tunic are soft and gentle, the gesture of the praying hands elegant and expressive. The Virgin’s sorrow is seen against an at least implicit horizon of hope. Picasso’s vision, on the other hand, in his weeping women, as in “Guernica,” seems one of utter and unrelieved desperation. He may not have lived with the faith of his native land. But as much as any artist of his time, he gave undying testimony to the great message of John Paul II: War is always a defeat for humanity.