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Picasso: The ultimate painter of war?
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(Credit: RMN-Grand Palais, Musée national Picasso-Paris/Mathieu Rabeau)
Picasso’s Guernica is seen as one of the most iconic paintings of military conflict – yet as a new exhibition in Paris reveals, the artist created many more.
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Some works of art are so famous, so absorbing, they make it difficult for other works, even ones by the same artist, to get a glance in edgewise. Grant Wood’s enigmatic meditation on rural values, American Gothic (1930), is one such painting. The awkward chemistry of the tight-lipped hayseeds who dominate the work’s surface overshadows every other painting by the same hand. (How many other works by Wood can you name off the top of your head?) Pablo Picasso’s Guernica (1937) has had a similarly eclipsing effect, at least when it comes to the attention we’ve paid to other images of conflict by the Spanish artist.

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While many of us can call to mind the butchered limbs, anguished expressions, and thrashing horse head that trouble the surface of Picasso’s wrenching reflection on the devastating bombardment in April 1937 of the Basque village of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War, naming a single further work by Picasso that is even peripherally concerned with the subject of war might prove tricky for most. And yet, as an important exhibition now on at The Musée de l'Armée in Paris demonstrates, war was a defining preoccupation of the artist, whose long lifespan stretched from the Cuban War of Independence (which broke out in 1895, when he was just 14 years old) to the Vietnam War, which ended two years after the artist’s death in 1973.

No painting by Picasso has suffered more from Guernica’s exclusive grip on cultural consciousness than his menacing response to allegations of atrocities committed in 1951 by American troops in what became known as the Sinchon Massacre. Picasso’s large oil-on-plywood depiction of a group of women and children about to be slaughtered at point-blank range by a faceless gang of robotic goons is (apart from its bloodlessly grey grisaille palette) everything that Guernica isn’t. Where the earlier and more famous work is a shatter of symbols and signs, an unrelenting literalness of visual storytelling transforms Massacre in Korea (1951), on loan to The Musée de l'Armée from the Picasso Museum, into an excruciating caricature: a grisly comic book. “They look,” the exhibition’s curator, Isabelle Limousin, tells me, “as if they are wearing armour from ancient times or from the future –  something from a science-fiction novel or from the movies.”

Picasso’s response to allegations of America’s involvement in the Sinchon Massacre in Korea in 1951 was derided at the time he painted it as too simplistic in its storytelling

Picasso’s response to allegations of America’s involvement in the Sinchon Massacre in Korea in 1951 was derided at the time he painted it as too simplistic in its storytelling

On the left-hand side of the painting, a desperate huddle of three women (two of whom appear pregnant) and five children (in varying states of upset and alarm) await imminent execution by a lock-step squad of automatons that encroaches from the right – dreary drones whose smooth cyborg skin, snapped-off genitalia, and weird weaponry are the stuff of nightmares. Picasso is keen for us, compositionally, to equate the unfolding horror with barbarities we’ve confronted before in Francisco de Goya’s famous painting The Third of May 1808 (1814), whose choreography of sinister soldiers mowing down defenceless civilians is conceived along exactly the same theatrical lines. An artistic genealogy can be traced from Goya’s painting, through Édouard Manet's famous portrayal of the killing in June 1867 of the Austrian-born Emperor of Mexico, the Execution of Emperor Maximilian (1868-1869), which is similarly staged, to Picasso’s work. 

Picasso’s Massacre in Korea echoed the composition of Francisco de Goya’s painting The Third of May 1808 (1814)

Picasso’s Massacre in Korea echoed the composition of Francisco de Goya’s painting The Third of May 1808 (1814)

Picasso’s dialogue with the past in Massacre in Korea extends beyond the allusions he makes in the work to Goya and Manet. The victims of Picasso’s work are clustered tentatively into a loosening triangle that we typically associate with the sacred security of the many medieval and Renaissance mother-and-child portraits, from Raphael’s Madonna of the Meadow to Da Vinci’s Virgin of the Rocks. But here, that protective triangular shape has begun to break down, as if hammered into fragility by the battering ram of a mechanised rectilinear force that slams in from the right.

The anonymised soldiers advance in unison, sprocketed like a track-wheel tank – their inhumanity accented in the upper right corner by the unnatural thrust of a forearm wielding a sword – a symbol that Picasso has repurposed from Guernica. In the artist’s iconic earlier painting the sword and arm are severed, shattered, and trampled underfoot at the bottom of the painting. Their rehabilitation in Massacre in Korea as a fully flexed expression of imperial aggression suggests an accelerating pessimism about global politics and the rise of totalitarian impunity. That arm’s been cocked, waiting to mutilate the innocents for centuries: a timeless archetype of merciless tyranny.

Perhaps, in Picasso’s mind, the pitiless poetry of Guernica hadn’t had a sufficiently pacifying impact on the hearts and minds of world leaders. It was time for brutal bluntness.

“The work was not well received,” Limousin admits, on how critics responded to Picasso’s statement on the Sinchon Massacre when it was first seen in 1951. The painting was dismissed, she says, as “too easy, too readable for contemporaries of the artist,” because it was perceived as organised too simplistically into “good ones and bad ones”. Perhaps, in Picasso’s mind, the pitiless poetry of Guernica, created 14 years earlier, hadn’t had a sufficiently pacifying impact on the hearts and minds of world leaders. It was time for brutal bluntness. Though derided by many at the time, Massacre in Korea, Limousin believes, in retrospect, deserves to be reassessed by audiences as indeed “a very strong work”. Unboxing the painting for installation in the show, she recalls, “was a very breathtaking moment”. It may not be Guernica, but perhaps that isn’t a yardstick with which we should punish it.

Picasso’s early Cubist collages, including A Bottle and a Newspaper (1912), incorporate clippings from newspapers that chronicle the accelerating tensions in the Balkans

Picasso’s early Cubist collages, including A Bottle and a Newspaper (1912), incorporate clippings from newspapers that chronicle the accelerating tensions in the Balkans

For all his obsession with the conflicts of his age, Picasso never enlisted in any army. Resident in Paris during both World War One and World War Two, he was under no legal obligation as an expat Spanish citizen to join the fight against Germany. Rather than load a gun on a frontline, he elected instead to pack tight his paintings with explosive anti-war energy – an impulse that is evident from some of his earliest works. Collages constructed by the artist in 1912 show an instinct to spike their fragmented narratives with hints of political disquiet. Clippings from newspapers and journals that reference unrest unfolding in the Balkans trouble the surface of several Cubist compositions.

Biographical detail

“The relationship between Picasso and war,” according to Limousin, is “crucial to his art from the beginning to the end of his life”. How exactly that relationship knows itself on the surface of his works is not always obvious. In order to contextualise paintings and drawings that are not, at first glance, conspicuously shaped by an imagination agitated by war, the organisers of the exhibition have summoned a trove of collateral biographical and historical material that cast the artworks in a new light. “One point that is very important to this exhibition,” Limousin explains, “is the fact that we are exhibiting 330 pieces, over one third of which are artworks by Picasso, one third are objects from the artist’s personal archives, and one third are objects relating to the military theme of the museum”. 

In addition to 140 works of art by Picasso, the exhibition includes objects from the Army Museum’s own collection, which help contextualise the paintings and drawings

In addition to 140 works of art by Picasso, the exhibition includes objects from the Army Museum’s own collection, which help contextualise the paintings and drawings

By presenting Picasso’s enduring artistic vision alongside contextualising letters, newspaper articles, journal entries, and diaries, the show poignantly reminds us that all art, however revered, is created by perishable people – individuals who live their lives in many respects as you and I do – reading widely, discussing ideas, and listening with mingled joy and outrage to the radio. A vintage 1939 Super Groom Radio, of the sort on which Picasso might have heard performances of his musician friends, or news of wartime atrocities, is affectingly on show as well. The device’s squat square shape prefigures a menacing machine that dominates a cartoonish pen-and-wash on vellum drawing entitled The War (1951) that Picasso created the same year that he painted Massacre in Korea. In it, a crouching contraption that looks like a surreal cross between a toaster oven, a transistor radio, and a hulking Humvee flashes a skull-like grin as it belches fire into a tortured darkness. The radio is the tank of the mind.

Created the same year as Massacre in Korea, Picasso’s pen-and-wash La Guerre (The War) (1951), is as haunting as it is childlike in its deceptive simplicity

Created the same year as Massacre in Korea, Picasso’s pen-and-wash La Guerre (The War) (1951), is as haunting as it is childlike in its deceptive simplicity

With so much edgy art on display (the exhibition boasts some 140 works by Picasso) it is easy to forget that the venue hosting the show, an Army Museum, is one devoted to something else: preserving weapons and armour of military history from the middle ages to World War Two. “This is very much a history as well as an art exhibition,” Limousin reminds me, pointing out that the show has not been timed to mark any artistic milestone in Picasso’s life or career, but rather a geopolitical one that he shared with his age: the 80th anniversary of the end of the Spanish Civil War.

Picasso and War is at the Musée de l'Armée in Paris until 28 July 2019.

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