It was probably in the summer of 1974 when I first stood before this remarkably stirring painting, Guernica, by Pablo Picasso (at MOMA, NYC). His fullest creative talents, as well as sensitivity to many aspects of our common human condition, came together to help him produce this recognized masterpiece. Not the least of the key features of this painting was his decision to render the composition in black, white and shades of grey.
Remember that he was ‘Pablo,’ not ‘Pierre,’ Picasso -that he was a Spaniard by birth, and in important ways, by self-identification.
In the context in which I compose these words, with Russia presently invading Ukraine, Picasso’s painting, and National Geographic’s somewhat unexpected reference to it at this moment, I am once again reminded of my recent visit to the Calder and Picasso exhibit at MFAH (Museum of Fine Arts, Houston). The image below, featured early in the walk through of that exhibit, shows Calder standing in front on Picasso’s Guernica, looking at his own contribution to the Spanish Pavilion for the 1937 Paris International World’s Fair.
Noting these precedents, I want to raise a question, which cannot simply or quickly be answered. What is the role of art, and of our exploration of beauty, in relation to the reality of evil?
A powerful example of a response to this question is provided by Illya Repin’s painting, Ivan the Terrible and his Son Ivan (1581). A more recent example is Francisco de Goya’s 1814 painting, The Third of May. And, of course, so many portrayals of the crucifixion of Jesus.
A partial answer to the question I have posed is to say at least this: art and the exploration of beauty has the potential to remind us of our common humanity, and especially of the ideals we attach to our best and shared perceptions of what it means to be human – even in the face of evil and of death.
Picasso’s Guernica provides a compelling example of a good answer to this question.