A rough encounter with the thirties

It’s hard to pin down a single work of art that captures the absolute brilliance of Pablo Picasso. He was outstanding in every respect, producing timeless paintings throughout his career. From his deeply melancholic blue period to his spectacular rendezvous with cubism and his surrealist masterpieces, his was an oeuvre that has few disappointments.
While choosing a definitive piece is impossible, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1909) and the devastatingly powerful Guernica (1937) would certainly be in contention for that impossible accolade, both spectacular in their own distinct ways. This year marks the 75th anniversary of the latter, which takes centre stage at what is one of the most interesting exhibitions to have been put together this season.
Showing at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia in Madrid, Encounters with the 1930s commemorates the legacy of this epic work, setting it alongside other works of art that were executed during one of the most frighteningly unstable decades in human history.
Over 400 works of arts, from both Spanish and non-Spanish institutions, have been gathered to examine this era, produced by the artists who lived and experienced such strange times. This includes Joan Miró, Yves Tanguy, Moholy-Nagy, Man Ray, Max Beckmann, Robert Delaunay, André Masson, Piet Mondrian, Wassily Kandinsky, Luis Buñuel, Joaquín Torres-García, Hans Arp, Fernand Léger, René Magritte and Mario Sironi.
The failure of liberal democracy to bring about a world of opportunity and harmony after the First World War made it easy for fascism and communism to succeed, grand ideologies that seemed capable of delivering utopia. It was a massive con. The new order was simply a nationalistic reinterpretation of empire. Europe had entered a bitterly dark period.
Guernica was one of the more unflinching responses to slow descent into barbarity. By the mid-thirties, Spain had descended into anarchy, resulting in a bitter three-year civil war, which saw various nations supporting either the rebels or government forces.
In 1927, the Basque town of Guernica was bombed under the order of General Francisco Franco. Carrying out the attack were fighters from Nazi Germany. Hundreds, potentially thousands of civilians, were innocently killed. It is these men, women and children whom Picasso documented. Today it is considered one of the ultimate anti-war images.
While the entire narrative of the painting is uneasy to look at, there is one particular aspect of it that is especially heartbreaking. At the extreme left of the canvas, a mother can be seen hopelessly screaming with such sorrow she could break the world. Her head is upwards, towards the heavens, as if she is calling to god for help. In her arms lies her child, limp and lifeless, killed by ideas that it was too young to understand.
“Instead of a laboured literal commentary on German warplanes, Basque civilians and incendiary bombs, Picasso connects with our worst nightmares,” the historian Simon Schama explained when analysing the painting as part of his BBC TV series the Power of Art. “He’s saying here’s where the world’s horror comes from; the dark pit of our psyche.”
This is the same psyche that has also seen art and culture flourish, even in most puritanical and repressive epochs of human history. Books shared in the dead of night so to speak. However, during the thirties, though art remained prolific and responsive to the social and political environment it existed in, it nevertheless went through a phase where it questioned its own relevance.
The world had changed. While for some the violence was never directly experienced, there was always a feeling of disquiet, of impending doom. What purpose then did a painting have, music and literature too, if the whole planet was scorched into oblivion? It was a difficult time to be an artist, but an important one too.
“What do you think an artist is? He is a political being, constantly aware of the heart breaking, passionate, or delightful things that happen in the world, shaping himself completely in their image,” Picasso once said. “Painting is not done to decorate apartments. It is an instrument of war.”
Encounters with the 1930s at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia runs until January 7th 2013.
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