Art as a Political Tool

poster promoting Picasso exhibit
"Nude Woman in a Red Armchair" 1932
Kiss me quick, you fleshy muse!

I visited the Tate Britain yesterday. The main attraction was the Pablo Picasso exhibit. Seeing a copy of “Guernica,” his iconic anti-war painting was worth the price of admission. Originally commissioned for the Spanish pavilion at the Paris International Exhibition of 1937, the 11’6″ x 25’8″ mural was Picasso’s protest against Germany’s bombing of Guernica in support of General Franco’s Nationalists. I dare not use a photo of the mural because doing so would be a serious copyright infringement, but you can find it easily on the Internet. Take a look at the dying horse, the woman caught in the burning building, and the mother holding her dead child.  There are no tanks, no soldiers, no barricades, no guns. You see only the aftermath: the civilians dead and dying.

On April 26, 1932, the bombs fell. The time was 4:30 p.m. It was market day. The square was packed with women and children buying a loaf of bread, a link of chorizo, some onions maybe. They were living life. And then the bombing. It is estimated that 1,600 people died; 900 lay injured. One-third of the town’s population was killed. 

Out of the blue, the shoppers experienced the very first aerial bombardment of a city. For me, the chilling part is that this first aerial bombardment was, by the very nature of the word “first,” the first. Today, some eight decades later, aerial bombardment is nothing new. Death by drones is new, but otherwise…

One, less publicized side of Picasso’s “Guernica” is that two French women were so taken with the painting that they asked Picasso for and were granted permission to copy the painting as a tapestry. Nelson Rockefeller bought the full-size tapestry, and in 1985, Nelson’s wife Happy donated it to the United Nations where it was hung outside the Security Council chamber. Perfect!

And now… the sticky bit. On February 5, 2003, the tapestry was covered by (“covered-up” sounds a bit partisan, don’t you think?) by pale blue fabric and flags representing the member nations of the Security Council. Because… on this date Secretary of State Colin Powell, acting on behalf of President George W. Bush, was on-site arguing for war in Iraq.

United Nations officials claimed that the baby blue fabric created a more effective backdrop for the television cameras. Many journalists questioned this story: if the Guernica tapestry had not been a problem for TV cameras prior to the Iraq debate, why was it an issue now? The answer is obvious.

On March 17, 2009, the offensive tapestry was moved to the re-opening of the Whitechapel Gallery. I encourage you to watch The Guardian newspaper video that deals with Whitechapel’s acquisition.

In addition to Picasso, two other exhibits caught my attention at the Tate Britain. The first, was by presented by Patrick Keiller the artist, whose work is promoted under the fictional guise of The Robinson Institute. All of Keiller’s comments are in the third person as in “Robinson notes… Robinson’s pictures of Southern England…” The fictional Robinson, speaking for Keillor, looks at (quoting from the exhibition plaque) “the symbiotic relationship between organisms that is a primary force in evolution.” His conclusion is dark. He feels that “within two or three hundred years, human activity would lead to ecological collapse, after which the biosphere would endure a period of shock, from which it would then slowly recover. Or irreversible heating would lead to the evaporation of the oceans and the end of life on earth.”

Keiller builds his case primarily through video pictures of the natural world. Close-ups of flowers and native grasses blowing free in the breeze fade to pictures of industrial farming in which combines fell the grain and raise the dust on fields hemmed in by suburban sprawl and chain-link fencing. Gripping.

Top, James Tissat, 1877
"Portsmouth Dockyard"
Bottom: Lubaina Himid, 1991
"Between the Two my Heart is Balanced"

The third exhibit that caught my attention was titled “Migrations.” This particular exhibit looks at artists of foreign extraction who have studied in British art schools and how their immigrant backgrounds/heritage has impacted their work. The curators wrote that the works on display “explore the poetics and politics of diaspora and displacement.” And in the 80s, during a time of widespread unemployment, “the rise of far right hate groups and growing fears and concerns over ‘race’ and immigration.”

Following on the heels of many discussions in Great Britain on national identity and the ongoing trail of the Norwegian mass killer Anders Breivik, what could be more current than the “Migrations” exhibit?

 Art: one way of keeping the dialogue going.


Writer’s Prompt:

Displacement is a great writing prompt. We have all felt displaced at one time or another. Perhaps it was race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, education, or class.

  • Consider the times you have felt displaced and tap into that source. Explore those feelings.
  • Time permitting, use your feelings to frame a poem or define a character in a piece of fiction.

About timeout2

I have lived 100 lives. I write essays, short stories, poetry, grocery lists and notes to myself. If I am ever lost, look for a paper trail, but be careful not to trip over any books that lie scattered here and there. I am a reader. I am a reader in awe of writers. When I don't live in Westcliffe, Colorado, I live in London where I am a long-time member of Word-for-Word - Crouch End.
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2 Responses to Art as a Political Tool

  1. Doris, I always learn so much from your blogs when you are in London. Unfortunately you have got the artists name wrong, it’s Keiller, not Keillor. Very bad mistake. Or has your computer changed the name automatically and you didn’t noticed? Helga

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