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Why did the United Nations cover up Picasso’s “Guernica”?

How a historical work of art loses its past

Why did the United Nations cover up Picasso’s“Guernica” (see p.1)? Was it because they thought it would be too harrowing, too politically pointed if Colin Powell were to be shown defending war in front of this great denunciation of war?

Sadly, I don’t think so, although we who like to believe in the power of art might wish it to be true; it would, after all, add greatly to the tragic aura of the work.

But reality is often more bathetic than tragic and poetic. We spoke to the UN. What had happened was this: “Guernica” hangs outside the Security Council chamber in the traditional press conference area. Because of the unprecedented crush of journalists and TV hardware, the microphone had to be moved, and it ended up in front of “Guernica”.

Only 10-20% of it was picked up by the TV cameras, so its symbolism would have been lost in any case, but the TV crews also complained about the incoherence of the background, hence its draping with a blue cloth. This has the ring of truth to it; TV crews everywhere are a loutish, demanding lot who think they own any setting in which they happen to be filming.

If there is a moral to this tale, it is that we greatly overestimate how much non-arty folk know about things that we take for granted.

The UN spokesman seemed surprised at the amount of flak they had taken for this. The German Bundeswehr were just as surprised back in 1991 when they also messed with “Guernica”. In this ludicrous episode they actually used the picture on a recruiting poster, with the slogan, “We have no image of our enemy”.

Their serene ignorance of the history and meaning of the painting, that it was the German Condor Legion which had bombed the town of Guernica in 1937, killing 1,654 people, provoked the novelist Günther Grass to write a stinging denunciation of the army and the indifference with which this advertisement had been greeted (The Art Newspaper No.8, May 1991, p.10).

He said (and this is just as necessary today):“I claim an unwritten right, the human right to a past”.

The trouble is that works of art lose their past. In a very short time, perhaps just 50 years, we lose contact with the reality and thoughts that gave birth to them. They enter the category of “masterpieces”, to be venerated or even just enjoyed; in any case, they are neutralised.

And then it is fresh artistic creation that we need to bring painful truths home to us. A photo may do that job better than a masterpiece such as “Guernica”.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘Art is a bad history teacher'