Postcolonial Thoughts: Review of Simon Schama’s Power of Art series: Picasso

by Christopher Hutchinson

Mr. Schama justifies the title of his series by showing how these artists transformed and transcended their times; he rests his case with “Guernica.” That painting shatters even the thickest complacency and breaks what he calls “the habit of taking violent evil in our stride.” Mr. Schama is a passionate and persuasive docent, but unfortunately there is no “we” in art appreciation. Plenty of people can remain unmoved by all kinds of great work. “Power of Art” succeeds not because of the power of the chosen masterpieces but because Mr. Schama masterfully weaves engaging mysteries around each artwork. And he walks and talks viewers through it all in a “History Boys” style that is so chatty and disarming that even the flintiest museumphobe wants to stick around to find out what happened next-Alessandra Stanley http://www.nytimes.com/2007/06/18/arts/television/18stan.html?_r=0

Simon Schama’s documentary on Picasso’s Guernica 1937 was 59 minutes hero worship claiming that Guernica 1937 to be Picasso’s finest achievement. In this wasted hour, Schama uses intimate detail to add to the fictitious legend of Picasso. These details that Schama is so excited about are exactly the details that prove how remedial Guernica 1937 is.  The 59 minutes mainly state that  Guernica 1937 is genius because it is large and familiar. Large scale and familiar icons are common tools uses in the infancy painting. Large scale paintings and icons are used by painting infants to hide the obvious flaws present in the painting. This trick works mostly on non-art folk who value scale and equate that with enormous labor that they could never achieve, but Schama is an art historian who should know better. Art work qualified as genius often has nothing to do with how large it is.

“Pablo Picasso’s Guernica is so familiar, so large, so present. It’s physically bigger than a movie screen. But what is the painting about? Is it an account of the Spanish town obliterated by Nazi warplanes – a piece of reportage? Is that why it’s in black and white?

This is the reason why the painting has such an impact. Instead of a laboured literal commentary on German warplanes, Basque civilians and incendiary bombs, Picasso connects with our worst nightmares. He’s saying here’s where the world’s horror comes from; the dark pit of our psyche.” http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/powerofart/picasso.shtml

Probably Picasso’s most famous work, Guernica is certainly the his most powerful political statement, painted as an immediate reaction to the Nazi’s devastating casual bombing practice on the Basque town of Guernica during Spanish Civil War. http://www.pablopicasso.org/guernica.jsp

History paintings

A ‘history painting’ is one which has a serious narrative, or includes exemplars of actions which are intended to have didactic overtones. In this sense the word history relates to the Italian istoria, meaning narrative or story (and not the accurate or documentary description of actual events). History paintings are often large in scale. Their subjects can be taken from the Bible, from mythology or other forms of secular literature, from historical events; or they can be allegories. Noble themes are seen as being particularly worthy of depiction. History painting was viewed as the most important of the genres from about the 16th century, and the climax of an academic painter’s training. It was the equivalent of Epic or Tragedy in literature. http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/glossary/history-painting

The Third of May 1808 Francisco Goya 1814 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Francisco_Goya

The Third of May 1808
Francisco Goya
1814
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Francisco_Goya

At every level Picasso’s Guernica 1937 is an appropriation of the past, a past mainly embedded in Romanticism. Being a romantic isn’t a problem, except that Schama repeated over and over again that Picasso is a Modernist. Modernism and Romanticism are definitely not the same things. Modernism did its best to destroy the narrative of the history-painting genre. Schama tries to smooth this over by calling Guernica 1937 a “modern history-painting.”

After a conversation with Professor Jason Sweet, Sweet pointed out that Guernica 1937 has the same composition of Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People 1830. It is obvious that Picasso is appropriating famous history-paintings to create Guernica 1937. The outstretched hands present in Goya’s The Third of May 1808 are in the right hand corner, the dead standing underfoot is also present in Liberty leading the people 1830, the terrified horse in David’s Napoleon crossing the Alps 1801. Guernica 1937 amounts to a hodgepodge of icons present in art history roughly 100 years before Picasso. Schama wants us to believe this is Genius. Schama wants us to believe that Guernica 1937 is more present, terrifying and had more of an impact than Goya or Delacroix-Why? What is the motivation behind this? Is this true?

Schama, in the documentary, makes reference to the fact that Guernica 1937 was on display at MOMA in NY for 30 years as validation to its genius, to its significance. There is a fact that Picasso is still the most paid artist due to labels such as genius still heaped upon him. Schama is among many who believe Guernica 1937 is Picasso’s most important piece. Guernica 1937 is actually a 100year step backwards from modernism. Not genius.

Genius & Modernity

Modern Art painting, sculpture, architecture, and graphic arts characteristic of the 20th century and of the later part of the 19th century. Modern art embraces a wide variety of movements, theories, and attitudes whose modernism resides particularly in a tendency to reject traditional, historical, or academic forms and conventions in an effort to create an art more in keeping with changed social, economic, and intellectual conditions. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/modern+art

Guernica 1937’s step back into history painting is an indicator of how much Picasso actually believed in modernity in the first place. It is easy, comfortable and ultimately conceptually lazy to appropriate history the way Guernica 1937 does. Modernity does its best to get rid of narrative and genius, both of which served God, supremacy, and innate ability. Modernism reduces to formal elements, where we can now just focus on the artwork, allowing anyone to attain “genius.” Schama is using “genius” in Picasso the same way as God, supremacy, and innate ability.

The Formal Elements are the parts used to make a piece of artwork. The art elements are line, shape, form, tone, texture, pattern, colour and composition. They are often used together, and how they are organised in a piece of art determines what the finished piece will look like. http://hardleyart.wordpress.com/the-formal-elements-in-art/

The moment that formal analysis is applied to Guernica 1937, the piece crumbles as it relates to genius. When we evaluate Guernica without the sympathy of war, sympathy acceptable in romanticism, it is a remedial painting.

Generic Icons & Universal symbols

The use of the many generic icons and universal symbols is a catchall tool used by artists that are not confident in there own statement. If the viewer does not appreciate the painting, maybe they will like the horse, or the bull, or the crying woman, the obvious universal pyramid right smack in the middle of the piece. Guernica 1937 is just a bad painting, where these icons are cut and paste images surrounding the image without interaction.

Schama makes reference to the history of the icons present in Guernica 1937. Schama explains the use of the iconic imagery is related to the subjects that Picasso has doodled his whole life, which is now galvanized in this triumph of a painting Guernica 1937. Here again Schama is reaching. There are many artists that use popular subjects, especially animals. Using Schama’s rubric all the artists that paint chickens, horses, flags, are now eligible to be genius if those subjects responded a sympathetic political event like 9/11. Is the Mike Brown mural in Ferguson, MO genius? No, neither is Guernica 1937.

A mural in memoriam of Mike Brown, an unarmed black teenager shot by police in Ferguson, Missouri was painted on the side of a business in North St. Louis. The tribute was done by artist Joseph Albanese and commissioned by Signature Screenprinting according to the St. Louis Dispatch. It’s a “dedication to the Mike Brown tragedy and awareness of injustice in our communities,” wrote the custom t-shirt maker on its Facebook page. Funeral services for Brown will be held at the Friendly Temple Missionary Baptist Church on Monday. (Photo: Aymann Ismail/ANIMALNewYork) http://iamturbo.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/ferguson-mike-brown-mural_-600x3371.jpg

A mural in memoriam of Mike Brown, an unarmed black teenager shot by police in Ferguson, Missouri was painted on the side of a business in North St. Louis. The tribute was done by artist Joseph Albanese and commissioned by Signature Screenprinting according to the St. Louis Dispatch. It’s a “dedication to the Mike Brown tragedy and awareness of injustice in our communities,” wrote the custom t-shirt maker on its Facebook page. Funeral services for Brown will be held at the Friendly Temple Missionary Baptist Church on Monday. (Photo: Aymann Ismail/ANIMALNewYork) http://iamturbo.com/mike-brown-rip-mural/

 

Christopher HutchinsonChristopher Hutchinson is an Assistant Professor of Art at Atlanta Metropolitan State College, Archetype Art Gallery Owner in Atlanta, Ga, and Smoke School of Art Founder. He received his Master of Fine Arts Degree in Painting from Savannah College of art & Design, Atlanta and his Bachelor of Arts Degree from the University of Alabama in Huntsville, Alabama. He lived in Alabama for 10 years before moving to Atlanta in 2008.

Learn more about Christopher and his work at Black Flight 144.

 

 

 

 

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Categories: Art, Postcolonial Thoughts

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