Condemning War, praising Peace - Picasso's Guernica and La Joie de Vivre - Harry Tzalas
April 26, 1937. Spring was in the air in the little Basque town of Guernica. All was peaceful notwithstanding the ongoing Spanish civil war. Suddenly a roar and waves of German airplanes of the Condor division and of the Italian Aviazione Legionaria dropped their deadly cargoes. Guernica was not a military target but it was razed to the ground. German Nazis and Italian Fascists who had sided with Franco Nationalists thought of that tactic meant at demoralizing the civilian population. That act of barbarism was not the first; it had already been done by the German forces during the 1st World War when the French town of Soissons in Picardie was continuously shelled from August 1914 to the end of 1919. Alas, attacks on civilian targets would be repeated by all belligerents in the course of World War II and this appalling practice is still perpetrated in modern conflicts. Going back to Guernica, 1,654 civilians died, and Guernica is remembered as a tragic event as its memory has been kept alive by a famous work of art.
News of this atrocity spread worldwide. Pablo Picasso, the famous avant-garde artist, lived then in Paris and that tragedy became the source of inspiration for his masterwork “Guernica”, a large mural of 7.80 by 3.50 meters. There is only black and shades of black and white in that composition. No sun, just a striking electric bulb shedding indiscrete rays on the macabre death scene. Dismembered human and animal parts scatter the canvas, a screaming head with raised arms curses the sky, an inconsolable mother mourns with her lifeless child in her arms, a frightened black bull bellows, while nearby a horse neighs in breathless anguish.
“Guernica” was exhibited around the world, becoming famous and widely acclaimed; it helped bring worldwide attention to the horrors of war.
Picasso "La joie de vivre"
Time passed, the evil deeds of the Spanish civil conflict were overshadowed by the horrors of World War II and the incredible death toll of some 60 million souls, the majority civilians; and then humanity in 1951 felt the need to invent a new legal term, genocide, to deal with the unprecedented atrocities of the Holocaust.
Nine years after “Guernica”, Picasso settles in Antibes in the South of France. Once more he is in love and the peaceful atmosphere of that ancient Greek city provides a unique setting for an anti-Guernica, the creation of a new masterpiece dedicated to Peace: “La joie de vivre”. That term was first used by François Fénelon, a protector of civil rights, at the end of the 17th century, by Michelet in the middle of the 19th century, and by Émile Zola in 1883. It refers to a relaxed, peaceful although creative situation, which Picasso wanted to capture in his work.
La “Joie de Vivre”, exhibited in the Musée Picasso in Antibes, reflects the beauty, the serenity of Peace. Inspired by the non-belligerent stories of Greek mythology it is a burst of colors, optimism and joy. In an idyllic landscape blessed with ample light, a “woman-tree” is the leading figure; she swings gracefully, her hair blown by the breeze. Two smiling little goats dance happily to the rhythm of a centaur’s fife and the double flute of a faun. In the background a sailing ship moves on a calm, deep blue sea.
There are certainly other masterpieces of different cultural aspects that induce to meditate over the insanity of war; in art there is no need for lengthy dissertation or hours of eloquence. The essence of a message can be concentrated in a glance, in a word, in a sound. The closing scene of the historical movie based on Erich Maria Remarque’s novel “All Quiet on the Western Front” is a striking example. Paul, the young German soldier, has been crouching for days and nights in the dreadful mud-filled trenches on the front line. He sees a butterfly just beyond his trench; a happy, carefree butterfly, unconcerned with the evil deeds of men. Paul smiles and reaches out towards the butterfly, but becoming too exposed he is shot and killed by an enemy sniper.
Rovereto, in Northern Italy, is a beautiful little town lying near the shores of Lake Garda at the Brenner Pass that leads to Austria. Rovereto was marked by some of the deadliest battles of the First World War and is today a town dedicated to peace and culture. The vast War Cemetery lies on the slopes of a hill; at its top “Maria Dolens” (The Saddened Virgin) stands. That is the name given to an enormous bell of 22 tons cast with the bronze gathered from melting the weapons of that war. At dusk the one hundred tolls of the saddened bell of peace echo its message high up on the Alps.
When years ago I visited the Università della Pace, the University of Peace, in Rovereto, I asked the Dean what can be taught at a University devoted to Peace. His answer was: “There are so many Academies that teach the art of war, the process of eliminating and killing, that there is a need to counterbalance this evil with a dialogue, a peaceful dialogue between nations”. When you talk you do not fight and I am so pleased that this Symposium aims at starting a dialogue, a constructive dialogue between people and cultures. As Lao Tse, a Chinese wise man in the 6th cent. B.C. said: “the longest journey starts with a first step” and I hope this encounter is the first step that will lead to a long constructive course.
Elassonos 14, Panorama, Ano Voula, 17673 Greece
Note: Harry Tzalas gave this presentation within the Thematic Circle A: Politics, Economy and Culture of the Symposium "The need of a constructive dialogue", 1 -7 Sept. 2015 held in Ancient Olympia.