Guernica, Gaza and the disappearance of shock

As everyone knows, in the wake of the bombing of a small Basque town by German and Italian planes during the Spanish Civil War, Picasso produced the painting Guernica. This astonishing three-dimensional rendition of his canvas allows us to see anew a perhaps overly familiar image: the screaming mouths, the outstretched hands, the horror and anguish of people and animals.

Here’s Wikipedia‘s description of the context in which Guernica was attacked:

Prior to the Condor Legion raid, the town had not been directly involved in the fighting, although Republican forces were in the area; 23 battalions of Basque army troops were at the front east of Guernica. The town also housed two Basque army battalions, although it had no static air defenses, and it is thought that no air cover could be expected due to recent losses of the Republican Air Force.

Guernica had a nominal population of around five thousand and the town is thought to have housed numerous refugees who were fleeing into Republican controlled territory. The raid also took place on a Monday, ordinarily a market day in Guernica. Generally speaking a market day would have attracted people from the surrounding areas to Guernica to conduct business.

There is still historical debate over whether a market was being held that particular Monday however. On the one hand, the Basque government had, prior to the bombing, ordered a general halt to markets to prevent blockage of roads and restrict large meetings. While the issuance of a directive forbidding markets is indisputable, it is commonly argued that the directive had not been received by all areas, including Guernica, at the time of the raid, and therefore a market was held.

The bombing was supposed to hit roads and a bridge, a clear strategic target intended to cut off the withdrawal of Republican forces. In fact, as Wikipedia explains:

The attacks destroyed the majority of Guernica. Three quarters of the city’s buildings were reported completely destroyed, and most others sustained damage. Among infrastructure spared were the arms factories Unceta and Company and Talleres de Guernica along with the Assembly House Casa de Juntas and the Oak. Richthofen [the officer in charge of the attack] recorded that the bridge was not destroyed or even hit during the raid and the mission was considered a failure as a result, although the rubble and chaos that the raid created severely restricted the movement of Republican forces.

Afterwards, Republicans claimed that 1600 people had been killed. The Nationalists alleged that Republicans had themselves destroyed the town, burning it as they retreated. More recent historians estimate a death toll in the hundreds.

Whatever the actual figure, reports of the attacks on Guernica caused outrage around the world, helping to convince many people of the true nature of the junta and its allies. The Nationalists might claim to be attacking only military targets while attempting to keep civilian casualties to a minimum but the piles of Basque corpses spoke for themselves. The display of Picasso’s painting at the 1937 World Fair reflected an emerging consensus about the barbarity of the fascists.

Which, of course, brings us to Gaza. The Israelis are not fascists but, other than that, the analogy is spookily accurate. Think of the school that the Israelis recently destroyed, killing at least 42 civilians who had taken refuge there, despite the fact that it was clearly marked as a UN facility and the IDF had been provided with its GPS co-ordinates. Like the junta after Guernica, the IDF tried to blame the victims, alleging that Hamas had been hiding inside and firing mortars. Not surprisingly, that’s all turned out to be untrue. As Gush Shalom, the Israeli peace group, says:

The desperate refugees who lost everything had hoped that hiding in a school belonging to the UN would give them at least some kind of refuge and save their children. They did not know that even there a single shell would cut off dozens of lives in a single second. They did not know that facing them is an Israeli government running amok; charging headlong into the depth of the bloody mud of Gaza.

Those who sent soldiers to conduct intensive warfare in the world’s most thickly inhabited area knew well in advance that the undoubted result would be a bloodbath, the killing of civilians, children and adults, whole families buried under the ruins of their homes. The government dooms a whole generation of young Israelis to become, quite literally, war criminals except for those who are themselves killed by the artillery shells which are supposed to protect them.

Have a look at the photos below and then go back to the Picasso Youtube clip.




Where, though, is the outrage? In some respects, that’s the scariest aspect of the whole Gaza crisis: the way that atrocities that would have utterly scandalised the generation of the thirties have now become entirely routine.

Since the attack on the school, the Israelis have now attacked other representatives of the UN:

The United Nations has said it is halting its aid programme in the Gaza Strip after one of its drivers was killed by Israeli troops during a three-hour ceasefire. A spokesperson explained that the UN would not resume delivering food aid and medical supplies until it received fresh assurances Israel would stop targeting its civilian contractors.

The Wikipedia entry on the bombing of Guernica also contains the following passage:

A tapestry copy of Picasso’s Guernica is displayed on the wall of the United Nations building in New York City, at the entrance to the Security Council room. It was placed there as a reminder of the horrors of war.

Jeff Sparrow

Jeff Sparrow is a Walkley Award-winning writer, broadcaster and former editor of Overland.

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  1. I have seen outrage over these attacks on Gaza all over the web and the media, in sheer numbers probably far more outrage than there was over Guernica. Whether outrage has any effectiveness in creating change is another thing. It’s easy to sit in front of a screen and be outraged. You have raised an interesting question though about the function of art in the world. Did the painting serve to create change or simply as a memorial to the victims? Remembering the horrors of war doesn’t seem to be much use in stopping it from happening either. The painting, in all its genius, has probably done more good in the world than all the passive outrage indulged in by comfortable journalists and TV watchers though. Perhaps you could have included a link to somewhere your readers could do more than simply read another article and shed tears over another photograph?

  2. Well, outrage is necessary but not sufficient, I guess you could say. If you are in Melbourne, the details of the next protest are below. One imagines similar events are scheduled elsewhere:
    Rally for Gaza
    Sunday, January 18, 2009
    2:00pm – 4:00pm
    State Library of Victoria, (opp Melbourne Central) and then to Federation Square
    cnr Swanston and La Trobe Streets
    Melbourne, Australia

    View Map
    Contact Info

  3. Worthwhile post Jeff.

    Please keep them coming.

    I think posing an artwork to represent an atrocity is full of risk, but can remind us of the best reasons of needing art, as a step past the desensitized notions of media we have these days.

    Will be at the rally.

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