Ken White: Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ still screams worldwide warning

The mural, back on display at the U.N., tells of horrors now being relived in Ukraine and elsewhere.

By Ken W. White / Herald Forum

A day or two after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, I got a message from a friend. He wrote: “I find it ironic that Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ was returned to the U.N. and three weeks later Russia invades Ukraine. (A tapestry reproduction of the original painting on display at the United Nations headquarters in New York City had been returned after cleaning and conservation work.)

He asked, ”When shall we ever learn?”

The irony is recognized by Ukrainian President Zelensky. He likened Pablo Picasso’s 1937 oil painting of the inhumanity and horror of the Spanish Civil War to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. “Guernica” captures the horror of total war in the past and the present, and voices the desperation of “no way out” experienced by Basque and Ukrainian civilians who were and are terror-bombed by German Nazi and Italian Fascist forces in the Spanish town and now Russian missiles in Ukraine. “Guernica” screams through its distorted figures — a mother caressing her dead child — at the universal atrocities committed on innocent men, women and children.

Like my friend, “Guernica” asks the world: When shall we ever learn? But while the painting resonates for many people, it does not do so for the ignorant or the unscrupulous. A few years ago, I walked into a local fast-food restaurant. To my amazement, I saw a copy of Picasso’s painting on the back wall. I said to the young man behind the counter, “It’s surprising to see ‘Guernica’ displayed here.” He responded, “What’s that?”

The young clerk’s ignorance could not hear the question of Guernica, but it can be addressed in other ways, as in books like John Hersey’s “Hiroshima” and Kurt Vonnegut “Slaughterhouse Five.” “Hiroshima” was the first book to make Americans confront the consequences of nuclear war. Hersey saw the crux of the nuclear problem as whether total war — the complete destruction of civilians and non-military infrastructures — is ever justifiable. Vonnegut’s novel tells of the author’s experiences as a prisoner of war in Germany during World War II when British-American planes bombed Dresden and created a firestorm that killed 25,000 people, including American prisoners.

To learn the lesson of “Guernica” requires that we understand that thinking is the enemy of authoritarianism and the foundation of democratic freedoms.

Unfortunately, there are those who are not ignorant but see the thinking that “Guernica” promotes as dangerous. Vladamir Putin’s war on Ukrainian civilians, hospitals and schools is like the Nazis’ and Fascists’ atrocities of 1937: Putin’s goal is to intentionally demoralize a civilian population through the terror of total war. And like the totalitarianism of the 1930s, he cannot do so without repression at home. The Centre for Eastern Studies observes that Putin has de facto abandoned any pretense of democracy in favor of control, censorship and violence.

Putin knows that a people cannot even begin to answer “when shall we ever learn?” if they are not free to ponder, read and protest. It’s a tactic well known by Americans. “Hiroshima” was banned until 1949 when it was translated into Japanese by a survivor of the nuclear attack. Vonnegut’s book is still in trouble. It has been banned from a number of public school and libraries, including one in Missouri, because of complaints about children being exposed to “shocking material.”

In fact, Putin’s neofascism has clearly taken root in America’s undemocratic tradition. Trump Republicans have openly supported Putin in the past, and their animus towards democracy is well understood by him. They resemble him in their contempt for democratic institutions, in their attempt to ignore and justify the violence of the Jan 6 insurrection, and in their attacks on books and teachers.

As Henry A. Giroux in Truthout points out, “The Republican Party makes clear that educational practices that inform, liberate, empower and address systemic problems that undermine democracy are a threat.” And Amanda Marcotte of Salon observes how Florida has banned 50 math books while a Republican judge in Texas has argued that there’s no reason “to provide a public library.”

My response to my friend’s question is: We shall learn if people like Putin and Trump Republicans are no longer allowed to limit the instruments for open and critical thinking.

Make no mistake about it, the war on freedom in Ukraine and on freedom in the United States is the same war, just at different stages of Guernica. Putin had more than 20 years to pave the way to Ukraine with intimation in Russia and infiltration in American. By the skin of our teeth, our democracy was able to avoid capitulation to Putin’s authoritarianism.

But for how long?

Ken W. White lives in Marysville.

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