Guernica by Pablo Picasso, 1937
“Pablo Picasso was never called an asshole, not like you.”
This lyric can be found in the song “Pablo Picasso” by the Modern Lovers. It is b0th hilarious and, by all reports, completely false. Pablo Picasso could, in fact, be a real asshole, especially to the women in his life. Likely he was called that in multiple languages on multiple occasions. But that begs the question: Can an artist be a jerk and still create dangerously moving and powerful art?
My answer to that is a resounding, “YES!” But people have a really hard time with that. We want our artists – whether they are musicians, painters, actors, writers, poets, dancers, etc. – to live up to the beautiful, truthful, powerful and poignant things they create.
But here’s the rub: Artists can be selfish, petty and screwed-up. In fact, I would argue that many of the people we would label “genius” have some tremendous flaws of personality and conduct. Stories abound of relationship conflicts, racism and sexism, violence, alcoholism, drug abuse and suicide. Artists tend towards depression and anxiety; they are often ostracized in society because of things like homosexuality or their political leanings. Yes, many can be and have been assholes. But many have also struggled in a world that doesn’t understand them at all, causing all kinds of anti-social behavior to ensue.
But does this lessen the power of their creations? “Guernica”, perhaps Picasso’s most famous work, should give us the answer to that question.
I had the opportunity to see this masterpiece in person at the Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid, Spain. What strikes you first is the sheer size of the painting: It is 11 feet by 25 feet. As an art student who had only seen the painting in a text book, I found its scale to be, literally, breath-taking (I was a bit woozy upon seeing it the first time!). It commands your attention by its size alone. But the true power lies in the imagery and presentation, the shape and form, the movement and contrast. It conveys agony and brutality, death and destruction, and, in the form of a simple flower, at first hard to find amidst the chaos, hope.
Many have called “Guernica” the greatest painting of the 20th century. During the Spanish Civil War, Picasso was commissioned by the Republican government of Spain to create a painting that protested the tactics and alliances of Generalissimo Francisco Franco and his Nationalist forces. Franco was allied with Nazi Germany which used the Spanish Civil War as a testing ground for its newest weapons and tactics. Though Picasso had not lived in Spain for many years, he was sympathetic to the Republican cause and very opposed to the Nationalist Franco. He began to work on an idea for the commission but he wasn’t satisfied with it. Then the news hit of what happened to the city of Guernica, the center of Basque culture in northern Spain. Picasso had his inspiration.
Guernica was targeted because of its importance to the Basque people, known for their support of the Republican government. It became one of the first cities to endure a horrifying example of the new modern warfare: Carpet bombing. The city had been mercilessly bombed from the air by German aircraft until it became a pile of ruins and dead bodies. Images of the event shocked the world and became a harbinger of things to come.
This event propelled Picasso to make his boldest and most enduring commentary on his world. Picasso’s subject matter usually tended towards the personal: his own inner life or his own experiences and points of view. He was not a political artist or a propagandist. But in “Guernica”, the man who could be a prick became a prophet. Through the painting, the world became much more aware of the war that was tearing Spain apart and of the role Nazi Germany was playing in the destruction. But the painting really took hold and became an enduring anti-war symbol when the world itself would have war brought to its doorstep just a few years later. As images like those from Guernica became more and more common, as the death toll went into the thousands upon thousands all over the globe, his painting came to represent the devastating impact of war on the 20th century and the fear of living in the atomic age.
When I consider this incredible painting and the brilliant yet deeply flawed individual who created it, I realize the profound dichotomy at work in making art of any kind. On the one hand, a work of art is intimately connected with its creator; the artist’s personality, experiences, quirks, humour, outlook, politics, hopes, dreams, etc. are infused into whatever they make. But on the other hand, a work of art takes on a completely independent life of its own,quite apart from the creator. It can take on much greater meaning and scope; it can challenge and thrill and inspire and infuriate far beyond any idea the artist ever had in mind.
To put it another way, art would not exist without the artist. But art doesn’t need the artist to continue to live on, to thrive, to become something great and meaningful. Art endures and gains strength quite often in spite of the fallibility and weakness of its creator.
Picasso working on Guernica
I take great comfort in these thoughts. As an artist, what I create is deeply personal because so much of myself has been poured into it. I make what only I can make: It is as unique and distinct as I am. But I know I am flawed, not just as an artist but as a human being. It is a great relief to me to know that what I make can exist quite apart from me. In fact, it can even take on meaning and purpose far beyond my own life’s meaning and purpose. But I also take comfort in this as someone who enjoys the art of others. We have become people who almost know too much about our artists (especially the celebrity artists) and their personal lives. Often we cannot enjoy something that has been created because we attach it to that artist’s personality or some transgression or some inconsistency of behavior or thought.
I don’t believe that art of any kind was ever meant to be connected so strongly to the personal. Art is meant to be experienced, felt, seen, digested, touched, heard, enjoyed and engaged. It cannot exist without the very human beings who create it. Yet it exists not as an extension of those people. It exists as its own entity and, as such, is free to be loved or hated, praised or criticized apart from the artists. It exists to freely continue to speak to people in new and fresh ways.
Really, art is a lovely paradox, created by mortals but with a potential for immortality. In a way, art is the very best and worst of us transformed into the hope of eternity. Pablo Picasso may have been an asshole but “Guernica” is proof that even we humans, trapped in flesh, scrabbling down in the mud, have within us the image of the Divine.