Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Picasso's Guernica Tapestry returns to London The Independent, 24 March

Welcome back! Picasso’s ‘Guernica’, that supremely sombre evocation of the destructive powers of war, first went on show at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1939, after it had been exhibited in Paris. It was there to help raise fighting funds for the Spanish Civil War. Pairs of boots were called for. Four hundred pairs were donated. The painting itself, a commemoration of the destruction of the small village of Guernica by Franco’s forces, had been made by Picasso in his Paris studio in 1938, in a furious outpouring of pity and anger.

   Now a version of Guernica is back at The Whitechapel once again, as part of an installation by Goshka Macuga, to celebrate the re-opening of the gallery after a major refurbishment. This is not the painting you would have seen in 1939. That one is now permanently installed at the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid, too fragile to travel. What we can see at the Whitechapel over the next twelve months is one of only three tapestries that were made from the painting in the 1950s, executed by Parisian weavers. The other two are in France and Japan. The Japanese Guernica is blue.

   In some respects, the installation at the Whitechapel is more impressive than what can be seen in Madrid. Here in London you approach it face on, and you can get up really close. In Madrid, you come at it side on, like a listing ship. There is no way in which you can walk directly back a pace or two to take in the enormity of the terrible message. The tapestry itself is woven in tones of brown and cream and black, which adds a strange degree of intensity to the image. When you look at it, you experience a near riot of movement and agitation. Nothing ever stops. Everything seems to be decomposing before our very eyes. Arms are reaching out. Impotent hands claw at nothing. A disembodied head floats. Mouths yawn open in inaudible screams. The heads of mythic beasts skew violently.

   And we – the merest we - approach this monumental distillation of human suffering like petty-minded voyeurs. We are suddenly plunged into the midst of it, without introduction or explanation of apology, all this jaggedness, all this laceration, all this falling away and falling apart. Human experience seems to be scarified, to the bone.

   At the Whitechapel, you approach it up the length of a curiously ceremonious blue carpet. It is the same blue as the curtains that hang behind the tapestry. This is close to the blue of the United Nations, where the tapestry usually hangs, and it is here to remind us of that moment in 2003 when some goon ordered that the great tapestry be covered over because Colin Powell was about to deliver a speech in support of the invasion of Iraq.

   Did Picasso’s ferocious minotaur rage back in the muffled dark? Or did Colin Powell just dream that later? 

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