Saturday, September 30, 2023

The 20th Century’s Most Famous Painting Captured the Screaming Horror of Modern War

Guernica, 1937 by Pablo Picasso.

A very large painting arrived in London on September 30, 1938, the very day British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain signed the Munich Agreement with the Axis Powers.  It had previously been exhibited at the 1937 Paris International Exhibition (Worlds Fair) in the exhibit of the Spanish Republic.  It had created a sensation and was soon sent on a world tour to raise support for the Republican cause in the devastating Civil War wracking that country.  This is the story of that painting which became perhaps the artistic symbol of an entire bloody century.

On April 26, 1937 aircraft of the German Condor Legion and supporting Italian forces unleashed a two hour aerial bombardment of the Spanish Basque market town of Guernica.  The Nazi and Fascistvolunteers” were supporting the so-called Loyalist forces of General Fredrico Franco against the Republicans, a loose alliance of anarcho-syndicalist unionists, Social Democrats, Communists, democrats, and Basque Nationalists in the Spanish Civil War. 

In addition to supporting a fellow Fascist, the Germans and Italians viewed the war as a laboratory to test new weapons and tactics.  Guernica, a civilian population center without direct military value, was targeted because it was a cultural center of the Basque region, which was firmly on the Republican side of the war.  The aim was to terrorize and demoralize the population that supported troops in the field.  

Guernica after the bombing.

The bombing commenced about 4:30 PM on a Monday.  The first wave of planes hit bridges and roads leading in and out of the city.  General Wolfram von Richthofen, commander of the Condors, reported heavy smoke shrouded the city when flights of heavy Junker bombers came over obscuring targets, so the planes simply dumped their bombs on the center of the city, destroying most of the homes and buildings there.  Subsequent waves dropped incendiaries creating an inferno, which he officially reported “resulted in complete annihilation,” of anyone below. 

He claimed, however, that most residents were out of town because of a holiday or had time to flee.  Reports on the ground contradict that claim.  Many residents were in the center of town for a market day when the attack began and were unable to flee because the bridges were destroyed and the roads blocked with rubble.  

The dead in the Market after the Nazi air raid.

The attack was the first systematic aerial attack in force on a civilian population center.  Similar attacks behind the lines of opposing armies would become a standard tactic of the Nazi blitzkrieg of World War II. 

The fate of the town became an international cause célèbre.  Spanish-born painter Pablo Picasso was working in Paris on a commission from the Republican government for the 1937 Paris International Exhibition. He scrapped original plans and began sketching a mammoth mural commemorating the raid on Guernica.  The 11 foot by 25½ foot painting in stark black, white, and gray captured the horror of the raid in a Cubist style—a screaming woman leans from a window with an oil lamp, an injured horse whinnies in pain, a mother clasps her dead infant. 

After the victory of Franco’s forces, the painting was sent to the United States at Picasso’s request.  It formed the centerpiece of a Picasso exhibition at New Yorks Museum of Modern Art (MoMA.)  During and after the war it was shown across the U.S., in Latin America, and Europe before returning to the MoMA for another Picasso retrospective, where it stayed until 1981. 

Picasso’s will had stipulated that the painting could not be displayed in Spain until it was rid of the fascist dictatorship and restored to a Republic.  He also stipulated that once returned it must be exhibited in the national art gallery, the Museo del Prado in Madrid.  After Franco died in 1978, ten years after Picasso, the reluctant MoMA finally allowed the painting to be sent to the Prado in 1981. 

In 1992 it was moved to Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía along with most of the rest of the Prado’s Twentieth Century collection.  It can be seen there today. 

Guernica, the town and the painting, remain potent symbols of modern war’s brutality.  The painting was often used by Vietnam protestors.  A tapestry reproduction hung for years at the United Nations in New York at the entrance of the Security Council Room.  

Photos of Secretary of State Colin Powell speaking in front of the covered Guernica tapestry in the United Nations Security Council are perhaps not so mysteriously hard to find.  This painting literally pulls back the curtain on the hypocrisy. 

In February 2003, as the United States was about to launch its Shock and Awe air bombardment of Bagdad, the tapestry was covered by a curtain to prevent embarrassment to Secretary of State Colin Powell as he laid out the case for war against Iraq.  In 2009 the tapestry was permanently removed from display at the United Nations and sent to London’s Whitechapel Galley occupying the same space where the painting was displayed in 1939.



Friday, September 29, 2023

Long Before Google Answers Were Found at the Office of Addresses and Encounters

Mid-17th Century London, London bridge on the right.

On September 29, 1650 Henry Robinson, a noted religious dissenter, philosopher, writer, merchant, and sometimes government official, opened the Office of Addresses and Encounters, a brand new and unusual business on Threadneedle Street in London.

At the office, for a modest fee of sixpence individuals and businesses could record their addresses, what services they could offer, and list what needs they might have.  The poor could use the service without charge.  Employers could offer jobs, and seekers find them.  Real estate including country houses was offered but lodgers could also find accommodations.   Hard to find merchandise was matched with buyers.  It is said that occasionally the lovelorn sought companionship or prostitutes discretely offered their comfort, leading some later historians to conclude that it was some sort of dating service.

Leave it to humans to make every sort of information exchange about sex.

Most commonly it functioned as what the Brits call a labour exchange or on this side of the puddle call an employment service—the first in England. 

In Paris Théophraste Renaudot, a physician, philanthropist, and journalist had operated the bureau dadresse et de rencontre since 1630.

Robinson got the idea from his good friend German born Samuel Hartlib, another one of those geniuses-at-large.  Today we might call both men public intellectuals.  Hartlib had a grander vision for adapting Renaudot’s idea to England.  He wanted a much larger undertaking sponsored by the government as a central repository for all useful information.  In addition to the exchange, he wanted a staff of the leading experts on every topic to be available to answer any question a member of the public might have—a kind of living encyclopedia or Google.

Not surprisingly no one at any level of government was interested in such a grand and expensive project.  After the idea had been kicking around for a few years, Robinson decided to go ahead with the more modest core of the idea as a private enterprise.  The project did not last long during the turbulent years of the Commonwealth which directed energies elsewhere.  But it was long remembered and has been cited as the inspiration for various public information projects on both sides of the Atlantic.

Merchant class and gentle folk like these would have been the primary users of the Office of Addresses and Encounters, but mechanics and other laborers seeking employment could register at no charge as well.

Robinson as a bright young man was educated at St. Johns College, Oxford and was admitted to membership in the Worshipful Company of Mercers, the premier Livery Company of the City of London, a kind of privileged trade association of general merchants especially exporters of wool and importers of velvet, silk and other luxurious fabrics.  That made him a wealthy man.

Wide travel, especially to Holland which nurtured religious dissent, a spirit of tolerance, and unencumbered commercial business, made him a vocal advocate for all sorts of change in England.  He began to write widely on economic matterstrade policy, interest rates, naturalization of foreigners, redistribution of trades from London center, and inland navigation.  When Parliament and Cromwell came to power ideas that he advanced in his pamphlets influenced policy.

In recognition Robinson was appointed to administrative positions, dealing with accounts and sale of former Crown lands, with farm rents, and acting as secretary to the excise commissioners.

But Robinson is best remembered as a strong advocate of religious toleration.  He believed that “no man can have a natural monopoly of truth.”  Of course, he meant toleration within a range of Protestant beliefsCatholics and Jews need not apply.  He later fell out of favor with the Puritans for opposing the establishment of a new National Church based on Presbyterianism for fear that it would lead to religious persecution of dissenters.

Henry Robinson was a prolific writer and commentator and not stranger to controversy.  This pamphlet published the year after he established the Office of Addresses and Encounters scolded him for his defense of the Levelers.

Robinson was also a pioneer writer against censorship anticipating and informing the views of John Milton.

Robinson died at the age of 64 in 1664 after the Restoration had destroyed his public influence and put his personal safety at risk.