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Both Goya’s 3rd of May and Picasso’s Guernica are anti-war masterpieces and both represent tragedies in Spain resulting from attacks by foreign entities. Though born a century apart, these artists originated in Spain and chose to express outrage over the violation of their countrymen via their own form of weaponry — the canvas and brush. For Goya, the invasion of Spain by Napoleon Bonaparte was a betrayal. He had at one time been very fond of the French, but he could not abide the outright annihilation of Spanish citizens. Napoleon had made a deal with the King of Spain to use Spanish land as a route to transport troops on their way to conquering Portugal. But since Napoleon’s ultimate goal was to take over the entire world, he decided he would go ahead and sack Spain while he was there and declared his own brother to be king. The Spanish people rose up to fight back, and many of them were slaughtered in the street on May 3rd, 1808. These were not leaders and military officers. They were ordinary Spanish citizens. Goya shows this by their regular, non-uniform clothing. Picasso’s Guernica was born from the destruction of a different Spanish town by a different maniacal dictator — Hitler. In 1937 the Spanish Civil War was in full swing. The war was between the Basques (similar to modern day American Liberals) and the Nationalists (like Conservatives). Hitler’s Nazi part supported the Nationalists. And Hitler had been systematically developing strategies and artillery that he really wanted to test out before using them to take over Europe. He chose the Basque city of Guernica to test the same bombing campaign that would become the Blitzkrieg. The resulting destruction was devastating. Picasso was broken hearted over the loss of civilian life. Guernica was the expression of that grief.
These paintings speak to me of the true cost of war. It’s not the generals and leaders that truly pay the price, its hardworking men, women, and children whose lives are ripped apart. All you have to do today is turn on the news and there are the same images of death and loss. In Syria children are dying every day. The civilian death toll is well over three hundred thousand with no end in sight. The same thing is happening in the Congo, Argentina, Afghanistan, Myanmar, and many other places. Foreign countries may not be as blatant about invading these lands, but Russian, Chinese, and American aid prolongs many of these conflicts.
I don’t know that these particular paintings can end modern day warfare. But there are novels, films, YouTube videos, and photography currently being developed by new artists that will hopefully have the same impact on my generation that these icons had on theirs. And these genres may have an ever larger audience than a painting might thanks to modern technology and the internet.
In Texas, many people believe that we are under a similar kind of attack from foreign nations. They believe our border is being breached by the enemy. Unfortunately, as in 3rd of May, the ordinary people who just want to live good lives are the ones suffering for the ideals of the rulers. Building walls and turning away those seeking asylum is similar to lining them up in front of a firing squad. Just this week there was a tragic photo in the news of a man and his two year old daughter drowned together after trying desperately to cross into safety. Other images from our Texas border have shown mother’s cradling ill children and wailing — that is if they hadn’t already been separated from their children — much like the parent weeping of the small body in Guernica.
As stated previously, both of these works are blatantly political and show the non-glamorous fallout of war. In 3rd of May, the central figure is a man in white with his arms outstretched in surrender. Though kneeling, he seems to be elevated above the fray. As a viewer, you want to somehow intervene, to stop what seems to be the slaughter of this innocent man, as well as the line of all the men to follow who can’t even bring themselves to look at what is about to happen to them. This evocation of empathy for their plight is the definition of encouragement of fair treatment of others. Similarly, Guernica, though more abstract, produces a visceral response in the viewer. You look at the suffering and you want to help. It is this sort of empathy that makes art, whether visual or written, so powerful to bring about change in society.
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