The Bombing of the Town of Guernica

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Art is very subjective, yet very objective. When the topic of art in Europe is brought up, one draws their mind to Michelangelo or St. Peter’s Basilica. Those classic, yet timeless pieces of art are something that will forever be part of our modern conscientious and understanding of art. But the reason that art will be considered subjective and objective is that those two ideas are what people seek in art. People seek reasoning for why art is made, and if those reasonings align with the person’s reasoning, then they are more likely going to appreciate the art compared to someone with opposite reasons. Art that was seen as ‘Degenerate’ art, or ‘Entarte Kunst’ was more than likely art that spoke out against up and coming regimes, ideas, and feelings that expressed the disdain and the loss from the past that affected Europe’s people immensely. But, those forms of art did not simply stop because someone didn’t like it, it rose because of how that art was impacting those who made and saw that art. However, art in the interwar period was heightened by the new societal changes in Europe, the rise of fascism, and resentment from the Great War.

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After the Great War ended in 1918, many people rejoiced, but other people, including veterans, slid through the cracks on the eve of old Europe, and the dawn of the new. Art in Europe was always something that was considered impactful, and out of the 19th century came many new artforms such as Impressionism and the Arts & Crafts movement, new faces such as van Gogh and Degas, and even new trends such as Art Nouveau. Those art forms, in the beginning, were not warmly welcomed in art communities throughout Europe, but they soon grew upon the people of Europe and by the end of the 19th century, many of those works like van Gogh’s Starry Night, were considered by many to be just as impactful as The Creation of Adam by Michaelangelo.

However, the average person of postwar Europe was ready to get rid of the old ideals of prewar Europe. Whether it be the old-age monarchies and aristocracy or being the rising of women’s hems and the ending of restrictive fashion. If society was changing, art was surely going to change too. Society’s impact on art has always been one of the most profound ways art can become popular one moment, and the next moment society allows it to become irrelevant. Society in Europe no longer had the innocent and pure look on war, and most of the generation that lived through or survived the war “established a new coming-of-age story, rooted not in exploration, conquest, or professional accomplishment, but rather in trauma that defied understanding and reduced individuals to anonymous recruits, sent en masse into no-man’s-land.”  Young men and women in the early 1920s did not find satisfaction in artforms that was not going to represent them as a person or their generation as a society. They weren’t going to be bound or constrained to do something that was irrelevant to their cause or to what they stood for in being the ‘Lost Generation’. “The lost generation then felt the need to travel, not for adventure, but as a way to deal with the post-war society.” These ideas of ‘traveling’ allowed art like Duchamp’s L.H.O.O.Q , a reprint of da Vinci’s Mona Lisa adorned with a goatee and a mustache, and many other Surrealist artists to come to light. Those who referred to their works as ‘traveling’ were to allowing the embracement of absurdity and irrationalism in their works, but other artists ‘returned to order’ by painting in more classical styles of the years prior to the war, like Maillol’s La Riviere , a pacifist sculpture on the theme of a woman dying in the crossfires of war.

Fascism, Communism and the general radicalization of Europe’s political sphere was a considerable problem in art communities throughout Europe. In September 1933, Goebbels, the head of the new Reich Chamber of Culture, explained how he organized the chamber into “seven new divisions, including press, radio, literature, music, theatre, visual arts and film.” Although many major figures in Germany were extremely excited about the idea of the new regime supporting their works, nearly “2,500 writers and artists fled the country” in fear that their works would be targeted or banned from the newly formed regime. However, by the end of 1935, there were almost “100,000 members in the Reich Culture Chamber.” In a natural rift through the two groups of ‘pro-Nazi’ and ‘anti-Nazi’ artists, arose the stark differences between not only the political views but the different styles of art. Much of the ‘pro-Nazi’ art tended to “homoerotic, romanticized versions of realism, accompanied by the many neo-classical motifs in architecture.” However, the idea of pro-Fascism art did not stop at the ideas of realism and almost neo-pagan art. “Neo-pagan art, the genesis of Nazi-era art, started much before Hitler and the Nazis, in the propagation of the Nordic myth of German racial superiority.”Pan-Germanism was already sewn into Germany’s identity before WWI. Overall, the hatred for modern art, and in particular, the expressionists, wasn’t particularly only part of Hitler’s personal loathing of it. “Modern art was also present in the German populace before he came to power…” Many people saw Germany’s defeat in the first world war and the subsequent economic crisis that followed it later on. Many people in the Germany population thought that “modern art…as one of the causes and a sign of the overall degeneration of a society that had failed them.” Thus, Hitler appealed to the German people by pledging a return to the traditional way of life and encouraged a “traditional” way of expressing art that almost everyone could understand.

Many of the artists in Nazi Germany who were Surrealists and Expressionists were party members and wholly supported the Nazi regime, only to be later stabbed in the back by Hitler during his ‘Entarte Kunst’ or ‘Degenerate Art’ campaign in the summer of 1937. Although Goebbels and the rest of the high ranking Nazi party propagandists faced criticism for their exclusionary practices towards many Expressionists and modern artists that would otherwise align with the party’s standards, Goebbels said: “In the future, only those who are members of the chamber will be allowed to be productive in our cultural life.” Even more so, the Nazi regime quickly blurred the line between art and politics to the point where Max Liebermann, the Jewish president of the Prussian Art Academy, sent in his letter of resignation. Ensuring that “Membership is open only to those who fulfill the entrance condition. In this way, all unwanted and damaging elements have been excluded.’ Hitler and the rest of the Nazi party made sure that

On the other side of the spectrum, many of the ‘anti-Nazi’ and ‘anti-Fascist’ pacifist artists arose not during Hitler’s ‘Entarte Kunst’ campaign, but during the Spanish Civil War. One of the most famous paintings that arose from this tumultuous time in the Interwar period was Picasso’s Guernica. He was commissioned by the Spanish Republicans for a response to the bombing of the town of Guernica in the early part of April in 1937. Picasso’s masterpiece painting is a fabulous and “powerful commentary on war and terror”  and shows how Fascism is not about fighting against lesser evils and seeking justice against a common enemy, but as an “intimidation of the civilian population”. Guernica shows the delusional and horrific way that the Spanish Nationalists allowed the Germans, who excitedly “tested new weaponry on the cities and the citizens of Spain, ending in the beginning of 1939 with a Fascist victory by Franco.” In the painting itself, the visible despair of “women and children make Guernica the image of innocent, defenseless humanity victimized. 

Also, women and children have often been presented by Picasso as the very perfection of mankind. An assault on women and children is, in Picasso’s view, directed at the core of mankind.’ Although Picasso’s Guernica failed to stop the Fascists from winning the Spanish Civil War, it still left an immense impact on the people of Spain and around the world. Guernica went on three tours, once in Paris in 1937, and throughout Europe from January to April 1938. Guernica traveled from “Oslo, Copenhagen, Stockholm and arrived in London on the 30th of September and in America during the mid-1950s.” 

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