In September 2015, a single photograph swept across social media, reaching an incredible 20 million people in just 12 hours. This photo didn’t show a cat or a Kardashian, but a little boy lying face down on a beach. His name was Alan Kurdi and he was the latest victim in Syria’s civil war. Alan and his family had fled their country, eventually reaching the Turkish coast. They now needed to make the three-mile sea crossing to the Greek island of Kos, in search of a better life. But, the three-year-old – along with his older brother and mother – never made it. Their inflatable boat capsized within minutes. Only his father survived. A few hours later, Nilüfer Demir, a Turkish photographer working for the Dogan News Agency, spotted Alan’s body and shot what would become one of the defining images of a conflict that still rages.
It is a difficult photograph to look at, unflinching in its framing. Which is precisely the point. Other photographers might have turned away, or chosen another angle, but Demir believed this was “the only way I can express the scream of his silent body.”
It is a scream that Spanish artist Pablo Picasso would more than likely have identified with, had he still been alive today. After all, it was a series of photographs that prompted him to paint what has, arguably, become the world’s most famous anti-war painting – Guernica.
Guernica was Picasso’s response to the German bombs that dropped on the Basque city on 26 April 1937. The Spanish Civil War was nine months old and General Franco had enlisted military support from Germany’s Adolf Hitler and Italy’s Benito Mussolini. Guernica was the first example of the blanket aerial bombing of civilians that would come to define the subsequent Second World War. But, while Guernica was not the worst attack of either conflict, it is – 80 years later – still one of the most shocking, largely thanks to Picasso’s equally unflinching work.
The artist was living in Paris at the time and had been asked to exhibit at the Spanish Pavilion in the 1937 Paris Universal Exhibition. But, upon seeing the first photographs of the devastation in Guernica, Picasso switched his attention to something new, a painting that would be “a symbolic representation of the horror as seen in my own mind. All living creatures in that town, human and animal, were converted into tortured objects… shrieking their agony to the sky.”
The result was a 20×30-foot black and white canvas filled with cubist terror. “You look at it and you feel the raw emotion, the sheer anger, that Picasso poured into it,” says author John Simmons, whose latest novel, Spanish Crossings, is set during the Spanish Civil War. “The sheer scale of Picasso’s work set it apart – seeing it in the Spanish Pavilion must have made an incredibly emotional impact. It showed that art can form the resistance to inhumane ideas and actions. I always loved the story of the German military man asking Picasso ‘Did you do this?’ Picasso replied ‘No. You did.’ Art should have an honesty that is uncomfortable for the dishonest.”
cover photograph © Wolfgang Suschitzsky, photograph of cover © Light Project Photography
Guernica provides part of the backdrop to John’s novel and holds a special place in his family history. In 1937, his parents ‘adopted’ a Basque refugee boy called Jesús. The boy eventually returned to Spain, but his impact, along with the reasons that brought him to the UK, echoed down the years. “I never met him, but I knew the photos of him in our family album,” says Simmons. “Picasso’s Guernica was a revered painting in our house. My dad bought a print and framed it himself: I still have that print, it’s in my study and I look at it every day. It never loses its power.”
Like all the greatest pieces of art, part of Guernica’s power lies in its capacity to inspire other artists, such as Henry Moore and Francis Bacon. More recently, Portuguese cartoonist Vasco Gargalo used the painting as the basis for his piece Alepponica, in which he inserted the faces of Russian and Syrian presidents Vladimir Putin and Bashar al-Assad and dressed an impaled horse in the stars and stripes of the American flag. Like Simmons, Gargalo grew up with a print of Guernica on his wall, and told Buzzfeed: “When I think of civil war, I always think of Guernica.”
For many artists, though, Guernica has come to stand for all war, which is why, perhaps, on 8 January 1970, a New York group called the Art Workers Coalition chose it as a place to protest the Vietnam War. Guernica was on show at the Museum of Modern Art at the time and provided the Coalition with the perfect backdrop to display copies of its own My Lai massacre poster Q: and babies. The My Lai massacre had occurred two years earlier, in March 1968, with US troops killing up to 500 unarmed Vietnamese civilians. The image’s text – ‘Q: And babies? A: And babies.’ – is taken from an interview with one of the soldiers that participated.
The poster is now famous in its own right, so much so that it’s a key exhibit in the Vietnam War section of a new exhibition at London’s Imperial War Museum. Called People Power: Fighting for Peace, it is the UK’s first major exhibition to explore the evolution of the anti-war movement, and features a century’s worth of paintings, literature, posters, banners, badges and music created by those who have opposed war.
© David Gentleman, reproduced with the kind permission of the Stop the War Coalition
The exhibition is split into four sections and looks at some of the biggest conflicts and most prominent peace movements, such as the Peace Pledge Union, CND and the Stop the War Coalition. “We wanted to make the most of the objects that we have in our archives,” curator Matt Brosnan explains, “but also bring together a selection of loans from other museums around the country and from some private lenders, too. We wanted to show some of the iconic designs that have been associated with the peace movement.”
The exhibition also highlights the democratic nature of art as protest. During the mass marches against President Trump’s election earlier this year, some of the most widely shared images on social media were the banners that people had created to take with them.
“It’s been interesting to look at the way in which protest art is disseminated,” says Brosnan, “especially in more recent times. This is something that Peter Kennard has talked about. His artistic partnership with Cat Phillipps is all about producing art with a democratic aspect to it – it’s designed specifically for wider dissemination at street level and not just restricted to a fine art gallery.”
Kennard and Phillipps have worked together since 2002, initially as a direct response to the invasion of Iraq, but they continue to collaborate today. Their work is shown online, in galleries and on protest marches and they describe it as ‘the visual arm of protest’. One of their most famous pieces – Photo Op (2007) – is also on display at the IWM exhibition.
© kennardphillipps, Photo-Op by kennardphillipps (date 2005). This image was produced by artists Peter Kennard and Cat Picton-Phillipps in response to the anger they felt at the Government’s decision to go to war in Iraq in 2003, in the face of widespread public protest
Like Guernica, there is a starkness to their photomontage that dares you to look away. It’s the same power that lies behind Nilüfer Demir’s photo of Alan Kurdi. And, while individually each of these pieces of artistic work might not stop the conflict that they are responding to, they can at least force the looker to acknowledge, and, perhaps, even act. “Art enables the empathy to put ourselves in the situation of others,” says Simmons, “to feel compassion, to choose a different path than violence. ‘Go create’ is better than ‘go destroy’.”
- People Power: Fighting for Peace is on at the Imperial War Museum in London until 28 August 2017.
- John Simmons second novel, Spanish Crossings, is now available in hardback and e-reader.
Words: Lisa Davison
Main image: mural of the painting Guernica by Picasso made in tiles and full size
© Papamanila/commons.wikimedia.org. Location: Guernica