Resisting death from above

Author and activist Rosalie Riegle (center) speaking about nonviolent resistance at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, on March 30. (WNV/Ken Butigan)

Author and activist Rosalie Riegle (center) speaking about nonviolent resistance at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago on March 30. (WNV/Ken Butigan)

The invitation to join a conversation about nonviolence at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago came out of the blue. Local painter Cameron Harvey was reaching out to artists and activists to take part in a spontaneous exchange on March 30 set in the midst of The Nature of the Beast, an installation by Polish artist Goshka Macuga. I’ve traveled far and wide to discuss nonviolence, so I wasn’t going to pass up a chance to do so across town, especially in such a curious setting. If a dialogue about nonviolence was somehow going to be ricocheting off the characteristically bone-white walls of a postmodern museum, I wanted to be there.

I also had another motive. Macuga’s installation evokes Guernica, Pablo Picasso’s monumental painting depicting the bombing of a Basque town in 1937 during the Spanish Civil War by German and Italian warplanes, in support of Francisco Franco’s right-wing Nationalist forces, that left 1,600 people dead. At various turns in my journey, Picasso’s masterwork has spoken to me in disturbingly powerful ways, and this unexpected invitation offered a chance to meditate on it again. As I prepared to attend the gathering, though, I realized that this portable mural is not simply a relic of the past. It is an enduring image of death from above whose relevance grows with each passing day as a culture of armed drones takes hold.

Picasso had been commissioned by the progressive Republican government to paint a mural for the Spanish exhibit at the 1937 World’s Fair in Paris, which he had worked on listlessly for several months. When he heard the news about the aerial bombardment, he abandoned his earlier ideas and set about creating a riveting tableau of mechanized death that would dramatize the forces of destruction arrayed against the Spanish government (the painting was eventually sent out on tour, in an attempt to muster international support for the beleaguered Republicans) but also would come to definitively symbolize the 20th century’s capacity to wage merciless and catastrophic war on civilians.

Macuga’s installation consists of an elaborate wooden round table with 16 chairs (where those of us taking part in the conversation sat) and, hanging on a nearby wall, an outsized black-and-white photograph printed not on paper, but finely woven cloth. This hyperrealist, photogenic tapestry depicts yet another tapestry: a woven facsimile of Guernica presiding over a space dedicated to political debate.

In this tapestry within a tapestry, Macuga interweaves Guernica’s past and present. In the late 1930s the painting hung for a time in Whitechapel Gallery in London, and then was displayed for decades at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York until the end of Franco’s dictatorship, when it finally moved to Madrid. In the 1950s, Nelson Rockefeller commissioned a tapestry copy of Guernica (after Picasso had refused to sell him the original), which was loaned to the United Nations and displayed at the entrance to the Security Council room from 1985 to 2009. This copy was hung for a couple of years recently at Whitechapel Gallery during renovations at the U.N. Macuga’s photograph comes from this latest Guernica sighting, when, curiously, Britain’s Prince William is captured standing in front of the tapestry addressing the gallery.

In 2003 then-U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell went to the U.N. to plead the Bush administration’s case for war in Iraq. The tapestry was covered with a large blue curtain before Powell (and John Negroponte) gave a press conference there. While claims were made that this was done to improve the television broadcast images, apparently the administration insisted on the cover while its officials argued for the invasion. As columnist Alejandro Escalona suggested, Guernica’s “unappealing ménage of mutilated bodies and distorted faces proved to be too strong for articulating to the world why the U.S. was going to war in Iraq.” One of Macuga’s impulses behind her installation seems to have been to protest the Iraq war, in which her native Poland joined forces with the United States and others. (Her protest against the war in Iraq is underscored by a statue at the far end of the room where Colin Powell is holding a model vial of anthrax during his U.N. presentation.)

Guernica’s power endures. “Using black, white and gray only,” writes Edmund Burke Feldman in Varieties of Visual Experience, “the artist tried to create a work which would simultaneously express multiple perceptions of a single catastrophic event: newspaper accounts of the bombing, the terror of victims, the symbol of civic disaster, the experience of laceration and pain, and the meanings of modern war as viewed from the standpoint of history.”

In the late 1970s and early 1980s I worked for the Center for Ethics and Social Policy. Guernica was the organization’s presiding visual iconography. It was everywhere. There was a large poster of the mural in our meeting room and individual images from the work were endlessly replicated in our newsletters and publications. The picture unconsciously seeped into our minds and hearts — the silence of the fallen, the terror of the living, the ambiguous light. The work also conveyed nonviolent resistance, but it was largely the resistance of the artist: the painter who vows in paint to somehow stand against the horrific exploding light of the relentless bombing. Perhaps because I quietly lived for several years with Picasso’s nightmare — but also his slim hope that this kind of systemic death does not have the final word — I hitchhiked from Seattle to New York in 1980 with my brother Jim to see Guernica (the star attraction of an unprecedentedly large Picasso exhibition that took over ever inch of MOMA) before it eventually departed for Spain. It was astounding to stand in that crowded room with hundreds of others, all of us transfixed and mostly hushed. No photograph we had ever seen prepared us for the immensity and power of the work.

Eleven of us gathered at MCAC for a robust reflection on nonviolence in the shadow of Guernica. We were an ad hoc affinity group sharing our questions, our insights, our experiences — a community organizer, a former college English professor who has recently published two books on nonviolent resistance, two painters, an anthropologist, a photographer, a playwright from Iran, an installation artist, a director of the Peace School in Chicago, and a professor of art therapy who works with vets from the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and who recently traveled to Northern Ireland, where she had been invited to do trauma healing work.

There was little overt discussion of Guernica. The image — its meaning and power rolling down the decades — was more a presence as we shared stories, dilemmas, thoughtful ruminations, and something of our own spiritual journeys through the sacredness and woundedness of this vulnerable world.

Since Guernica, this world has been more vulnerable than ever, fraught with recurring spasms of unimaginable suffering. The painting unwittingly was a kind of somber foretelling of the terrors to come: the Holocaust, Dresden, Hiroshima, Algiers, My Lai, San Salvador, Rwanda, Sarajevo, Dili, Baghdad and many, many other zones of mass destruction. It is as if we can read these disasters in the lines of the upturned palm of the figure lying lifelessly at the left side of the painting — including the destruction in our midst and the gun violence Chicago is awash in, hour by frantic hour — topics we grappled with during our huddled discussion.

But forecast is not destiny, and there is something in the fierce resistance of the artist and the artwork that keeps growling, “Violence is not the bad old ending to the bad old story. It does not have the final word.” Since Guernica, we have seen this spirit of resistance embodied in numerous movements for nonviolent change and nonviolent change agents, including Dr. King, whose memory we praise today, the 45th anniversary of his assassination.

Guernica calls us to continue this resistance to death from above — including by building the anti-drone movement — and to all the relentless forms of death at ground level. And this will depend, in part, on more conversations about nonviolence.

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