Throughout the 20th century, artistic representations of war and violence foregrounded their impotence. For many artists, traditional modes of representation could no longer do justice to the immensities of suffering; for others, any mode of visual representation was bound to fail.
In his famous painting “Guernica” of 1937, Pablo Picasso responded to the Nazis’ horrific, aerial bombing raid that obliterated this city in northern Spain and much of its civilian population within the course of hours on April 26, 1937. Fragmented bodies of men, women, and children, of bulls and horses, are twisting and turning in impossible directions. We face a single bull’s head frontally and sideways, and a female torso from behind and up front. Far from visually documenting physical harm and death, and frustrated, on the contrary, with the limitations of “proper” three-dimensional representation, Picasso turns us into ambulatory viewers forced to witness pain from as many different perspectives as possible and all at once.
The German painter Gerhard Richter — whose retrospective was at the Museum of Modern Art in New York last year and is currently on view at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C. — is an example of an artist who concluded that he was unable to represent the brutality of the Holocaust. In 1966, at a moment when virtually no artist in Germany had publicly tackled the subject, Richter and his artist friend Konrad Lueg worked very hard on an exhibition that would incorporate images from Nazi concentration camps. They could find no way to do it and the project was cancelled.
Given such artistic acknowledgments of the difficulties or even impossibilities to represent war and violence, the onslaught of current media images, from embedded reporters supposedly “bringing the war to us,” convey only naive entitlement and pretentious power. It speaks for itself that the full-scale reproduction of Guernica on view at the United Nations headquarters in New York was covered on Feb. 5 when Secretary of State Colin Powell spoke before the U.N. to make the American case for war on Iraq.
Christine Mehring is an assistant professor of the history of art. She teaches courses on postwar and contemporary art.