There were three of us working through what is the last book currently in the series of study books I wrote about in a previous post. The facilitator mentioned something completely new to me: a You Tube video he had seen of a very moving sand animation depicting how people had suffered during the German invasion of the Ukraine in World World II. Jeffrey Davis writes:
Kseniya Simonova is a Ukrainian artist who just won Ukraine’s version of “America’s Got Talent.” She uses a giant light box, dramatic music, imagination and “sand painting” skills to interpret Germany’s invasion and occupation of Ukraine during WWII. Her technique and rapid fire impressionism are impressive, and you can see the emotional impact her art had on the audience members.
War time atrocities have often been the spur to great art. The art has taken many different forms: poetry, painting, music, and now even sand art.
It may seem a long way from Guernica to:
But without Guernica‘s revolutionising impulse the moving experience of the Ukrainian sand animation might not have been possible.
And the impact is similar.
In the You Tube video you see members of the audience in tears.
When I went to Madrid two summers ago I stood in front of Guernica in the Reina Sofia National Museum of Art, as I had earlier stood in front of Goya‘s masterpiece The Third of May in the nearby Prado, moved to the core of my being by the power with which they each conveyed in their different ways the enormity of the human suffering involved in each atrocity depicted.
I had always loved the Goya, even in reproduction, but, until I saw its massive scale (it is 25.5 feet wide) and empathic detail ‘live’ as it were, in the gallery, I had totally underestimated the achievement of the Guernica canvas. It is so epic in scale yet so muted in colour as well as so intense in its mute archetypal imagery of pain, that its message cannot fail to penetrate the heart of anyone who stands before it attentively for even a few moments.
Picasso saw his art in moral terms:
Painting is not done to decorate apartments. It is an instrument of war against brutality and darkness.
His outrage at the atrocity reputedly found an equally courageous expression in Paris when he was visited by the Gestapo.
During one visit a remark from an inquisitive Nazi officer brought a retort from Picasso which has become famous. Seeing a photo of Guernica lying on the table the German asked: ‘Did you do this?’ Answer: ‘No . . . you did.’
(Roland Penrose’s Picasso: page 333)
This remark may of course have been apocryphal, but it’s a good story none the less which illustrates the role of art and the artist at its most heroic and idealistic.
Sometimes when, as was said of Wilfred Owen, the ‘poetry is in the pity,’ it can be the extremity of the subject matter rather than the skill of the artist that creates the impact. I do not think this to be true of Picasso and Goya, or of Owen for that matter. That’s easier to say at this distance in time. It’s what makes the difference between art and propaganda. Art extends beyond the horror to evoke something in the human spirit that transcends it.
It’s harder to say where the impact of such art as recent more transient and fragile creations in sand might lie when they depict comparable atrocities. There is something about the very frailty of the medium that adds to the effect, even when it is not harnessed to the creation of a rapidly changing sequence of images.
Here the sight of the sea in the background brings out the vulnerability of the protest. The words tend to limit its frame of reference and thereby reduce the power of its art.
Whatever the value of any particular creation, art, at its best and greatest, is a channel for the noblest impulses of the human spirit. It touches deeper levels of our being inaccessible to more ordinary means of communication. Why else would advertisers be so eager to co-opt it to commercial purposes or the power hungry demagogue to prostitute it for his own aggrandisement? That’s why it is so important for us to encourage it as well as protecting and nurturing those who produce it.
Who else is there to remind us as effectively as Owen does that we need to see beneath the romance of combat to those ‘who die like cattle’ under the ‘monstrous anger of the guns?’ Auden‘s words also echo down the years to us with the same seemingly futile but necessary warning:
Far off, no matter what good they intended,
Two armies waited for a verbal error
With well-made implements for causing pain,
And on the issue of their charm depended
A land laid waste with all its young men slain,
Its women weeping, and its towns in terror.
(Sonnets from China: XV)
Yet so it shall be; these fruitless strifes, these ruinous wars shall pass away, and the ‘Most Great Peace’ shall come.
It needs the concerted action of the vast majority of humanity to bring that about. God willing, we will all rise as best we can before it is too late to play our part in that process with all the courage and creativity at our command. We can’t just sit back and leave it to even the most divinely inspired artists and mystics. This is our job to do.