· Vatican City ·

Guernica, the rite of life

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03 April 2021

A ritual constructs a fundamental moment of religions, linking the narrative texture of myth with the active dimension of human experience. Picasso’s Guernica can be described as an artistic paradigm of the representation of death that at the same time heralds a new way of looking at ritual in contemporary art with the terrifying demonstration of force against the civilian population April 26, 1937.

Picasso worked for only two months on the painting that measures 27 square meters. We know about this “ritual” of removing his shoes before entering his studio, which he considered a “sacred” space, at the moment of creation. For Picasso, painting is an authentic, existential act. All his suffering and empathy for this people becomes form in the creative act. As Romano Guardini explains, “The painter, by capturing the essence of things, truly captures himself”. This means in effect “an encounter”. The religious character of art, therefore, lies in the structure of the work of art itself, in its pointing to the future by making itself real. His French existentialist friends, namely Sartre, de Beauvoir and Camus, who sought a holiness capable of creating inner peace, inspired Guernica. In fact, Guernica is not about a concrete change in the world, but requires a meditative immersion. The artist has created a kind of power around which the unity of existence becomes present (gegenwärtig) and the whole object - the whole nature of man and history - lives in a unicum.

At the Paris International Exhibition, Guernica was exhibited in a long, narrow corridor of the Spanish Republic Pavilion. In this space, the observer had to pass by the work without being able to escape the terror. Every one of the visitor’s steps is accompanied, transforming them. This is reminiscent of Pozzo’s frescoes in the Church of Saint Ignatius, in which the worshipper sees perfect architecture slowly crumble before his eyes as they walks. Pozzo saw his works of art as spiritual exercises by which he wanted us to lose our security and recreate it inwardly. When read from right to left, Guernica reproduces this effect. With the broken figures, violence jumps out at us and destruction accompanies us too, as Sigmund Freud stated. Confronting the bull, the symbol of sacrifice and the national symbol of bullfighting, proclaims something absolute and confirms that we can challenge not only the bull but also the forces of pain and death. With this challenge, Picasso created a moment of immortality. Also immortal is the construction, which is reminiscent of a Christmas crib. The mother, however, is not holding a newborn child, but a dead child, indicating a future in which it is the mother who mourns her child. A triangle dominates the entire composition, in which a female figure with a lamp appears at the top. Her face is one of terror, but her tenderness announces a peace in the drama. For Picasso, the woman is the figure of light, of revelation, but also of despair. In this sense he has revealed a “rite of life”, a rite that harmoniously combines order and disorder! The rite is the utopian space in which the future can be anticipated with respect to the past and the present, characterising the promise whereby God's unpredictable action will bring the past and the present to fulfillment.

What IS fundamental when dealing with contemporary art is therefore experience, which was originally linked to ritual, as Merleau-Ponty would say; it is similar to an active and passive movement.

by Yvonne Dohna Schlobitten