Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Guernica - Of War and Art

For University we were tasked with writing a short essay on a number of subjects relating to Picasso and Modern Art, here are my thoughts on the film Guernica by Resnais based on the artists painting of the bombing.

In 1937, the ancient Basque town Guernica was bombed extensively by German Luftwaffe as an experiment to determine the effects of combining explosive and incendiary bombs, as well as an attempt by the nationalists, under Franco, to demoralize the republicans in the Basque area. Composed of fragments and compartmentalized images from Picasso’s early art work, eventually building to his ‘Guernica’ piece, and accompanied by Paul Éluard impassioned ode to the human spirit against the atrocities of war read by María Casarès, Resnais’s utilizes a variety of cinematic techniques such as rapid editing and overlays to integrate the visual qualities of cubism, but also reflect the film’s historical context and message.      

The film opens with a photograph of post-bombing Guernica with Picasso’s portrait of a family superimposed on top, immediately informing us that this is a study of art against the backdrop of historical tragedy. Resnais accompanies Éluard’s verse on the persecuted people of Guernica with the early portraits of Picasso, not only reinforcing the film’s message, but creating a link between art and history. Here Resnais’ emphasizes their exhaustion through years of hardship by draining the colour from the paintings and presenting them with slow, laborious pans. In perhaps the films most direct sequence, a series of portraits are riddled with bullet holes (superimposed) literally bringing the destruction to the art itself. Resnais’ direction evolves to express the chaos well as the change in Picasso’s style. The camera moves more violently with intense zooms, the editing is more rapid and the background images become more cluttered and unstructured. 

As both war and art progress, so does Resnais. Singling out individual subjects in each painting he frames them in darkness, his lighting more direct, a response to Picasso’s heavier more defined visuals and illustrating the growing strain on Guernica. To depict the terror and destruction of the bombing, Picasso painted it in the cubist style fracturing the image through lines enhancing the ultimate dehumanization of the victims. Therefore Resnais replicates the style in cinematic form through rapid editing and harsh pans. He also attempts to fracture the image by using extreme close-ups such as the jagged tongues of those slain in the raid, distorting the image thus brutalizing the action and furthering the link between art and history. 

Guernica is a film that, perhaps unavoidably, intertwines history and art. Resnais utilizes the films structure with shifting editing styles and framing to emphasize not only Picasso’s shift from traditional art to cubism, but also to show the absolute destruction of the last of the ancient worlds through a dehumanizing and cruel war. The film’s final image is that of Picasso’s ‘Man with a Lamb’ statue, a biblical recalling of the good Shepard, here it is a testament to the artist himself, who’s painting brought the plight of the Spanish people to the world’s attention. Firmly concluding the film’s double meaning, but more so it is a solemn plea for the survival of the human spirit against a long and painful suffering.

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