SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 129 - June 2009

Art and propaganda

Goshka Macuga: The Bloomberg Commission

Whitechapel Gallery

April 2009–April 2010

Admission: free/donations

Reviewed by Manny Thain

GUERNICA, PABLO Picasso’s famous 1937 Spanish civil war painting, is the central point around which the themes of this exhibition revolve. His original masterpiece was exhibited at the Whitechapel Gallery, in the East End of London, in 1939. Organised along with Stepney Trades Union Council, the aim was to raise awareness and funds for the struggle against fascism in Spain. The recommended entrance price was a small financial donation or a pair of boots, which were sent to republican fighters. Fifteen thousand people visited the exhibition in the first week, more than 400 pairs of boots were donated, and over £250 collected for the Million Penny Fund to send an east London food ship to Spain.

This one-room exhibition features a full-size tapestry of the painting, commissioned by Nelson Rockefeller in 1955, one of three made in collaboration with Picasso, woven by Jacqueline de la Baume Dürbach. In 1985, the Rockefeller estate lent the tapestry to the United Nations headquarters in New York. It has hung outside the UN Security Council chamber ever since, the backdrop to many press conferences.

This is a celebration of the return of the image of Guernica to London’s East End. But it is more than merely a commemoration of a past event. This space is about the links between art and struggle, art and the organised workers’ movement, art and communities, and artistic representations of war.

A round table in the centre of the room displays pictures of anti-fascist demonstrations in this part of London in the late 1930s. Home to a large Jewish population, this was where the Blackshirts of Oswald Mosley attempted to march in the renowned battle of Cable Street in 1936. This blatant provocation was repelled by thousands of working-class people, the labour and trade union movement alongside the Jewish population, which was, itself, a component part of the workers’ movement.

The exhibition was put together by Goshka Macuga, a Polish artist based in London. In an interview carried in a 24-page newspaper, The Heart of the Beast, to accompany the exhibition, she says: "All of these stories fascinated me and there is a great photograph of Clement Atlee, leader of the Labour opposition, giving a speech on a platform with the painting as a backdrop. It wasn’t a conventional art exhibition, but an event that echoed in the community of east London. I was keen to play with these ideas in my installation".

This, too, is less an art exhibition, more an educational/historical presentation. Macuga specialises in sculptural installations connecting disparate objects and photographs, piecing them together. It is not a sterile, passive experience. The relevance of past events to today and the local connections are clear. The aim is for people to engage. There is an invitation for groups and individuals to organise meetings around the table. The only condition is that a record of the meeting – film, audio, photographic, written – is given to the gallery.

A community connection in this part of London inevitably means a link with the workers’ movement. And the Whitechapel Gallery, which opened in 1901 "to bring the finest art in the world to the people of the East End", was used as a cultural centre by labour, trade union and other organisations. To this day, the East End has maintained a long history of trade union militancy, left-wing and radical political activity.

The Heart of the Beast includes adverts for the 1939 exhibition and photos of anti-fascist demonstrations in the late 1930s. There is a promotional leaflet from 1938 for the Watney Street Propaganda Art Course: "Improve your propaganda and you hasten the progress of the whole Left Movement". It provided a resource centre for the production of banners and other material. One of the main contributors to this work was Norman King, a Communist Party activist, and four of the short pamphlets he wrote for the course are on show: on poster design, banners, typography and script writing.

Propaganda is simply the organised dissemination of a message, information, etc. Clearly, in the context of the Watney Street initiative it had none of the negative connotations sometimes associated with the word. It was during the cold war between the capitalist western powers and Stalinist Russia and China after the second world war that the meaning of the word was dragged through the dirt like never before. The western powers and media claimed to provide unbiased information in a free press. The Stalinist powers were denounced as engaging in cynical propaganda in a totalitarian system. In reality, both sides were waging a bitter struggle in the vested interests of their respective powerful elites. Macuga does not put forward any ideological alternative to capitalist wars and fascism. But there are clear implications: wars happen and are terrible; leaders are manipulative.

A video loop shows the aerial bombardment in May 1937 of the Basque town of Gernika by the German Luftwaffe in support of General Franco, alongside a modern equivalent: the bombing of the Iraqi city of Fallujah. Picasso’s masterpiece was painted in the immediate aftermath of that atrocity in which thousands of civilians were killed and was part of the Spanish Pavilion at the International Exhibition, held in Paris just a few months after the bombing raid.

The propaganda of the Spanish Pavilion was to promote the republic’s agricultural, educational and social programmes. It also aimed to draw attention to the horrors of the civil war, featuring hard-hitting films by the Spanish surrealist, Luis Bunuel, Dutch filmmaker, Joris Ivens, and the American writer, Ernest Hemingway.

This was a decade of convulsive international events. The second world war was fast approaching. Fascism had been consolidated in Italy and Germany, Franco’s forces were gaining ground in Spain. The International Exhibition of 1937 was a cultural battlefield, a platform to promote the interests of the contending states and systems. The German Pavilion promoted fascism. By this time, Stalin had a firm grip on power in Russia, the Moscow show trials leading to the execution of a layer of Bolsheviks who had participated in the revolution of 1917. The Soviet Pavilion extolled the virtues of Russia’s Stalinist state.

Also on display is Macuga’s sculpture of Colin Powell, George W Bush’s secretary of state who made the key speech calling for war against Iraq at the UN on 5 February 2003. Artistically, the sculpture is unremarkable. The significance for the exhibition is that it is here, and in a cubist-ish style to keep the Picasso connection going. Powell famously held up a phial between his forefinger and thumb, representing the alleged imminent threat of Saddam Hussein unleashing chemical and biological warfare with weapons of mass destruction. These claims were completely false, of course, a ploy to garner international support for this illegal war. Macuga reprints a full transcript of Powell’s presentation to the UN. Six years on, this polished exercise in duplicity and hypocrisy has lost none of its ability to shock and sicken. It was one hell of a performance.

As is customary, the press conference took place in front of the Guernica tapestry. Although it had served as a backdrop to media announcements for many years, this time, the image was covered with a blue curtain. The pattern of the tapestry was interfering with television broadcasts, so the officials said. We can make up our own minds on the veracity of that. Undoubtedly, Guernica would have provided a poignant backdrop to the announcement to unleash the mass death and destruction which Powell had on his mind as he addressed the world’s media on that day.

Macuga raises questions around the artistic representation of war, and how and why certain images impact more on people’s consciousness than others. Guernica is a powerful painting about war and, specifically, about the murderous blitzing of that Basque town. But it does not represent the actual event. "This project has made me wonder if abstract, personalised symbols might have a more resonant effect than ‘factual’ information dictated by a mediator. Maybe this relates to how malleable the information is in the hands of the viewer?"

Maybe newsreel-type reportage is less powerful because the images are so repetitive and familiar. Maybe the abstracted violence and shock in Guernica have more of an impact because we have to interpret and react to it personally. Maybe that is what gives it a higher emotional charge.

There might not be a lot to look at in this exhibition, but it provides a lot to think about. And it is a good space in which to do it. Over the course of the next year, new items will be added, the exhibition growing and developing as time elapses. It is, ultimately, an exhibition about propaganda, and the important role it plays in getting the message across – whatever that message might be.


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