Friday, July 4, 2014

Cubism (pt. 5)

The broad, bleak sentiment of post-war life, as I humbly attempted to describe before, was a profound reality in the Western world during the 1920s and '30s.  In 1922, T. S. Eliot produced his famous poem The Waste Land, which would become a key, defining work of Modern literature.  Broken, disassembled, washed-out writing conveys deep themes of religion, politics, love, sociology, and language and the pervading sense of loss associated with each of those aspects in the poem.  Trying to find himself and world again after the destruction and devastation, the Modern poet found barely perceptible streams of light in an otherwise hopelessly dark world, remnants of an old truth that had been lost and, by all appearances, would never be regained.  In the poem, Eliot's persona finds himself lost in a shattered world where there is no solitary foundation of truth or principle, no safe refuge against the onslaught of the future, "no rock."  (The Postmodernists to follow would totally do away with hope and truth).  But the title of Eliot's work alone metaphorically conveys the predominant sentiments of writers, poets, and artists at this time; that all were now living in a Modern-age wasteland, abandoned, alone, and anonymous.
Mechanized brutality, the wars of nations, bloodshed, and genocide would continue into the 20th century.  After the bombing of Guernica in 1937 during the height of the Spanish Civil War, Picasso found the destruction almost too much to bear.  One of his most famous works, merely entitled Guernica, was produced that year as an outpouring of the terror, rage, sorrow, and incomprehensibility of war in the Modern world.
Violence, madness, and total ruin characterize the themes of this painting.  Here we are in an enclosed room, dark and colorless.  From the far left we see a bull, a mighty and powerful beast and one associated with the blood sacrifices of the Old Testament.  The bull's tongue is shaped pointy and narrow like a dagger, and the bull's tail on the left resembles a pillar of smoke as if from a fire.  About to be burned and cut, the bull stands facing a woman wailing over the death of her baby.  Perhaps this child's death is the "sin" for which the bull must be sacrificed and have its blood poured out.  The woman shrieks in agony with her head tilted back, facing the heavens, eyes broken apart, breasts hanging naked from her chest as she holds the dead body of her child in her hands.  Below that we see the scarred, open palm of a dismembered arm.  A decapitated head lies next to this; and further across, another arm grasping the hilt of a broken sword in rigor mortis.  Near the center of the work is a horse screaming in pain as its back is pierced by a spear.  A black-and-white gap mark splits open the horse's body and shows the wound.  In chaos, terror, and pain, the horse tramples over the dead body below it.  Another sharp object, perhaps a broken board or plank, slices into the horse's belly from beneath.  Overhead, there is a lamp mysteriously like an eye watching over the whole scene and bearing down over it like a bomb being dropped over the scene in Guernica.  To the right of it, a woman stretches her head and arm in from a window and holds a small flame (natural light next to the electric bulb) to the lamp in quizzical comparison or defiant opposition.  Below her is another woman who stumbles onto the scene with heavy feet and an awkward posture.  She gazes fixedly upwards toward the light, in search of hope amid the scene.  She comes from a darkness on the far right of the painting where another person is being engulfed in flame, arms out in agony and head raised to heaven in petition.  Nothing lies above him but an empty window; above that, only more flames.  From the clenched fist of the dismembered arm at the very bottom of the painting, under the dying horse's trampling feet, sprouts a tiny flower next to the broken sword.  We are given here an unforgettable image of the ravages of war, with only the smallest offering of hope to come from it.  In its Cubist style, everything is drawn as flat—dying figures overlap with live ones; live ones blend in with the dead.  The scene is staggering beyond expression, and that is the Modern conception of warfare.  Just over a year after this painting's completion, Adolf Hitler's paramilitary officers within the Nazi regime launched a series of attacks against the Jewish people of Germany and Austria in an overnight massacre, called Kristallnacht, which would launch the Jewish Holocaust.

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