The Arizona Republic, Jan. 12, 2006

Picasso painting becomes anti-Iraq war symbol

By Doree Shafrir

The billboard-size “Guernica” has stood as a symbol of the horrors of war since Picasso painted it in 1937 at the height of the Spanish Civil War.

Now, a Michigan artist is encouraging people across the country to put reproductions of the iconic painting–monochromatic figures of dead and dying men, women, children and animals after a bombing–on billboards as a statement against the war in Iraq.

“I’d been thinking about it since the election,” said John Unger, 38, an ironwork sculptor and mosaic artist by trade. He was angry, he said, and “I wanted to find a good project that would make people think.”

The seeds of the project were planted even earlier, Unger said. In early 2003, the United Nations covered up its reproduction of “Guernica” when then-Secretary of State Colin Powell made a speech there to garner support for the war in Iraq. Then in March 2003, soon after the United States invaded Iraq, the covers of Harper’s Magazine and The New Yorker featured the painting with curtains drawn around it.

According to Picasso specialist Robert Rosenblum, a professor of fine arts at New York University, “Guernica” has been used as an anti-war image for decades. Still, Rosenblum pointed out that at the time it was painted, Picasso’s work was criticized for being inaccessible to a mass audience. “Guernica” was created during Picasso’s Cubist period, and its images are distorted, angular, almost inhuman.

“There were a lot of people, especially coming from a populist viewpoint, who said the language and medium was too avant garde and refined to be a genuinely democratic popular image,” he said.

Today that issue seems no less urgent, Rosenblum said, as he questioned whether Unger’s billboards would be effective.

“The cover of The New Yorker and art museum protests are one thing,” he said. “Billboards in the middle of Route 66 are another.”

Nonetheless, Unger said the billboards are intended as catalysts for discussion–whether positive, negative, confused or conflicted.

The “Guernica” billboards are also part of what Unger calls “open source art,” an idea loosely adapted from the principles of open source software, in which people add to a project that can be freely adopted by anyone else.

But Eric Raymond, one of the founders of the open source software movement, pointed out that open source work is predicated upon the originator of the work’s giving permission for it to be used. “If he [Unger] wants to take someone else’s art and claim that’s open source, that’s not what we’re about,” Raymond said when told about the “Guernica” project. “What he’s doing is theft.”

Unger thinks differently. “The ‘Guernica’ project, I think, falls well within the definition of open source,” he said. “‘Guernica’ the painting obviously does not. They’re separate things, really.”

In any case, Unger’s project has more than a little bit of a radical streak. As he envisions it, the billboards could be commandeered guerrilla-style, as the California-based Billboard Liberation Front has been doing since 1977, modifying advertising copy and manipulating images for sociopolitical ends.

“It’s not so hard to come by the used skims of billboards,” Unger said. “A person like myself who doesn’t have a big political budget could hypothetically get hold of some of these and project the image, even hand paint it. Part of me doesn’t really want to suggest that to people, and of course part of me really does.”

Still, Unger added that a community or political group could also participate in the project by renting a billboard.

Ultimately, whether the billboards go up or not probably doesn’t matter, Unger said: “Even if it never really happened, if people talked about it enough, that gets the idea out there and that’s not bad.”

“Picasso painting becomes anti-Iraq war symbol,” The Arizona Republic, Phoenix, AZ , January 12, 2006