Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Guernica

America is a nation of background babble, of TV screens in every room that blare away into a semi attentive netherworld.
Last night my senses were assaulted by a noise akin to a chainsaw coming up against an obstinate tree branch. It turned out to be the voice of Nancy Grace in vitriolic cross examination mode.
The subject, it goes without saying, was the Caylee Anthony case, the dead 2-year-old girl from Florida whose mother Casey is accused of her murder.
It seems strange that Grace has been talking about the case every show for at least six months when kids killed in the ghettos are apparently not worth the airtime and kids who die in Darfur don't even make it onto the radar.
If you start to talk about genocide in African countries people tend to shun and avoid you unless you happen to be an actor, an aid worker or Christiane Amanpour.
It's a sad but probably inevitable consequence of capitalism that there is little air time for much beyond tabloid TV that caters for short attention spans. Even in the midst of a recession we learn more about obscure household gadgets from the adverts than we do about the Janjaweed or atrocities on our doorstep in Mexico.
The stars of this throwaway TV culture are people like Flo, the hyper enthusiastic sales rep from Progressive who - let's face it - would be fired in the real world for being too weird.
Then there's Billy Mays, who is like the token annoying guy that turns up at every BBQ, with his loud voice, his OxiClean, his Mighty Putty and Mighty Mend It. If you believed Mays the Navy could use this stuff to stick wings on their F-18s.
"A broken heart, no problem. Try Mighty Mend It," Mays would probably say.
It's enough to make anyone resort to drugs or subscribe to "turn on, tune in and drop out" to coin the catchword of Timothy's Leary's '60s counterculture.
Travel has been my drug and means of escape for many years, although I am currently suffering from the absence of travel.
The real world is the best antidote to the background babble. I still miss the streets of Madrid where we walked one day five years ago after a wedding in the mountains.
Nursing a mild hangover from the night before when we had met up with some of our friends in the maze of streets that never sleep off the Puerta del Sol, we took the Metro to the 18th century Centro de Arte Reina Sofia.
As the morning sun rose higher in the sky and the air became warmer we wandered around a small market in a plaza under the high shaded facade of the museum, perusing jewelry and bags from North Africa and local crafts. We had a coffee under the trees before the museum opened.
For me time stands still in art galleries with their soaring ceilings and works of frenzied inspiration now at rest in heavy frames.
But one work in the museum gives no time for the human soul to rest. Picazzo's Guernica is a huge, abstract mural depicting the terror of the Nazi attack on the village of the same name on April 26, 1937, when the Germans used Guernica as a testing ground for their bombers during the Spanish Civil War.
Animals and buildings are torn apart in the painting, a bull gores a horse and there are stigmata on the hands of a dead soldier.
It's sobering to realize Picasso was commissioned to paint Guernica not in a placid post war peace time but for the Paris International Exposition in the 1937 World's Fair, just two years before the atrocities that befell the village would be repeated all over Europe.
More than 15 years earlier TS Eliot had given a voice to the modern age with his poem The Waste Land, representing the disillusion of an increasingly metropolitan population in the post war climate.
Artists like Picasso put the feelings on canvass in a bold new way, while Adolf Hitler put aside his paints and turned that disillusion in on itself to bring a second instalment of horror on a shell shocked world.
Back in Madrid that April it didn't feel like the cruelest month, although it had been cruel to Guernica.
A couple of days later we headed to Atocha Station to take a train through open fields to the walled city of Toledo.
When the evening sun fell on the water gardens outside the hotel and the high tower of the cathedral it was hard to imagine anything bad ever happening again in Spain.
But it did. A year later Al Quaeda bombs ripped through trains in Atocha Station killing perhaps more people than the Nazi attack on Guernica.
Sometimes it's easier not to think too hard, to get lost in what Leonard Cohen called that hopeless little screen than to take in Picasso's big picture.

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