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Tragedy in Art
The newspapers are forever mentioning the word, 'tragedy'. It usually means that there has been a death or deaths associated with a catastrophic event. Surprisingly, this is in keeping with the use of tragedy as described by Aristotle: that it should evoke the emotions of pity and fear in the presence of an action of a certain magnitude. Pablo Picasso's 1937 mural, Guernica: Testimony of War, is the epitome of tragedy in art as described by David Hume in his essay, Of Tragedy.
Hume expresses the belief that tragedy may be seen within art through the experience of passion, spirit, uneasiness and a certain pleasure brought about by an understanding of the symbolic aesthetic. He states, "The whole art of the poet is employed in rousing and supporting the compassion and indignation, the anxiety and resentment of his audience. They are pleased in proportion as they are afflicted, and never are so happy as when they employ tears, sobs, and cries to give vent to their sorrow, and relieve their heart, swollen with the tenderest sympathy and compassion" (Hume Internet source).
The mural is based on an incident that happened in 1934. Hitler had come to the aid of Francisco Franco by sending planes to destroy the non-military village of Guernica in Spain's Basque region. The entire town was decimated by the three hour siege. "Picasso found himself interested not so much in what the bombing and burning of Guernica meant politically, but rather what they meant in metaphor, what they meant in the context of individual human lives. He wanted to address emotively the destruction of his beloved country, and he already possessed a personal visual language with which to do so, one anchored in the violence, suffering, and passion of the bullring, as well as in the centuries-old Spanish belief in the essential tragedy of life, one embodied by the figure of a grieving woman, La Llorona" (Martin 38).
David Hume says that art that depicts tragedy must contain an element of liveliness - either in the execution, composition or emotional response. This painting may be said to be 'lively' in all three areas. "Guernica's visual imagery -- a screaming horse which had fallen, pierced by a lance; a wailing woman holding a dead child in her arms; another woman, her clothes on fire, attempting to escape from a burning building; the severed head of a soldier -- spoke not specifically to a terrible day in Spain. Rather, it spoke to the horrors that humans have visited on each other for millennia, and because of this the painting began to symbolize the reality of every war remarkably soon after its creation" (Martin 38). The visual representation, done in an abstract style, brings the viewer into the 'action' of the painting. Upon the body of a man tread all manner of monsters, some with the face of man, others of animals. The man on the bottom holds a chipped knife. The feeling is that the knife has been used, though there is no indication of blood.
A bull stands to the left (facing the painting), nostrils extended and eyes distended. One eye looks to the carnage and the mourners while the other stares at and, perhaps, past the viewer. The head of a horse rages, the extra horn of a unicorn protruding from his mouth. The shape of an eye holds within it a light bulb and light that reaches only for a short time out of the space.
Hooves and feet are congregated toward the front. Bodies and pieces of bodies - animal and human - seem to be massed together in the middle while floating faces enter to the right. In front of the bull a mother holds her dead child, her mouth posed in the act of screaming.
Light is involved in the portrayal f action to the right while the darkness of the bull's body provides a background for the mother and child. The 'texture brought about by such graphic images is two-dimensional only if the transition to the mind's eye is not counted. The viewer becomes fully involved, even to the point of distress. It is altogether "disagreeable, afflicting, melancholy, disordered" as Hume has suggested is necessary (Internet source).
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