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Goshka Macuga, 'The Nature of the Beast', Whitechapel Art Gallery and Gijs van Hensbergen, 'Guernica: The Biography of a Twentieth–Century Icon'

Whitechapel Art Gallery, 77-82 Whitechapel High Street, London E1 7QX. Tuesday-Sunday until 18 April 2010. Guernica: The Biography of a Twentieth–Century Icon, Bloomsbury, 2005, ISBN 0 7475 6873 1, 374pp, £8.99

Pablo Picasso’s painting, Guernica, was shown at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in 1939 as a consciousness- and fund-raiser for the Spanish Republican cause.

Today it is back again, in tapestry form, as the seed for Goshka Macuga’s exploration of a web of connections: from a 1939 viewing “fee” of a pair of worker’s boots to the image, now hung in the UN building, being covered up during Colin Powell’s pre-war on Iraq speech. Goshka intervenes in history to give us Colin Powell – a bronze bust – and his speech in front of Guernica. She links it with solidarity activists of 1939, the Watney Street Propaganda Art Course, the money raising amongst the very poorest people in London for the people’s fight against fascism, way before the government stepped in with war to preserve Empire.

At the centre of The Nature of the Beast is a round table echoing the Security Council one. It is bookable for meetings. Here, invited by the writer Michael Rosen, Alice Hitchens remembered Aldgate in ’39. “The Jewish population had come from persecution in Eastern Europe. We realised that persecution hadn’t stopped with the Tsars. With the Spanish Civil War we felt strongly because it was the first leftish government in Spain. So we leafletted, talked and graffitied ‘No pasaran’”. But of Guernica, “I came to see it. I was confused by it – the symbolism escaped me at the time. I can’t say the painting had an effect on people. We were opposed to the policies of the British government.”

Reading Guernica: The Biography of a Twentieth-Century Icon gives an understanding of the genesis of the painting, the reverberations it had across aesthetic thought, particularly in America, and the part it played in the power struggles between the FBI and CIA.

The book and the exhibition provide a new and stimulating way of grasping how art, politics and institutions entwine. Although the Whitechapel Art Gallery had little to do with bringing Guernica to London in 1939, it has used “Picasso was ’ere” in publicity ever since, but has been embarrassed by its political purpose. In a letter to the American embassy in 1952 explaining the abandonment of a show, the Whitechapel director, looking over his shoulder to the funding bodies, wrote “The reason… is the rather subtle and difficult political question… the Communist Party is active in this part of London and it is possible that they might try to make capital out of the Picasso exhibition.”

The Nature of the Beast now relinks Guernica to political atrocities of the past and present.

Topics: Culture