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And babies ...

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A young Jean-Michel Basquiat is taken to see Picasso's "Guernica" in the film "Basquiat." (1996)
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OKLAHOMA CITY – In a 2013 Huffington Post interview with art dealer and former graffiti artist Tony Shafrazi, a friend and supporter of the late painter Jean-Michel Basquiat, he talks about the New York-based, modern artist who died of a drug overdose in 1988.

Both Shafrazi and Basquiat were known for graffiti and “transgressive” artistry. A vocal opponent to the Vietnam War, Shafrazi made headlines in 1974 when he spraypainted KILL LIES ALL in foot-high letters on Pablo Picasso’s immensely powerful 1937 painting Guernica, about the merciless, Fascist bombing and obliteration of the Republican-held Guernica, a town in Spain’s Basque country.

This painting was chosen by Shafrazi because of its notoriety and (possibly) to protest the impending release-on-bail of My Lai Massacre mastermind U.S. Lt. William Calley. Four years earlier, Shafrazi had unfurled a copy of the famous My Lai protest poster And babies in front of the Guernica painting. During Nixon's 1972 re-election campaign, anti-war activists and McGovern supporters revisited the And babies poster, a poster showing the dead women and children ... and babies ... The title was changed to "Four more years?" written in blood red paint. We all know how that ended.

Said Shafrazi in The Huffington Post: “Guernica was a painting specially made by the greatest artist of the century – it’s certainly the number one paiting against war, no doubt about it. And that painting’s history, having secured a very important position in the Museum of Modern Art – the fact that it was there, daily, and meanwhile the bombings in (Vietnam) were taking place for 10 or 12 years, it was unbelievable to me. It was unacceptable. You could buy (the painting) but not listen to it. Soemhow the voice had been silenced. So I had to give the voice back so it would scream to the world. I gave it that red scream.”

With Guernica being one of the strongest anti-war paintings ever made, it is interesting to see it syncing with me while watching Basquiat, the 1996 film/biopic starring Jeffrey Wright as Basquiat and David Bowie as Andy Warhol. At the beginning of the film, a young Basquiat is with his mother, viewing Guernica. Seeing it is quite powerful and the boy’s mother begins to weep, just as a golden crown seemingly appears on Basquiat’s head. It is as though she knew, despite inevitably succumbing to mental illness, that young Jean-Michel would become something special – and all there in the presence of this powerful statement against war.

As I write this, I am also watching the 1938 William Dieterle film Blockade, starring Henry Fonda as a Republican Loyalist fighter and Madeleine Carroll plays a Russian spy. Curiously, the actress Carroll, born in Britain, would live out her days in the Andalusian town of Marbella, in southern Spain. This particular community would resist the Nationalist rebels and Francoists and fall to the Fascists, but not before several religious buildings were set on fire. One of the churches that was spared was the Church of St. Mary of the Incarnation. As I have noted previously, here at Dust Devil Dreams, The Clash’s “Spanish Bombs” still resonates, as does the line “Oh mi corazon.” Curiously, the actor Benecio del Toro plays one of Basquiat’s artistic friends in the aforementioned film. That, and the idea of the “heart” has been syncing pretty heavily with me.

In “Spanish Bombs,” which mentions “Andalucia” – one of the first regions to be taken over by the Fascists in 1936, the year Blockade takes place – was inspired due to The Clash’s Joe Strummer following the reports of Basque separatists (the region where the town of Guernica is located) engaged in bombings against holiday resorts in Costa Del Sol – the same area where Blockade actress Madeleine Carroll lived.

In Blockade, when Fonda’s Loyalist “Marco” is confronted by Carroll’s “Norma,” admits she is a spy and explains why she feels guilt about giving information about a ship that will provide supplies to innocent civilians caught up in the fighting – many of whom died in the Fascist massacres along the coast, where the film takes place.

Says Norma, between tears: “I’ve seen the eyes of the women. And the children. Eyes that stare. Stared from starving little faces. Trusting eyes that wouldn’t believe there was no more food. There was a woman. Her baby was dead. She refused to believe it. She rocked him in her arms. There was one, with crazy eyes, just staring. Waiting for her babies, who are buried there. I tell you I can’t bear it. As long as I live those eyes will haunt me.”

And yet at the time United Artists released Blockade, it was seen as controversial, too political and divisive, particularly since it was released before the conclusion of the Spanish Civil War in 1939.

As Greg M. Smith wrote of Blockade in 1996, “(Intellectuals) saw the Spanish Civil War as yet another example of the ravages of capitalism. To many, the Depression provided clear evidence that capitalism was on the verge of collapse, and fascism was seen as an attempt to shore up the dying system through force.”

At the end of Blockade, Fonda’s Marco addresses the audience, directly looking at the camera and making an impassioned speech to ambivalent Americans and others at that time: “Peace! Where can you find it? Our country has been turned into a battlefield. There’s no safety for old people and children. Women can’t keep their families safe in their houses – they can’t be sadfe in their own fields. Churches, schools, and hospitals are targets. It’s not war. War is between soldiers. It’s murder. Murder of innocent people. There’s no sense to it. The world can stop it. Where’s the conscience of the world?”

This is much like Shafrazi’s reaction during the Vietnam War era and his use of Picasso’s Guernica to prick the conscience of the world over the pointless deaths of innocents in Southeast Asia by the U.S. war machine. The same war machine wreaking havoc in the Middle East and elsewhere. 

And yet Guernica remains. Inspiring new artists and a new generation. The Fascists may have won in Spain, but that spark of hope is always there in people seeking peace and freedom. A powerful legacy Picasso left behind.

As Alejandro Escalona said of Picasso’s masterpiece: “Guernica is to painting what Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is to music: a cultural icon that speaks to mankind not only against war but also of hope and peace.”

And perhaps Basquiat’s mother was on to something, as her son, in 1983, would create the untitled triptych that is decidedly Picasso-esque. Basquiat was known to cross things out in his paintings and in this particular painting, it appears that he is attempting to write out the year 1967 is Roman numerals – MCLMXVII. It’s actually MCMLXVII. It’s assumed that it was when Basquiat was 7, in 1967, that his mother first took him to see Guernica and his path to greatness began – as the war in Vietnam raged thousands of miles away.

Nineteen sixty-seven was also the year that Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara was killed in Bolivia. Chillingly, this fact syncs with Del Toro's appearance as "Che" in my "Oh mi corazon" dream, while also linking artist/activist Shafrazi and "Tania" (Che's revolutionary girlfriend and the name Patty Hearst took at the time of her "kidnapping by the Symbionese Liberation Army), which we noted in the post "Cynthia, Tania and Alison." That had to do with the seemingly mind-controlled woman who threw a shoe at Hillary Clinton last April and spread papers around talking about "Operation Cynthia," the 1967, CIA-supported operation to take out Che Guevara ("The hillsides ring with 'free the people!'")

And so here we are, in 2014, wondering where the anti-war voices are. Something tells me that as the young people of America become increasingly outraged by U.S. drone attacks on “enemy targets” – targets that often include innocent women and children. Just as they are outraged by the racist killings of African-Americans by white cops. ("The hillsides ring with 'free the people!")

In Yemen, that country’s “Banksy,” Murad Subay, echoed Picasso, Shafrazi and Basquiat by saying his graffiti art, which features U.S. drones killing children, is a way for him to use his art to make an important point and inform.

“I don’t not know what to do,” Subay told Your Middle East. “I have to paint and maybe we can do some changes by our humble work.” 

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Andrew W. Griffin

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Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from...

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