Contextual Material

Goshka Macuga

Dieter Roelstraete

On the Nature of the Beast

The myths and legends surrounding Pablo Picasso’s Guernica are made up of many strands, one of which tells of the visit of a German army officer to the great artist’s atelier in occupied, wartime Paris. Recognizing a sketch of Guernica pinned to the wall of the studio in Rue des Grands Augustins, the officer allegedly asked Picasso whether this was his work (“did you do that?”), to which the painter is said to have replied: “no, you did.” The authenticity of this story cannot possibly be verified: Picasso himself (always a political sophisticate, as was of course amply demonstrated by the controversy around his famous—and missing—Stalin portrait of 1953) merely recounted the episode in an interview with American magazine Newsweek.

A more recent anecdote from the emblematic work’s long, heroic history concerns Guernica’s improbable afterlife as the motif for a tapestry hung at the entrance of the Security Council room in the United Nations headquarters in New York. This tapestry was commissioned by Nelson Rockefeller (a one-time president of the board of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where the original painting was housed from 1939 until 1981) and presumably entrusted to the UN in the idle hope of fanning the flames of pacifism among the notoriously belligerent veto-wielding members of the Security Council. Guernica’s persistent power as a universal icon of anti-war activism was certainly reinforced by the UN’s decision to cover up the tapestry at the time of Colin Powell’s infamous speech to the Security Council during which the US Secretary of State made the case for a military invasion of Iraq.

This was not the first time a Rockefeller-funded art work (or, if those nuances are allowed to matter, copy of an art work) met with such politicized censorship, though the other instance concerned a case, curiously, of self-censoring. In 1933 the Rockefeller family, an established presence in the liberal wing of the Republican party and one of the richest families in the world, had approached Pablo Picasso to paint a mural for the newly opened Rockefeller Center in midtown New York. When the Spanish painter (already one of the world’s richest living artists at the time) refused on grounds that concerned the autonomy of the artwork, the choice quickly fell to the Mexican realist Diego Rivera, whose subsequent creation included a portrait of Lenin—so unacceptable to Rivera’s patrons that the mural, grandiosely titled Man at the Crossroads Looking with Hope and High Vision to the Choosing of a New and Better Future, was eventually destroyed. Soon after, Rockefeller Jr.’s political career would take off in earnest with important contributions to the spreading of the gospel of economic liberalism in the countries of Latin America, as well as to the coordinated resistance against the rise of Indigenous communist movements.

The tapestry’s temporary loan to the Whitechapel Art Gallery in London as one aspect of an art project by Goshka Macuga (itself part of a major overhaul of the art center in what was once one of the poorest neighborhoods in London) was made possible by Bloomberg Limited Partnership, a financial services company which made its founder and majority owner, [former] mayor of New York City Michael Bloomberg, the richest resident of New York. Since its inauguration at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in April 2009, the room which now holds the Guernica tapestry has hosted meetings, ceremonial and otherwise, by a wide variety of groups and collectives: the space’s principle of openness to receive anyone desiring to convene a meeting under the all-seeing eyes of the victims of the 1937 Gernika bomb raid is an integral part of Macuga’s project—the mixture of political naivety and cunning of which certainly matches that of both its models, Pablo Picasso and Colin Powell (the latter immortalized in a cubist bust installed in the same room).

Although the British National Party, say, or the nuclear industry lobby has yet to put in an offer to organize such a meeting at the Whitechapel, Macuga’s ambitious experiment in participatory democracy has produced its fair share of ambiguities, from a speech by a representative of the Royal House of Windsor (i.e. a real embodiment of the negation of democracy) to a gathering of art lovers (obviously) with ties to the weapons industry. It is the fate of art, as a frivolous luxury that may or may not claim to stake out a position of political commentary or intervention in society, to produce such unlikely “coincidences,” to generate this murky meshwork of unsavory allegiances and alliances: the art world is the place par excellence where many of us (artists, critics, curators, cultural producers of all stripes, many of whom hail from modest economic backgrounds) come closest to rubbing shoulders with the powers that be in the contemporary globalized world—which is to say, with the super-rich and wealthy. Where this wealth stems from is one question that can never be asked (let alone answered), however, for one of the basic tenets of capitalism holds that money, as the great equalizer and origin of equivalence, has no history, and its provenance cannot be called upon when judging its investment.

It is no longer a well-kept secret, and neither should it be a source of shock or indignant surprise, that “anti-capitalist” art, or art that is “critical” (of capitalism chiefly), should often be the most highly sought after, commanding some of the highest prizes, keeping the basic structure of class society intact. Nor should we be scandalized to find that a woven mural depicting the twentieth century’s most iconic pacifist symbol can so easily and effortlessly be reduced to mere décor for the various forces of reaction to mingle among each other. In this, the artwork merely represents the entwinement of ornament and crime—in retrospect, therefore, that it should have become a woven mural (twice removed!), that most affirmative of ornamental forms, seems only just.

The tapestry of this tapestry (of that painting) also includes a portrait of the artist, guiltily looking away of course, dizzied by the mise-en-abîme her work has produced.


This text was originally commissioned as part of Goshka Macuga’s work On the Nature of the Beast (2009), which was on view in the exhibition “Textiles – Art and the Social Fabric,” curated by Grant Watson, MuHKA, Museum of Contemporary Art Antwerp, September 11, 2009–January 3, 2010. It appears here courtesy of the author.