What our Guernicas and Ithacas mean

Constantine Cavafy’s famous poem Ithaka transforms the singular event of Odysseus’ nostos to his home on the rugged island of Ithaka into a symbolic, repeatable experience epitomized by understanding what ‘Ithakas’ plural mean. Here is the final two stanzas of the poem:

Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you wouldn’t have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.
And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you’ll have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.
While the bombing of the Basque town of Gernika on the afternoon of Monday April 26th 1937, like Odysseus’ Ithacan homecoming, was a singular event, it too has been generalized into a symbolic, repeatable experience. For example, in March 1968, a package of 265 letters were sent to Picasso in March 1968 by the Art Workers Coalition, a group of radical artists opposed to the escalating atrocities of the Vietnam War. Each of the letters included the following statement and plea to Picasso:
American artists want to raise their voices against the hundreds of Gernikas…which are taking place in Vietnam…We are asking for your help. Tell the directors and trustees [of MOMA] that Guernica cannot remain on public view as long  as American troops are committing genocide in Vietnam.
2Guernica NY1978Yet there is one key element missing from this simplistic comparison of Cavafy’s Ithakas with the Art Workers Coalition’s Gernikas, one that makes us better understand not only Odysseus’ Ithaka and the devastation of Gernika, but also Cavafy’s poem and Picasso’s painting. While Picasso is asked to act in response to the new ‘Gernikas’ by removing his painting from MOMA, Cavafy’s addressee in his poem is asked to look inwards, to consider what he or she has ‘understood’ by what ‘these Ithakas mean’. The Art Workers Coalition is not asking Picasso to reflect on what either the original 1937 Gernika-bombing meant to him or the present day Gernikas in Vietnam, but to act in defiance by transforming his painting into a political pawn. This request in many ways underestimates the significance of Picasso’s painting as its own artistic and political intervention in the history of violence and warfare. On the contrary, Cavafy’s own poem ‘Ithaka’, does not split the event recorded or the artistic act of creation since it both represents and enacts what Odysseus’ adventures and Homer’s Odyssey ‘mean’ for the personal reflection of both the addressee.
It is this call for a more personal reflection as to the dynamic between a contested event and a work of art created in its wake that is at the core of a panel discussion that I have helped organize at the Wexner Center for the Arts this coming Monday, November 30th, 2015.
1Guernica-kinshasaThe panel discussion will explore the tension between scholarly, artistic, and personal experiences of Picasso’s Guernica, inspired by the variety of remakes of this monumental work on display at the exhibition After Picasso: 80 Contemporary Artists. The discussion will enter into the spirit of reimagining Guernica with a multimedia lecture by Spanish-born, Los Angeles–based artist Patricia Fernández Carcedo on her personal experiences of Guernica, a reproduction of which was a central object in her family home). Fernández Carcedo’s talk will be framed by short presentations by art historians Lisa Florman and Daniel Marcus, linguist Rebeka Campos-Astorkiza, and myself on other elements of Guernica’s backstory and its tremendous influence.
lastlettervideoFor more information on the Our Guernicas event, visit the Wexner Center webpage here. To learn more about Patricia Fernández Carcedo’s work, visit her website. (All images on this post are taken from her ongoing series El Guernica).

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