Universality And Suffering In War And Art

On Pablo Picasso’s 1951 masterpiece, “Massacre in Korea.”

It is not difficult to figure out the plot of Picasso’s painting: occupational forces came to a village searching for guerilla fighters, destroying villages and houses, burning down the livestock and getting ready to execute women and children believed to be hiding enemy combatants. The terrorizing and killing of civilians—as specific targets and not only as collateral damage incurred during the “normal” course of fighting—is depicted as war of men against women and children. With the male reproductive organs transformed into weapons of intimidation and murder, Picasso shows war as war on reproductive life itself. Here, Picasso is communicating what the act of genocide is—not only war against a particular people, but war against continuation of life itself.

One of the miracles of the painting is the transformation of the faces of those who will be killed in a second or two into masks… into art. At what moment is realism forced to transform into surrealism and expressionism? What is Picasso trying to express by literally transforming the faces of victims into painted masks, into painting?

Beautiful art tries to ignore suffering (beauty is life that has died and is resurrected as beauty). Realistic art tries to co-opt suffering, to balance it, to assimilate it into a general optimism. Picasso’s art transforms suffering into painting. The more intense, the more excessive. The more unbearable the human suffering, the less it is capable of expressing itself, and the more it calls for art to help to express it.

Picasso’s art comes when suffering is too great for human beings to bear. When human beings can no longer tolerate the conditions of life, art comes to help. It helps to express the inexpressible, and that which is already impossible to feel. Art puts its shoulders under the burden of this overwhelming suffering. It takes suffering to itself. Sublimation of mute horror into digestible spoken images.

For the teenage girl who is the closest to the soldier-robots the dread ridden situation is so unbearable that she has psychologically removed herself from the situation to help herself to go through this deadly moment by pretending that she is not there, not in this world. It is the moment when her soul has transformed into an apathetical mask of indifference.

For the woman to the right of the girl, perhaps her mother (one too mature to emotionally remove herself from the awareness that they are victims of this inevitable carnage), suffering is so excruciatingly excessive that it contorts her facial features into an archetype of grief. The human face is transformed into an emotional archetype and the archetype into painting. She gives herself to murder because she understands she cannot avoid it. It is her ontological triumph over the murderers, her ability to sustain the truth even the fatal one that is registered by Picasso’s art.

The woman who is holding onto to her baby tightly in torment is even more agonizing. For her it’s impossible to admit to herself that her baby will perish together with her. Her anguish goes outside of her, as if her very suffering can have a protecting power. Her anguish has brought her to paroxysm of pain, contorting her features such that no human being can express. The artist is needed to elaborate through art what human beings can only feel without expressing it, can only hint at while simultaneously concealing it. Painting picks up where the human soul falls mute and where the expressiveness of the human face collapses before the indescribable torment of being violated onto death.

The pregnant woman to the left margin with her preadolescent son clinging onto her body tries to appeal to heavens for help but behind her appeal is the knowledge that there will be no earthly salvation, that God will not intervene and will not stop the massacre. And yet in one eye there is still alive a call to God while her right eye is just asking for a place in heaven for her dead boy. Her left arm stretching in her desperate desire to be lifted to God’s abode, as if her body hasn’t given up on “salvation” (a belief that is fading away); while the child’s body is, as if already rising up, off the ground.

The toddler playing on the ground doesn’t have a face yet to notice or even produce any reaction to what’s going on, on the monstrosity of murder. The elder panic-stricken child running from the soldiers already reacts. He wants to flee from danger, but maybe he still feels that his family will protect him from armed violence. The small baby the mother presses tightly to her breasts is looking to the sky. She’s already emotionally separated from her through the power of death. And the boy on the left already understands that there is no safety. But he is too young to face the reality and is hiding behind his mother’s helpless body. All eight figures, victims (four women and four children) represent the emotional polyphony of human faces in front of ultimate destruction—the imposition of violent death.

A hasty acquaintance with the painting produces the impression that the women and children look universal—they can be from any nation. Only step by step with concentration we learn that indeed they have Korean faces and it would be inappropriate to dissolve it too quickly into a concept of universality. The faces are that of a particular people, suffering due to concrete acts of inhumanity, violence and aggression. Only after this recognition is it possible to come to the idea of universality, of all of us being one and the same as human beings. We all belong, Picasso suggests, to a particular race and nation, time and place, and at the same time to all humanity and to life on Earth.

Pablo Picasso’s 1951 painting “Massacre in Korea” can still help us grasp the scope of human suffering in both its historical specificity, and in its universality. We still live in a time of mass atrocities, violence and war.

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KATIA BAGHAI is a writer based near Seattle, Washington. With her long-time partner, Victor Enyutin, she started a blog on art, film, poetry, and socio-cultural issues. She has also taught film studies.


KATIA BAGHAI is a writer based near Seattle, Washington. With her long-time partner, Victor Enyutin, she started a blog on art, film, poetry, and socio-cultural issues. She has also taught film studies.

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