Picasso's Guernica in the Shadow of Incandescence

McKinnon, Luanne, History of Art and Architecture - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Summers, David, Art History
Barolsky, Paul, Art History
Turner, Elizabeth, Art History, University of Virginia
Feldman, Jessica, English, University of Virginia

This thesis is an analysis of electric light and depictions of the light bulb in Pablo Picasso’s oeuvre beginning with two cubist works from 1912 and 1914, and recurring with great significance in 1935, reaching a symbolic apogee in the masterpiece, Guernica, 1937, and thereafter granting its continued importance in war-time and post-war still lifes. The overlooked importance of the light bulb—the only technological element in a vast repertoire of figures founded upon Antiquity, Alchemy, various mythologies and everyday items that took highly symbolic form in his portraiture, still lifes, and other genre scenes—is considered for the diachronic mode of its dispersal with respect to the specific contexts in which it is seen. The filament light bulb conjoins other important themes in Picasso’s work, but it is distinguished in all circumstances through a conception of malevolence and evil and the breakdown of the natural order of the world as he saw it; that is, as a devolution of the domain of light as the common Good, as a waning life force. Electric light is taken along side Picasso’s “candles of war” that evolve from his adept and keen awareness of the symbolic power of light as a progeny in Barcelona in 1895.
Written in five illustrated chapters, the dissertation begins with an overview of the impact that electric light had had upon late nineteenth and early twentieth century life, in Paris in particular, as a scientific advancement, par excellence, and as a new cultural icon. Walter Benjamin’s thesis on the Marxist notion of the phantasmagoria is considered apropos the exceptional electric lighting campaigns of the Paris World Expositions of 1881 and 1900 in which various advancements in the technology of the light bulb contributed to the sense of overall “blinding” as a pacification of the masses. This prologue builds to an analysis of Guernica that premiered at the Spanish Republic Pavilion in the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1937 amidst an incandescent extravaganza that was adroitly organized for sociopolitical, capitalist, and fascist agendas, especially by the Third Reich who utilized lighting programs as a tool of propaganda. In that the light in Guernica is a panoptical eye powered by a single, dangling bulb, Picasso countered the prevailing excessive theatrical incandescent culture with an image that has become one of the most potent anti-war icons of the warring twentieth century: the electric sun.
The thesis takes into account alterations of the sun as a degraded, inverted, and mocked signifier of sacred light. I demonstrate that from 1930 to the conclusion of Guernica in June of ‘37 how images of the sun were central to Picasso’s ongoing ire against the war in Spain and the burgeoning realities of fascist aggression in pre-World War II France. Given the extraordinary lambency of incandescence and its symbolic impact, beyond the real ways in which it reshaped perception in early modern life, expressed in every epoch of modernism, including cubism, futurism, rayonism, surrealism, constructivism, and vorticism, and in the literary arts, heterogeneous types of electric light and light bulbs may be claimed as the most singularly potent emblems of new utopias and tomorrows borne from the catastrophic strain caused by the Great War and the interwar years leading up to the Spanish Civil War and World War II. In that Picasso’s light bulbs are taken for their explicit correspondence to acts of violence, scenes of death and sacrifice, and as a penultimate signifier of darkness-in-the-light, the dissertation identifies the “seraphim light bulbs” of bullfight scenes from 1934-35 that have not been recognized and are indisputable precursors to the electric sun in Guernica. Furthermore, attention has been paid to the morphology of the wire filament both in 1914, identified as the “Filament-Harlequin,” and in 1937, in which I identify the filament in the electric sun as an approximation of the Luftwaffe flight patterns for the aerial bombing scheme in the destruction of the Basque village, Gernika.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Picasso, Guernica, Spanish Civil War, Bullfights in Art, Incandescence, Walter Benjamin, Paris World Fairs, Light Bulb, Cubist collage
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