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Picasso's 'Massacre in Korea' displayed here for first time

"Massacre in Korea" (1951) by Pablo Picasso / Courtesy of 2021 - Succession Pablo Picasso - SACK (Korea)

By Park Han-sol

An ominously lit, two-meter-wide canvas captures a tragic moment of human history that has been repeated time and time again ― a faceless mass of ironclad soldiers firmly holding their guns and swords, ready to open fire on a helpless crowd of naked women and children.

Tears roll down the faces of some of these women and children as they wail, hide and run away in terror. Others, gripped with fear, choose to meet the gaze of the viewer. One child, busy playing by himself in blissful ignorance, ironically turns the onlooker's attention to the tragedy that is to come.

The stark contrast between the armed soldiers and innocent civilians, further highlighted by the flowing river that divides the two groups, is portrayed in Pablo Picasso's "Massacre in Korea," an anti-war painting that the master of modern art completed in January of 1951, just six months after the Korean War (1950-1953) broke out.

As Picasso's only artwork capturing this bloody chapter of Korean history, the painting is being shown here for the first time 70 years after its creation. It is one of over 100 pieces on display at "Picasso, Into the Myth," the first-ever large-scale exhibition in Korea that presents a selected collection from the Musee Picasso Paris.

Although largely overlooked compared to its counterparts, "Massacre in Korea" is known to be the third part of Picasso's anti-war painting series, along with "Guernica" (1937) ― which depicts the scene of the bombing of the Spanish town Guernica by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy ― and "The Charnel House" (1944-45) ― which is said to portray a pile of corpses as a result of the Holocaust.

The artwork is not based on a particular event that occurred during the Korean War. It also purposefully leaves the soldiers' identities and nationalities unclear by presenting them in a mix of medieval and futuristic styles. Picasso himself once said in an interview that the piece simply exists to expose the larger nature of the brutality and irrationality of war, with the cold-blooded slaughter of civilians painted as a crime against humanity.

But unlike the black-and-white "Guernica" and "The Charnel House," Picasso painted "Massacre in Korea" against a green background.

"Unlike its anti-war predecessors that Picasso worked on after the end of each depicted event, 'Massacre in Korea' was drawn while the war was still ongoing. The artist must have known that the war was something that is bound to come to an end and to be replaced by a hopeful new start," Seo Soun-jou, director of the exhibition, said. "Through the use of the color green, it could be read that Picasso wanted to emphasize the message of peace and hope more than that of war."

He added that the artist's anti-war series provided an opportunity to reconsider the role of art in modern society. "Whereas many artworks of the past only typically served as house decorations and items of personal preference, Picasso imbued these paintings with the power of conveying a critical social message."

"Portrait of Marie-Therese" (1937) by Pablo Picasso / Courtesy of 2021 - Succession Pablo Picasso - SACK (Korea)

Organized by the Vichae Art Museum, the retrospective exhibition, "Picasso, Into the Myth," chronologically highlights the pioneering artist's oeuvre, spanning 70 years from the birth of cubism in early 1900s to his latter days. The items on display are not limited to his paintings, but also include sculptures, ceramics and the "Vollard Suite" etching series.

Picasso revolutionized the history of Western art throughout the 20th century, especially as one of the main inventors of cubism, with his famous "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" (1907).

"Cubism brought monumental changes to Western art by tearing down hundreds of years of traditions of the Renaissance period based on the linear perspective and the contrast between light and dark," Seo said. "It was an attempt to transform the two-dimensional artwork into an abstract, three-dimensional form, by depicting the objects seen from a multitude of viewpoints at once. Cubism inspired many other modernist movements of the 20th century."

After cubism, the exhibition follows the life of the artist, who continued to explore passionately a wide spectrum of genres, including neo-classicism, surrealism, ceramics and the humanist role of art, until his death in 1973.

The exhibition will run until Aug. 29 at the Seoul Arts Center.


박한솔 hansolp@koreatimes.co.kr


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