The incomplete Heideggerian World

I would argue that Heidegger’s account of art unconcealing a world is still relevant to contemporary art and would use the example of Pablo Picasso’s Guernica to elaborate this point. Like Heidegger’s own example of the Ancient Greek Temple which “first gives to things their look and to men their outlook on themselves”, Picasso’s Guernica also accomplishes this for the modern man’s outlook on things and on himself (89). In Picasso’s painting, which depicts the bombing of the Basque town of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War, there is no romance to be found such as in paintings of medieval warfare, no glorious clashing of sides or ideals can be found, in fact, there are no sides whatsoever. The bombing is an inhuman act which has destroyed its victims by dehumanisation. The human figure itself has been shattered into abstraction; Picasso depicts faces, torsos and limbs sticking out at odd angles or as entirely segmented. Furthermore, in the entirely muted choice of colours the human figure dissolves into the background, he is confused into various animals (such as the bull, the national symbol of Castilian Spain, shown bewildered and effete) and then further atomised into mere debris. Man’s perspective is also reflected in this abstract and fragmented manner as not even temporality itself is spared from this chaotic fragmentation, we cannot piece together a meaningful causal picture of events or whether the painting is capturing the bombing as already occurred or still ongoing. This absolute totality of destruction conjures the aesthetic experience of the sublime, which will be of importance to its relation to Heidegger’s framework.

This painting has not only captured the reality of a singular battle in a civil war, or the reality of modern warfare and its inhumanity but has unconcealed a world; the modern world. This artwork makes distinct to us the world where warfare is divorced from any form of chivalry, where the human figure left unprotected by the sacred has been butchered into abstraction by the sciences or into the collateral damage of faceless regimes. However, in Guernica, there is a difference from Heidegger’s Greek Temple in this unconcealing. Men, women, children, animals, light, shadow, line, form – all these things still arise in themselves from Earth in phusis but through Picasso’s sublime destruction they are manipulated and warped into one another. In this sense, although a world emerges, it is an abortive unconcealing or incomplete aletheia. This is a world prevented from returning back to be grounded in Earth, it does not fulfil the need “for Earth to be an Earth” (91). Reminiscent of Adorno’s proclamation, “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric”  the artwork of Guernica provides a meta-commentary on the nature of art within the modern world – by showing that art itself has been damaged by the bombardment of modernity and its various symptoms, such as industrialisation, war, and the confusion of the human identity.


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