The Transparency of Veils: A Semiotic Critique

of the Veiling of Picasso’s Guernica at the United Nations Security Council

and Observations on the Discourse of the Solitary Gesture

(by Jim Dwyer)



              Since the dawning of the mass-media age in the twentieth century, certain photographic images have been captured, like bugs in amber, for all time as something like crystallized events. These frozen images have come down to us as historically and culturally significant ones, laden with Symbolic weight Some of them have been most meaningful in retrospect (Neville Chamberlain’s fist filled with meaningless paper, raised and shaking above his head) while others have virtually pulsated with immediacy (the lone individual with the shopping bags who stood before the line of Chinese tanks during the Tiannamen Square rebellion, or the sledge-hammers raised above the heads of joyful Berliners, dismantling the decades old Wall). Though these events, or occurrences are not texts, in their having been captured as images, they transcend the fleeting nature of temporality and enter the historical record.

      It is my contention that such images of events have tremendous symbolic value and thus historical significance and are decidedly worthy of close study, in spite of their non-textual nature. I also plan to argue that the failure on the part of those in power (who often suffer from a lack of imagination) to recognize what might become such an era-defining image or event, can at the very least become a spin-doctor’s nightmare (a major publicity problem) and can indeed often portend a downfall or decline. To put an even finer point upon it, I plan to suggest that the Republican Party has a poor understanding of the power and importance of art, and though this is often (sadly) of little consequence, such an ignorance or disregard of this power is not without its

costs. We will see that often times, an image or an idea is more conspicuous when it has been covered or concealed than had it been left alone and in the open.

      Recently, the world was served up another one of these harbinger-like event/images. On January 27, 2003, as the world held its breath and hoped against hope that war might be averted in the middle east, a striking, iconic event occurred at the United Nations. Outside the entrance to the meeting chamber of the Security Council, a tapestry of Pablo Picasso’s famous painting Guernica has hung for years. This celebrated anti-war statement, which depicts the madness, violence and human suffering which are the consequences of war in general but of aerial bombardment in

particular, is perhaps the single most famous painting by one of the twentieth century’s most celebrated artists. Yet, on the date in question, as this section of the United Nations compound was being converted to a press briefing area, a gesture of huge symbolic significance took place-- this anti-war image was veiled, or curtained-off, having been deemed (by whom exactly?) as an inappropriate backdrop for briefings about the possibility (and increasing likelihood) of war.

      What can such event/images be said to mean? How do they accumulate or accrue this meaning, and how is their meaning employed in

[1] further discourse? I will refer to such events and occurrences as the discourse of the solitary gesture, after Michel Foucault, who in his Discourse on Language said that If discourses are to be treated first as ensembles of discursive events, what status are we to accord this notion of event, so rarely taken into consideration by philosophers? Of course, an event is neither substance, nor accident, nor quality, nor process; events are not corporeal. And yet, an event is certainly not immaterial; it takes an effect, becomes effect, always on the level of materiality (159). This idea, taken alongside Roland Barthes observations (in his essay Myth Today), clearly allows for the symbolic interpretation of texts that are essentially not word-based. Barthes says that, not only written discourse but also photography, cinema, reporting, sports, shows, publicity, all these can serve as a


support to mythical speech (34), his term for symbolic language which deals out doubled meanings beyond the obvious surface intent. He further states that Pictures become a kind of writing as soon as they are meaningful: like writing, they call for a Lexus (34).

      To return to the veiling of Guernica, it is evident at once that what has occurred is a substantial piling on of meanings, and a clash between art and politics. There is, first of all, Picasso’s masterpiece, with its own meaning. Secondly, there is the placement of this tapestry facsimile at the United Nations, and the additional meanings that accrue. Finally, there is the act of veiling, or draping, itself. Each of these three aspects of the event can be said to have meaning-- but taken in combination, what then can be said about meaning and intent? How have the two poles of the political spectrum responded to this veiling? Whom did it serve and who can be seen, if anyone, as having benefited from this (unintentionally?) symbolic act? Let’s take on the three layers of meaning related to Guernica first, and then see how they collide, leading to the resultant discourse and doctrinal spin that the discourse of the solitary gesture, that is, the decision/event itself fosters.

      Picasso’s Guernica is itself a massive work, measuring eleven and a half feet high and nearly twenty-six feet wide. Painted in response to the vicious attack on the unarmed and unsuspecting villagers of Guernica, Spain by German and Italian air squadrons in the service of fascist upstart Franco, the painting was first displayed at the Spanish Pavilion during the 1937 Paris World’s Fair. According to David Cohen, who calls Guernica the 20th century’s most iconic protest against the inhumanity of war, (1) after the World’s Fair, the painting toured Europe, where it was used as a fund-raiser for anti-fascist concerns. In 1939 the painting came to New York, again to be used as a fund-raising tool, this time for Spanish war-relief. The painting’s spare use of blacks, whites and grays give it a shattered newspaper photograph effect. That it was employed, and so early on, as an emotion-stirring fund-raising device itself speaks

volumes about the compelling power of great art to hit home and comment upon politics.

       Though Guernica would often be taken on world-tours, New York and the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) was to become its semi permanent home (Cohen 2). After World War Two, many felt strongly that the painting belonged to Spain-- after all, it is the suffering of the Spanish people that is so graphically represented. Ironically, even Franco himself wanted the painting returned to Spain, though how he might have chosen to display it presents a real head-scratcher of a problem!  This, of course, would never be, for following the victory of Franco’s fascist army, with the aid of Hitler and Mussolini, Picasso forbade the works display in Spain until the country enjoyed public liberties and democratic institutions (Walsh 3). Picasso later said, in 1956, "It will do the most good in America" (Cohen 2). The massive painting was eventually returned home to Spain, in 1981, after the death of Generalissimo Franco and in time to mark the centenary of the artist’s birth.

      This is a history of the work itself, but I feel it is also worth a brief reminder (especially since this essay is not illustrated, and must rely upon the readers own memory/impression of Picasso’s painting) as to the details of the images depicted in this famous work of art. Writing for the New York Daily News, Pete Hamill describes Guernica as follows: Picasso ignores the particular and concentrates on the universal. To the left, a woman howls at the sky, a dead child in her arms. Behind her is a bull, stolid, its face ridged with anger or annoyance, probably a symbol of implacable Spain itself, while above the bull we see a shrieking bird. On the ground before them lies the severed head of a man, wide-eyed in death, a claw-like hand frozen in futility...Rising in the center of the mural-- and dominating the memory of most viewers-- is a horse in agony...we can almost hear the creature’s terrified whinnying (1). Hammill goes on to comment that "The effect (of Guernica) was powerful, scary and universal". But he had created something that would endure, a warning of what was coming, an assault on all


sentimental notions about war (2).

      This is all quite clear enough in it’s own right, but how did an image/facsimile of Guernica find its way to the United Nations? David Cohen, art critic and director at the New York Studio School tells us that, "The tapestry version at the United Nations was a gift from the estate of Nelson D. Rockefeller in 1985". The tapestry version succumbs to the temptations of color--browns and taupe-- considerable weakening its effect, as does the change in medium (2). Indeed, the browns and taupes mute the horrors depicted, making them seem somehow more distant, less immediate than the stark, crisp black and white. Naturally, fabric also softens the blow of the piece, making what should be gruesome and gory images out to be something more like fuzzy, misshapen cutouts.

      Aesthetics aside however, what is the symbolic meaning of this gift from a wealthy patron? Strictly speaking, Rockefeller’s gift is an entirely separate piece of art—Picasso’s work, after all, is unavailable to hang in this location. The tapestry version is a much smaller, much softer, far less evocative facsimile, and little more. That having been said, we have still two remaining issues to resolve involving this gift-- one deals with the United Nations (UN) itself, and the other with the patron. As for the UN, whatever its faults and shortcomings might be, it is an institution largely devoted to the prevention of another world war, and the vast devastation that would certainly result. Though the UN has had mixed results in the area

­ of prevention of hostilities, it is quite obvious the symbolic value that a work of art such as Guernica would have upon the wall of such a world body. Even the ultra-conservative Washington Times acknowledged, in an article by Betsy Pisik, that it would be difficult to imagine a more fitting example of site-specific art1). The image of Guernica is, as has been mentioned, both reminder and warning, of the horrors of war.

      As far as Nelson Rockefeller is concerned, although it may be a little unfair to the man himself, generally speaking wealthy patrons are not always art fans nor are they anti-war activists. While Nelson Rockefeller may indeed have been the former, he was


decidedly not the latter. Almost certainly, beneath the Guernica tapestry, will be found a small plaque bearing the textile artist’s name as well as the name of the patron. Site-specific the work may be, but the Rockefeller estate are following the lead of industrial-barons of yore, such as Andrew Carnegie and even old J.D. Rockefeller hisself-- spend some money on nice things (libraries, public art, etc.) and your misdeeds will likely be forgotten. Certainly the Rockefeller estate aren’t going to commission any artistic renderings of the putting-down of the Attica prison riots, for example. Put another way, though the hanging of this Guernica tapestry seems on the surface to be at the UN because of the desire of that international body to prevent war, a wealthy patron has other interests at heart besides, or perhaps in addition to (though not necessarily in place of) the artist’s original intent. In this way, the patron gets to co-opt at least some of the power of the art.

      We now have Picasso’s original artwork, and his original intent, layered-over with additional meanings and intentions in the display of the tapestry. It isn’t difficult to see the use of image ÿas Barthes mythological speech here. Though for Picasso, war itself and the attack on a specific locale is the signified, and his painting is the signifier. For those who walk through or engage in press conferences in the chamber wherein this tapestry is hung Picasso’s Guernica is the signified, the tapestry the signifier. At each layer of signification, it would seem, we get further from authentic essence, but how could it be otherwise? What then to make of the third layer of meaning: the veil? Why, exactly, was this facsimile veiled, and at whose request was it done? Was it censorship, or something more benign? If the latter, what then to make of the consequent discourse that this act of veiling has generated? First, we must consider the actual series of events (insofar as such can ever be adequately ascertained) and only then comments stemming from them.

      According to William Walker, writing in the February 9th edition of the Toronto Star, It (the Guernica tapestry) hangs over the exact spot where Security Council


members stop and speak before TV cameras. It was decided the violent anti-war images would not be a fitting backdrop for talk of a new war (3). Walker also quotes UN chief media officer Abdellatif Kabbaj as saying, "Its only temporary". We're only doing this until the TV cameras leave (3). Decided by whom, one might well ask. In an article dated February 6, 2003 by Zachary Dowdy, appearing in Newsday, it was hinted that censorship was indeed afoot: Diplomats at the UN, speaking on condition that they not be named, have been quoted in recent days telling journalists that they believe the United States leaned on UN officials to cover the tapestry, rather than have it in the background while Powell or other US diplomats argued for war on Iraq (1) However, in the next sentence, Dowdy assures that Rather than the United States, it was broadcasters who asked for the change, said Stephen Dujarric, a UN official. He said photographers would not get the full effect of the tapestry as they focused on the diplomats (1). When the word effect is employed here, one can only wonder if artistic effect is the intended sense. This is interesting, since the room is essentially exactly for the stationing of a speaker or speakers before a throng of reporters, why then is t

his supposedly symbolically charged image generally considered a visual distraction, a broken and too obscured image?  If the effect is lost, can it any longer be considered then a sign of anything at all? Certainly, while in an unobscured state it can function as one. The unspoken implication here is perhaps that the tapestry is not in fact a sign for those to whom it is obscured by heads-- the TV audience. It is after all they who will see the press conference, but not the tapestry (even in its unveiled state) on television. The tapestry then must be for those who see it as they walk past, for Security Council members and staffers. It is stated elsewhere in Dowdy's article that typically the tapestry is obscured by flags and a UN logo when the larger space (the tapestry chamber) is needed for bigger crowds.

      Betsy Pisik's February 3rd article UN Report, in the Washington Times seems to confirm this when she writes that (Kabbaj) noted that the diplomats' microphone,


which usually stands in front of the Security Council sign, had to be moved to accommodate the crowd of camera crews and reporters. With the Picasso as a backdrop, Mr. Kabbaj said, no one would know they were looking at the United Nations (2). If this is so, one might ask if Mr. Kabbaj is doing a very good job in his tenure as UN chief media officer! While the word accommodate, used in association with the media, is quite interesting, another comment Pisik attributes to Kabbaj seems telling:  We had a problem with, you know, the horse (2). Maureen Dowd's 'Powell Without Picasso', dated February 5, 2003 states that "The UN began covering the tapestry last week after getting nervous that Hans Blix's head would end up on TV next to a screaming horse head (1). In her typical fashion, Dowd wryly links this veiling to another recent case: (Maybe the UN was inspired by John Ashcroft's throwing a blue cover over the Spirit of Justice statue last year, after her naked marble breast hovered over his head during a televised briefing)(1). While many chuckle at Ashcroft's apparent fear of titillating Americans with naked, albeit marble, breasts, (I mean, who puts a dress on a statue, really?) here we have a very obvious case of censorship. Some, however, might see it as but one of many examples of this administration’s penchant for secrecy. It is however also more than this. In both instances, if we assume these accounts of the reasons for the veiling to be true (and I do find it more likely than the idea that it was an act of outright censorship, insofar as Guernica is concerned) what we have in effect is an attempt to visually sanitize a TV picture, an assertion of an aesthetic (a good TV shot) and a fine example of Foucault's observation that "Discourse is a will to truth-- pushing away everything it can't assimilate"(151). Thus, although censorship is not the stated purpose in covering the tapestry, it is the end result in any case. In other words, the needs of the media and the TV aesthetic precede the importance of symbolic works of art specifically chosen ‑ to be seen in the context which now we are told is an inadequate, even inappropriate setting. When, then, does the TV viewer get the chance to see this tapestry, this art, this reminder of the UN's mandate, in the


context of the actual UN itself without actually going there on a slow day and seeing it for herself? This intended symbolic connection has been lost, and at the discretion, apparently of the press and not the politicians.

      Though the visual aesthetic of the TV shot is the purported reason for the 'inappropriateness' of the tapestry, doubts remain. Some have suggested that the draping of the tapestry is reminiscent of the manner in which the likeness of a recently deceased loved one is covered, or turned to face the wall. This however would seem to suggest that we are (to speak in general pluralities) protecting ourselves from seeing the warning that it signifies, and isn't that like hiding under the covers from the boogieman? Others have suggested that the tapestry was covered so that the idea that the painting represents, that war is bad, is not so disgracefully ignored, but this explanation seems to personify the artwork and the entire process of signification itself. One of the better observations, though itself, I think, inaccurate, is that the tapestry was veiled to shield us, the viewers of the world, from an excess of irony. Russell Martin, art critic and historian, as well as author of a new book about this very painting (entitled Picasso's War: The Destruction of Guernica and the Masterpiece That Changed the World) commented upon the superabundance of irony in this decision to 'mask' the tapestry on liberal (though frequently squeamishly so) National Public Radio. The UN's decision not to allow Guernica's images to be used as a backdrop for discussions about whether Iraq should be attacked preemptively are ironic, given the Pentagon's stated intention to intensively bombard Baghdad, a city of five million people, as the war commences (2). Martin also drew the connection, overlooked by many in the media, between US 'shock and awe' tactics, and the Nazi 'blitzkrieg' approach, for which the attack on Guernica was the trial run. Martin then spoke of 'critical truths' that are represented in the painting, arguing that 'They are truths that should not be shrouded, truths that news cameras and every one of us around the world must dare to look at directly’ (2).


      It is in such statements that we come finally to the strangest aspect of this event. The veiling itself, apparently decided upon because of a perceived need to clarify a visual image being tailored to fit a screen and not to make a political statement about the display of anti-war art on the wall of the UN has been widely believed to have been just that: an act of censorship. And since, though unintended (with consequences apparently unanticipated as well) this veiling becomes a censoring, especially since the end result is indistinguishable from an intentional act of censorship. It has thus generated the discourse that an overt act of censorship would have generated. In this we can see the failure of imagination, and the failure to appreciate the power of art, that has allowed the discourse of a solitary gesture to generate a whole lot of publicity, inescapably negative publicity for the power structure. This is not the failure of any one individual, but a failure of three institutions: the media, the United Nations itself, as well as the Bush administration. All of these failed to understand the consequences of a seemingly innocuous, solitary gesture. At some point, it seems incredible that no one from any of these entities stepped forward to suggest leaving the tapestry alone: 'Might it not look as though we are censoring a work of art if we veil this thing?' No one, apparently, raised this issue as a point of interest.

      It is at this point that an event enters into or becomes mythology. However, and for whatever reason Guernica the tapestry was veiled, since it takes on the appearance of censorship (what seems must be), this event will forevermore be referred to as the veiling (censoring) of Picasso’s Guernica.  This is the area to which Barthes refers when he speaks of the 'immediate reading of juxtaposed meanings’ (28). Myth, Barthes insists 'is a system of communication...everything can be a myth provided it is conveyed by a discourse’ (33). Though critics on the right will not be happy with this state of affairs, this is the way things have shaken out. After all, when the veiling is seen in the context of a Bush administration that 'deployed its intelligence agencies to spy on friendly governments and to doctor evidence to prove Iraqi wrongdoing’ (Bleifuss, 1), who                                                            

wouldn’t believe that the 'pressure to veil' came from Washington? {If this sounds incredible, consider this: In a memo leaked from the National Security Administration, and printed in the London Observer, Frank Koza, an NSA official wrote that the NSA was spying on UN Security Council members (bugging phones in homes, offices, monitoring e-mails) 'for insights as to how membership is reacting to the on-going debate...minus US and GBR of course' (Bleifuss, 1).}

      Critics on the right shouldn’t complain too much. Consider Foucault’s observation that 'a single work of literature can give rise, simultaneously, to several distinct kinds of discourse’ (152). And so can a single event, even if that event is, as has been explained, not as it seems! Allow me to briefly consider how this event has generated discourse, and the kinds of discourse it has generated. I will look at three examples: one from Maureen Dowd (an interesting case in that she once wrote speeches for Bush sr., and is currently one of the mainstream media’s most outspoken critics of Bush jr.), one from Socialist writer David Walsh and

 one from ultra-right (though often wrong) Claudia Winkler, editor of The Weekly Standard.

      Dowd, in her playful way, uses the veiling event to speak of other veilings, and other kinds of veiling, mentioning early on in her piece that 'Mr. Powell can't very well seduce the world into bombing Iraq surrounded on camera by shrieking and mutilated women, men, children, bulls and horses’ (1). This, again, plays into the suggestion, or suspicion, that quite possibly it was pressure from Washington that led to the veiling. Dowd goes on to link Picasso's fractured cubist style to the casus belli arguments: 'The administration's argument for war has shifted in a dizzying Cubist cascade over the last months’ (2). Finally, she tells readers that 'When Mr. Bush wanted to sway opinion

ion on Iraq before his State of the Union speech last week, he invited columnists to the White House. But he invited only conservative columnists, who went from gushing about the president to gushing more about the president. The columnists did not use Mr. Bush’s name, writing about him as 'a senior administration official,' even though the White                                                    

House had announced the meeting in advance. They quoted the 'official' about the president's determination on the war. That's just silly’ (2). Dowd is being somewhat generous here, as this is something worse than 'silly.' It is, in effect, a new way of 'covering' the news, it is another way of 'veiling' a critical voice.

      David Walsh, in a piece dated February 8, 2003 entitled 'UN Conceals Picasso’s Guernica for Powell's Presentation' very carefully quotes several mainstream sources, including Newsday and the Washington Times for his factual items, but in keeping with his political ideology, he sees the event as 'an act with extraordinary historical resonance’ (1), a term not widely used to describe the veiling in the mainstream media. While much of his article is centered upon the history of Picasso’s masterpiece and the actual debate going on at the UN Security Council itself, he also states that Picasso’s painting threatened to s[1]÷peak to historical parallels that the Bush administration and UN officials were clearly determined that the media or the public should not make’ (2). Such a viewpoint would seem to be informed by Foucault’s observation, in 'The Discourse on Language' that 'Disciplines constitute a system of control in the production of discourse, fixing its limits through the action of an identity taking the form of a permanent reactivation of the rules’ (155).

      In her piece, dated April 16, 2003, Claudia Winkler uses the term 'myth' in her title ('The Guernica Myth') but she is using it in the pejorative sense, as in 'falsehood, untruth'-- not an accurate or clear use of the term myth. Although, as I have acknowledged earlier, the act of 'censorship' is in effect
 a myth (that is, it was not necessarily an intentional act of censorship) once the event becomes discourse, no one can control or undo the new discourse that will result. Winkler can call it a 'myth', but for most observers, the irony of the 'event' is striking enough to develop 'legs of its own', to employ a journalistic parlance. Winkler writes,  'Too good to check' is the technical term for a story like the censoring of Guernica...The episode was a bonanza for anti-war, anti-Bush propagandists and those eager to believe them.


Writers of letters to the editor recycled the claim as fact’ (1). Indeed, the event was a bonanza for anti-war writers, for the very reasons I have listed above, chief among them the failure of imagination on the part of

the pro-Bush propagandists and those eager to believe them. Winkler too has underestimated the power of art, as well as failed to realize that a veiling is a veiling, and for whatever reason, what ends up looking like censorship may as well have been censorship. In a comment that seeks to place blame (where it in all probability lies) with the media, she writes 'As over 200 cameramen were setting up, they complained that the background at the new location didn't work for them. Powell would be speaking in front of the tapestry, of which only indecipherable shapes would be visible’ (1). Again, the UN bent to accommodate the complaints of the media-- and though this may well be true, Winkler fails to acknowledge how the decision to veil put the administration in
a bad light. Further, her comment could be read as a critique of Cubist approaches to artistic style as well. She also states, Ò...expect the suppression of Guernica by the Bush administration to enter the settled leftist lore of the Iraq war’ (2). Winkler may never realize that, like it or not, often times what seems is what people believe. She also, apparently, has little problem with swallowing whole the bald-faced lies and assertions uttered by the likes of Powell and Rumsfield et al. If this sounds like mere leftist ideology on my part, simply think back to the claims made in Powell's power-point presentation, which utilized demonstrably false, even forged documents, courtesy of British intelligence. Winkler and others on the right might be disappointed,
 but they shouldn’t be surprised, when the Bush administration’s failure of imagination kicked up a loose puck to the anti-war movement, who swept down the ice to score an easy, if purely symbolic goal.

That the Bush administration fails to understand the power and significance of art was further revealed, once the war had begun and ended, when raging mobs were allowed to storm into the unprotected museums and archives of Baghdad, and untold treasures from the ancient world were either lost or destroyed. This too has turned


into a public relations disaster for the Bush administration, who will now pay out bad money after good in sending the FBI to help track these treasures down, at a cost far greater than simply stationing a few tanks around the museums would have cost in the first place. Appearances do matter, and so does art, even if those in power often fail to realize this.

      To conclude, it is worth noting, one last time, that often, we draw more attention to an item or event when we make a gesture to conceal or cover the same. Had the tapestry been left uncovered, yes, critics and anti-war writers would have commented upon the irony of Powell speaking before this piece of art. But in agreeing to the veil, and in failing to realize that the veil amounted to a tacit act of censorship, the pro-war politicians created their own public-relations disaster. Though, all things told, this event is of minor consequence, given the scope and scale of the damage that war has wrought in Iraq, it does serve as a powerful reminder that art, silent and yet still critical, is alive and well, and its powers are, if not always recognized, still a force to be reckoned with.

      This event also serves as a perfect reminder of Barthes' observation about the culture in which we live, which by its mass production of images bombards us with meaning almost incessantly: 'The development of publicity, of a national press, of radio, of illustrated news, not to speak of the survival of a myriad rites of communication which rule social appearances makes the development of a semiological science more urgent than ever. In a single day, how many really non-signifying fields do we cross? Very few, sometimes none’ (35). And as we have seen, even a blank blue veil can become a signifying field, intentionally or otherwise.






Works Cited


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š       <>.


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       World Socialist Web Site 8 Feb. 2003. 19 April 2003. <



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