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Picasso's 'Guernica' tapestry riots amid works of political conscience

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R. and J. de la Baume Durrbach, Guernica tapestry, after Pablo Picasso, commissioned 1955 wool, 11x 25 feet, San Antonio Museum of Art, on loan from Mrs. Nelson A Rockefeller, L.2011.18, Photography by Peggy Tenison, © 2012 Estate of Pablo Picasso / ArtistsRights Society (ARS), New York

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José Clemente Orozco, Mexican, 1883 - 1949, The Martyrdom of Saint Stephen I, 1943, oil on canvas, 37 1/2 x 52 in., San Antonio Museum of Art, purchased with funds provided by the Mary K. Lynch Kurtz Fund for the Acquisition of Modern Latin American Art, 2003.19, Photography by Peggy Tenison

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David Alfaro Siqueiros, Mexican, 1896-1974, El Grito, 1931, encaustic on burlap, 34 1/4 x 25 3/8 in. San Antonio Museum of Art, Purchased with funds provided by the Robert J. and Helen C. Kleberg Foundation, 96.51, Photography by Peggy Tenison

Nelson A. Rockefeller purchased the first Guernica tapestry now on view at SAMA. The second and third tapestries are in France and Japan. He exhibited the work in Albany while he was governor of New York and in 1985 the Rockefeller tapestry was loaned to the United Nations building in NYC, where it hung next to the Security Council room. Painted to decry fascism, Guernica has continued in political controversy. For instance, when former U.N. ambassador John Negroponte and Secretary of State Colin Powell endorsed war against Iraq on January 27, 2003, it was hidden behind a blue sheet. The story circulated at the time suggested the press conference organizers didn't want the rear of Guernica's horse facing the cameras, but the thought of launching hostilities in front of such a visual denunciation of violence must have been daunting.

Last year the tapestry was on view at Kykuit, the Rockefeller's Hudson Valley estate in New York, which holds a formidable collection of twentieth century art by Henry Moore, Alexander Calder, Louise Nevelson, David Smith, and other notables. Prior to that, it was shown at the Whitechapel Gallery in London, where it reportedly drew over 300,000 people to the exhibition.

Compared to memories (or photographs) of Guernica's chilling starkness, the warm tones of the tapestry's siennas and ochres against the dominant blacks might be shocking or just seem wrong. But placed next to works in the Kleberg Gallery, it makes sense. To its right is Martirio de San Esteban 1, a 1930 oil by José Clemente Orozco, a Mexican painter who along with Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros, became known as one of "Los tres grandes" of the Mexican mural renaissance.

Reds, whites, and blacks are moved in quick gestures that amplify the violence of the saint's murder by figures with demonic faces. To the left of the composition is Saul, an impassive, uninvolved Roman official who would later convert to become St. Paul. Orozco's painting — like Guernica — warns that detachment abets evil. On a short wall opposite the Orozco hangs Siqueiros' El Grito (The Cry), 1931. A single hooded face with tortured expression is rendered in encaustic tones of red and black, engaged, defiant. Within view of the tapestry is Composición cubista, a 1938 mixed-media piece by the Cuban-American artist José Bernal. Adding blue-grays and bits of text to an abstract work of curved and rectangular forms, it is non-objective, without explicit meaning. But the composition echoes the pyramid of forms that anchors Guernica. A vaguely face-like oval at the top of the Bernal abstraction seems to recollect the electric light in Guernica. There are many more echoes in the room, which holds 27 modern and contemporary works by artists from Mexico, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and other countries. With such an eminent visitor at hand, this is a very good time to visit. •

The Robert J. Kleberg and Helen C. Kleberg Gallery

San Antonio Museum of Art
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San Antonio Museum of Art
200 W Jones
(210) 978-8100

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