So Mayer on Guernica and a chance to feel less hopeless

Monday, August 12, 2019 - 16:30

Guernica Remakings is a multimedia exhibition curated by Nicola Ashmore which features artwork from across the globe that either remakes or reimagines Pablo Picasso’s Spanish Civil War inspired artwork Guernica

On display at the National Poetry Library until 22 September 2019, the exhibition also featured the work of two poets, commissioned especially to respond to the painting in their own words; Richard Price and So Mayer.

As the exhibition got underway we spoke to So Mayer to get their thoughts on the symbolic importance of Picasso’s painting, and the challenges of responding to that verse. But before we come to our interview, here’s a quick introduction to the poet - and insight as to why they were selected for this project – from National Poetry Librarian, Chris McCabe.

Chris McCabe, National Poetry Librarian

“Socially engaged and not afraid to challenge the world, So Mayer has worked with us many times, reading at the Future Exiles event and as part of Yoko Ono's Meltdown, and taking part in a podcast with me for the Poetry International in 2017.”

“So Mayer's work always strikes me as being completely without fear; it is led by an active and activist take on the world but at no point loses any of the nuances or texture within the language itself.”

Southbank Centre: Can you remember when you first encountered Guernica?

So Mayer: I can’t. I remember my secondary school art teacher telling us that the first time she saw a Picasso, she cried – that was definitely the first time I’d heard of Pablo Picasso. The teacher wore steel toe-capped boots, so to think there was a painter that could make such a tough person cry sparked my fascination. I then became obsessed with Federico Garcia Lorca when I was at university, and translated La Casa de Bernarda Alba for a production. I read up extensively on his work and life, and on the poets and writers of Spanish modernism and the Civil War, and I think that was when I first looked properly at Guernica

I was also really interested in the women artists of the modernist movement, like Dora Maar, and have very strong memories of looking at a book that included reproductions of the photographs she took of the painting in progress in Picasso’s studio.


How did you feel when asked to produce a poem for this exhibition in response to Picasso’s work?

Honoured. And also a little bit ashamed. Being asked to respond to Guernica energised me, raising my head at a time when I was feeling very downcast and overwhelmed by the rise of far-right populism, by austerity politics in Britain, and by a general sense of hopelessness.

My friend’s grandfather was one of the British volunteers who joined the International Brigade during the Spanish Civil War. He was an incredibly gentle, thoughtful person, and I was very lucky to hear some of his stories and thoughts while I was a teenager. It left me with a very powerful sense of the importance – and possibility – of anybody being able to engage in resistance to fascism and militarism, and for me that is what the painting conveys. It is an act of witness and – in its scale and scope and speed – of resistance. It was moving to learn, while I was researching for the poems, that the price of entry to see the painting at the Whitechapel Gallery in London in 1939 was, at Picasso’s request, a pair of boots to send to the Spanish front. 

I’m not sure my poems are as useful as a pair of boots. But that was the spirit I wanted to work in; to make something that could encourage someone to get involved in their own way, to support, to be a part of; to feel less hopeless.


Being asked to respond to Guernica energised me at a time when I felt very downcast and overwhelmed by the rise of far-right populism, by austerity politics in Britain, and by a general sense of hopelessness.
So Mayer on being part of Guernica Remakings

When tasked with creating art that responds to another piece of art, where do you begin?

I’m a bit of a nerd and a completist, whatever I’m creating. I want to immerse myself, and feel that I know the field really well and am honouring the artists and art that came before me. With Guernica, it also felt crucial to recognise the historical events that motivated the painting, and the lived experiences of the people Picasso was drawing on. 

In this case, as I couldn’t go to the painting itself, I went to the British Library. I looked at books about Guernica – including one with Maar’s photographs (which took me back to that original encounter) and an essay on the painting by Anthony Blunt, which was fascinating. It was also an opportunity to look at the catalogue of the work Nicola Ashmore had done so far. I wanted to begin by understanding the scope of her project, which is so ambitious and so local at the same time. I was inspired by its tenderness, its attention to materials, and its engagement with community. I tried to think about how I could learn from that, and translate those themes into words.

At the same time, I re-read a stack of poetry from the era; poets who are usually associated with the Spanish Civil War, such as Lorca, Stephen Spender, Charles Donnelly, and Antonio Machado. And writers whose involvement was less known (not least because they were women), such as Muriel Rukeyser (who wrote a beautiful novel about travelling to the People’s Olympiad in Barcelona in 1936), and Sylvia Townsend Warner and Valentine Ackland. I knew I wouldn’t have the space to quote from them, or respond to their work, but I wanted to feel infused by the different energies that had engaged them in the Spanish struggle. I went back to a recent novel I’d loved, by a writer whose parents were Republican refugees in France. Lydie Salvayre’s Cry, Mother Spain, based on her mother’s adolescence, is specifically about the experience of a young rural Spanish woman coming to political consciousness at the start of the Civil War, and it shaped my thinking about whose voices would appear in the poems. 

That also made me realise that I wanted to learn some Basque vocabulary, to think about how people in Gernika might have told themselves the story, and I found a fantastic online dictionary that included audio recordings of key terms. Having those words in my consciousness, with their very distinctive sounds and syllabic patterns, changed the shape and rhythm I could feel for the poems, and that was where I really began writing.


Guernica Remakings
The Keiskamma Guernica (2010) is a large-scale textiles piece of the same scale as Picasso’s original 


Is it hard to come at a painting such as this freshly and independently when so much has already been written about, or inspired by, it?

Not for me. I feel like it helps to work as part of a community, especially given that the Republican forces – even allowing for the complex internal struggles both on an everyday level and between the Communist Party and POUM – are one of our most powerful 20th century models of what collective action might look like. In a very minor way, I felt like I was lending a hand to a much larger effort, which is exactly how Nicola’s very generous vision of her project felt like it works. No-one is functioning alone; everyone is pulling together. That inspired me. It felt far less important to be ‘original’ (whatever that means) than to participate, as in a choir.


Does Picasso’s style of painting at all dictate the form in which your poem takes?

Rudolf Arnheim describes the figures in Guernica as ‘like a Greek tragic chorus’; that really struck me (possibly going back to my interest in Lorca, and his use of women’s collective mourning on stage in Bernarda Alba). So on the one hand, there’s the fact that Picasso is a Cubist, and that his painting is built of facets and fragments that overlap and repeat each other – and that many poets in the 1920s and 30s were motivated to find poetic equivalents for new ideas in painting, such as Cubism. And on the other hand, this idea of the chorus as something that comes together out of disaster and trauma. I knew I wanted the poems to reflect both the fragmentation and the gathering.

I also thought about the importance of radio broadcasts in the era, and how signals fading creates a fragmentation of voices and sentences, so the poems became almost like changing radio stations, moving between news, songs, facts, on-the-ground broadcasts, language lessons and rousing polemic speeches, and between bits of Spanish, Euskera (Basque), and the English of the International Brigades and international media. 


In some ways, it feels like the 80 years since the unveiling of Guernica have been a constant replaying of its drama.
So Mayer


Lastly, it’s now over 80 years since Guernica’s unveiling, do you feel it is still possible to draw contemporary parallels to the message of Picasso’s work?

When he was developing Guernica, Picasso reached into his broad cultural and historical knowledge to give the painting layers of resonance and make it attention-grabbing even to people who didn’t know the details of the bombing of the town of Gernika. It draws on Spanish art history (particularly the work of Goya) and on Greek tragedy; on the symbolism of historic freedom struggles (such as the lamp, which is used as a symbol by the Basque left today), on the natural world… It goes all the way down. 

He knew that what happened in Gernika mattered so much because of the symbolic importance of Gernika itself, home of the Gernika oak where the laws of Viscaya were drawn up. But he also knew that its immediate, specific, local significance meant it would resonate as indicative and paradigmatic of all assaults on freedom and democratic processes; all uses of force to obliterate and colonise; all erasures of identity and rights.

We might think, in particular, about the continued use of aerial bombing against civilian populations – now made immeasurably worse by the use of drones and guided missiles – and Guernica draws attention to how such callous applications of asymmetric force, such arrogant assertions of power with zero regard for life (human and other-than-human, as the horse reminds us); such technological shock tactics, are both symptomatic and symbolic of what fascism and militarism do at all scales. 

In some ways, it feels like the 80 years since the unveiling of Guernica have been a constant replaying of its drama; the vast unseen machinery of war and dominance that causes the events in the paintings, but also both the wholesale trauma of a life-way and ecology being shattered – and a community, a chorus, a form of resistance, emerging from that, almost unbelievably. The power of that uprising is the contemporary parallel I would choose to draw attention to; on large scales as in Hong Kong and in Sudan right now, or in Rojava over the last six years; but also in our everyday actions. How can we hold the lamp, mourn the murdered, come together?  



Also featured in response to Guernica in the exhibition is the poet Richard Price – "one of our most interesting lyric poets" (Chris McCabe). You can read Richard Price's thoughts on the exhibition and being asked to respond to Picasso's work on our earlier blog about Guernica Remakings.

Richard Price on Guernica


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