In April 1937, Mussolini and Hitler’s air forces, in compact with Franco’s nationalists, began a bombing campaign against the Basque city of Guernica. The city had no military defenses and few soldiers; hundreds of civilians were killed or maimed in the assault. While the Basque civilians were horrified at the senseless aggression of the fascists, the rest of the world barely noticed. Rather, it took a generation of artists to take to their typewriters and paintbrushes to communicate the fascists’ war crimes to a callous world.
One of these artist happened to be the Spaniard Pablo Picasso, who was living and painting five hundred miles northeast, in Paris. His response was to paint “Guernica,” perhaps his most famous canvas, an abstract depiction of the agonizing death of Guernican civilians under the wrath of the bombers. So powerful and illustrative was the painting that it is rumored to have prompted a Nazi officer to arrive at Picasso’s doorstep in Paris and ask, “Did you paint this?” To which he responded, “No. You did.”
The East (2013) Directed by Zal Batmangli
Scott Free Productions/Fox Searchlight Pictures
Fictional depictions of radicalism usually take one of two tacks. First, there’s the absurdist bent, as seen in The Monkey-Wrench Gang and Fight Club. In these tales, radicalism exists within a bubble, its practitioners iconoclastic and mad and their activities largely harmless. Even acts of extreme violence—the bombings of financial skyscrapers in Fight Club, for instance—play out as thrilling, brilliant acts, rife with revolutionary symbolism.