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Guernica by Pablo Picasso and Martyrdom of Saint Matthew by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio are two famous paintings done 337 years apart. Both works share a theme of conflict albeit brought out in different settings according to the backgrounds of the two artists. Despite the mentioned theme, the two masterpieces also emphasize the chaos present in any conflicting situation.
Spanish painter, Picasso, perfected the style of cubism, which he employed while creating what is his most famous work, Guernica. The large painting measuring 3.49 meters by 7.76 meters is composed of a palette of black, grey, and white. Picasso used oil paints on canvas to produce this work of art.
One look at the Guernica and the viewer immediately notices that the objects in the large painting are in disarray. Picasso did not create any symmetry in this composition to induce a sense of chaotic conflict in the individual looking at it. Furthermore, it is painted in Picasso’s trademark style of abstraction which proves crucial in adding to the conflict expressed in his painting (“Guernica 1937, by Pablo Picasso”). According to the artist, the conflict is not just palpable but it is also what one feels through his/her senses. In this particular case, by the use of sight, Picasso has managed to show clash in his confusing masterpiece.
As it has been stated, Guernica is not composed of any straight lines and does not adhere to symmetry. For instance, what appears to be a bull does not quite look like the one, and what turns out to be a horse, does not remind a realistic horse. Picasso distorts proportionality not only to unsettle the viewers. In Spanish culture, horses and bulls are very popular and significant animals. The painter, however, uses these two symbols of Spanish pride to emphasize a deviation from normalcy (“Guernica 1937, by Pablo Picasso”). This is done to show that he also understands the conflict to be a deviation from daily norms. By using the bull and the horse, Picasso managed to invoke attention of his countrymen and the world at large due to their social relevance and easy recognition. Nevertheless, it seems rather ironic that it is the two most recognizable subjects of the painting that the painter chooses to distort in his own fashion.
Another interesting feature of the painting is its lack of color since it only features different shades of grey. Given the era of the work, the 20th-century, colored paint was not a rarity. The painter, thus, gave color a wide berth on purpose to add to his point. Guernica as a painting had to have a somber mood about it and an intentional lethargic look. Picasso wanted it to show conflict through the expression of color. At that time, Europe was in political turmoil and the lives of its citizens lost in the clashes inspired this work of art. Grey, muddy colors are associated with mourning and sorrow. The artist shows the viewers that the outcome of the conflict is just as miserable. The color choice could also pertain to living conditions of people in Europe at the time, associating grey with anguish. All in all, the use of color or lack thereof symbolizes a lack of tranquility in chaos.
Guernica seems uncoordinated but yet again looks like a delicate assembly of shapes, ideas and figures. On closer inspection, the shades of grey used in the work even appear to be somewhat arranged. It could then be plausible that the painter intentionally disarranged his composition from a hypothetical “normally looking” painting. As a result, the conflict is represented by a lack of order where it once reigned. Human faces are noticeable in the painting, but they appear to be in obvious states of anguish and pain. People’s body parts are dismembered and scattered within the painting (“Guernica 1937, by Pablo Picasso”).
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Pablo Picasso painted the Guernica as a political stand against the fascist rule. It shows the chaos brought upon people by war. The painting was an immediate response to Nazi bombings of the Basque town of Guernica amidst the Spanish Civil War. Guernica was to serve as an anti-war symbol showing the destruction made possible by it. Thus, war and conflict directly inspired this masterpiece. Conflict, according to Picasso, can be summed up as the result of heightened brutality and darkness in the society, which ends up being an actual war.
Martyrdom of Saint Matthew, 1600, by Caravaggio is an equally praised work of art done 337 years before the Guernica. This Italian painting was started in 1599 and completed in 1600. Michelangelo used oil paint on canvas while putting together this masterpiece. The painting is 3.23 meters by 3.43 meters in dimension. The color palette used is vastly ranged with different contrasting shades. The work depicts the death of Apostle Matthew, who wrote the Gospel of Matthew. The man had to experience martyrdom since he had been ordered to be killed by the king of Ethiopia. In this work of art, Caravaggio’s used his mannerist orthodoxy style.
Martyrdom of Saint Matthew is set on a rather large background with a few standout characters. The background has muddy colors ranging from dark tan to brown. The color choice is perhaps not surprising considering the painting style of the day which would have the foreground stand out from the background. The two central figures in this painting are Matthew the Apostle and his would be killer. They are the best illuminated and best placed in the composition. Caravaggio’s dramatic shift in colors immediately hints to the whole dramatization of the scene. The painter skillfully uses color contrasts for a spectacular effect. Conflict is illuminated just by the color change by preparing the viewer subliminally for a chaotic scene.
The characters in the painting have all been painted in many dramatic poses. None of them looks relaxed or uninvolved. Michelangelo used his subjects’ dramatic poses starting from the shock evident in their facial expressions to their hand gestures to create the effect of chaos and ensuing conflict. According to the painter, conflict can be evident in the positions assumed by those experiencing it. The painting in itself is unsettling given Matthew’s impending doom. This effect is exactly what plays the biggest part in showing clash through this masterpiece.
Matthew, the apostle, lies on the floor, with a fixed gaze on his assailant. His executioner, in turn, has the look of a determined, angry man, whose sole purpose at that time is that of killing the apostle. Just by looking at these two central characters and their body forms, it is easy to see conflicts of the self. Matthew appears to have given up the fight, a visibly balding old man, with little hope for a reprieve. He is adorning a magnificent robe, predominantly white in color. His killer, however, is young, and appears to be physically fit (“Martyrdom of Saint Matthew”). He has a full head of hair and, unlike Matthew, is only wearing a small piece of clothing wrapped around his waist. This young man has a sword in his right hand, and his body positioning shows that he is about to deliver the inevitable coupe de grace. The struggle between these two does not appear balanced by any means, but it is a chaotic scene none the less. The dimly painted onlookers appear to be turning away from the soon gory scene. The expressions of the witnesses vary between awe, terror, and consternation.
The foreground juxtaposed with the background shows a conflict in itself too. The fairly chaotic foreground is held together by a boring background where nothing seems to be happening. How these two contrasting placements hold up shows the contradicting nature of any conflict. For there to be a clash, Caravaggio understands that there has to be a contrast in fundamental ideas. Color depicts these differences better than anything else in the painting.
Michelangelo’s painting has a religious meaning in itself being about a martyr. In the work, one can see a cherub, an angel descending from a foggy white cloud, extending a straw of some sort to the Apostle. This gesture by the angel is what gives this painting its true meaning, that of Matthew’s martyrdom. The work of art shows a Godly man, Matthew, being condemned to death for his stand against a pagan king’s actions. Matthew accepts the angel’s gift indicating that this painting is not a scene of terror but a celebration to sainthood. His death would be the outcome of a conflict of religious views. Thus, in his work, Caravaggio primarily shows conflict from the view point of religion. The painting had relevance at the time and has it even today because of the clashes that exist in the world due to religious biases (“Martyrdom of Saint Matthew”).
At the time this painting was being done, Europe was fairly religious and predominantly Roman Catholic. Martyrdom of Saint Matthew was commissioned for the Contarelli Chapel in Rome, and its patron was Cardinal Contarelli. The religious works of art were very popular at the time, and the church needed vindication of its traditions being held including the one connected with sainthood. At the time,
The Guernica and Martyrdom of Saint Matthew have each indicated their painter’s insight to what a conflict stood for in their day. Conflict, according to Pablo Picasso meant war and political strife in Europe. Caravaggio, on the other hand, showed a clash of religious views.