The Cover-Up

While watching Simon Schama’s show, Power of Art, on YouTube [link] on Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, the host mentions that a version of the painting was covered up in conjunction with Colin Powell’s speech to the United Nations on February 5, 2003.  That this happened is indisputable.  Beyond that, one must take a stand.  One may believe that the tapestry was covered up, because it was an inconvenient image to be on display in the midst of a fevered march to war in Iraq, or one may believe that fussy cameramen caused the whole incident.

The picture below is Guernica with a blue shroud being pulled over it.  You can read about the painting here [link], if you don’t already know about it.  The image below appeared on the cover of Harper’s April 2003 edition.

The painting actually hangs in the Museo Reina Sofía in Madrid, Spain.  A tapestry version of the painting hung near the Security Council room at the United Nations.  The original painting is black, white and gray.  The tapestry introduces brown and taupe, but is otherwise a reproduction of the original.  The original is almost indisputably one of the greatest artistic representations of the horror of war, and, in particular, aerial bombardment.  It is wonderful to think that a tapestry version of Guernica hung near the door to the U.N. Security Council.  It is even possible to imagine that such imagery could embarrass diplomats and cause a nation to reconsider its march to war.  Unless you want to believe the ‘Fussy Cameraman Theory,’ the Guernica tapestry became an inconvenience in the lead-up to the Iraq War, and the tapestry had to be covered up or else it might have risked reminding the viewing public of the consequences of war.

On January 27, 2003, Hans Blix spoke to the Security Council about weapons inspections in Iraq.  Here are two quote from the February 3, 2003 edition of the New York Observer with the first giving a summary of the Blix appearance:

The reason for all the commotion, of course, was that Hans Blix-the U.N.’s elegant, even-toned chief weapons inspector, who appears to have stepped out of a John Le Carré thriller-was delivering his report on Iraq’s dealings with the arms inspectors.

Further on in the story:

Afterward, dozens of journalists thronged outside the second-floor meeting room where Mr. Blix met with security members in private.  When they emerged, they spoke in front of a sheath that had been temporarily hung over a tapestry version of Picasso’s Guernica.  [emphasis added]

Keep in mind that this story came two days before Colin Powell’s appearance.  Another story appeared on February 3, 2003, by Betsy Pisik, in the Washington Times.  [Unable to find a direct link.]   Here we find out more about the ‘cover-up’ of Guernica and we are also are introduced to the fussy camerman and his great fear of horses and again this comes two days before the Powell speech:

Television cameras routinely pan the tapestry as diplomats enter and leave the council chambers, and its muted browns and taupes lend a poignant backdrop to the talking heads.

So it was a surprise for many of the envoys to arrive at U.N. headquarters last Monday for a Security Council briefing by chief weapons inspectors, only to find the searing work covered with a baby-blue banner and the U.N. logo.

“It is, we think, we hope, only temporary,” said Faustino Diaz Fortuny, a Spanish envoy whose government owns the original painting.

U.N. officials said last week that it is more appropriate for dignitaries to be photographed in front of the blue backdrop and some flags than the impressionist image of shattered villagers and livestock.

“It’s only temporary.  We’re only doing this until the cameras leave,” said Abdellatif Kabbaj, the organization’s media liaison.  He noted that the diplomats’ microphone, which usually stands in front of a 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.

The drapes were installed last Monday and Wednesday — the days the council discussed Iraq — and came down Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, when the subjects included Afghanistan and peacekeeping missions in Lebanon and Western Sahara.

So when Secretary of State Colin L. Powell enters the council Wednesday to present evidence of Iraq’s acquisition of mobile biological weapons labs and terrorism ties, he will walk in front of flags that wouldn’t look out of place in the auditorium of a high school gymnasium.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who keeps a Matisse tapestry and a Rauschenberg collage in his private 38th-floor conference room, denies he had anything to do with the “Guernica” cover-up.

“If you heard all the things done in my name, you’d think I was everywhere,” he joked Friday. “I heard it was artistic.”

Mr. Kabbaj amplified thus: “We had a problem with, you know, the horse.”

 It was, of course, a camera crew that noticed that anyone who stood at the U.N. microphone would be photographed next to the backside of a rearing horse.  [emphasis added]

Maureen Dowd at the New York Times picked up on the story, and on February 5, 2003, the same day of the famous Colin Powell speech, she wrote the following [link]:

 When Colin Powell goes to the United Nations today to make his case for war with Saddam, the U.N. plans to throw a blue cover over Picasso’s antiwar masterpiece, ”Guernica.”

Too much of a mixed message, diplomats say. As final preparations for the secretary’s presentation were being made last night, a U.N. spokesman explained, ”Tomorrow it will be covered and we will put the Security Council flags in front of it.”

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.

Reporters and cameras will stake out the secretary of state at the entrance of the U.N. Security Council, where the tapestry reproduction of ”Guernica,” contributed by Nelson Rockefeller, hangs.

The U.N. 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.

(Maybe the U.N. 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 terrorism briefing.)

Nelson Rockefeller himself started the tradition of covering up art donated by Nelson Rockefeller when he sandblasted Diego Rivera’s mural in the RCA Building in 1933 because it included a portrait of Lenin. (Rivera later took his revenge, reproducing the mural for display in Mexico City, but adding to it a portrait of John D. Rockefeller Jr. drinking a martini with a group of ”painted ladies.”)

Right on, we are now are back to war-mongers as cowards before the power of art.  One screwed up looking horse could really step on Colin Powell’s whole speech.  We all know that the Dowd interpretation could not be allowed to stand.  It must be corrected.  Remember this happened in 2003, so there must be a correction in the true Foucault, winner write history, form.  The following piece is an attempt to get history right if you believe in the Fussy Cameraman Theory.  The following is from the April 16, 2003 edition of the Weekly Standard, entitled, “Guernica Myth.”  [link]

Tuesday I asked a British diplomat assigned to the Security Council what had actually happened. A spokeswoman for the U.N. Secretariat independently confirmed the diplomat’s version of events in all its particulars. I paraphrase:

Early this year, as the Iraq drama was playing out at the United Nations, the press corps covering the Security Council swelled. The usual press stakeout, where ambassadors routinely take reporters’ questions outside the Security Council, simply couldn’t hold the numbers–expected to reach 800 for Powell’s address on February 5. So the Secretariat moved the stakeout down the hallway.

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. Couldn’t a plain background be provided, like the white wall the cameramen were used to outside the Security Council chamber, which is ornamented only by the words Security Council / Conseil de Securite in brass letters?

The temporary solution, provided by the Secretariat, was a U.N.-blue backdrop. Said the British diplomat, “The Secretariat did it, to meet the visual requirements of the TV guys.”

It was only afterwards that comments were heard about the unfortunate symbolism of blocking out “Guernica.” [emphasis added]  As a result of these, the Secretariat moved the press stakeout to a third location halfway between the first two. Now cameras could take their choice: They could pan across “Guernica” and some flags to the speaker, standing in front of the blue backdrop against the plain white wall, or they could content themselves with the usual head shot.

If you read the Weekly Standard article you will find no meniton of Hans Blix’s January 27, 2003 speech, nor will you find any mention of the comments that preceded the Colin Powell speech, including Maureen Dowd’s comments in that underground newspaper where her stuff is published.  What you will find is that Weekly Standard piece appears in almost every Google search of this matter.  Foucault evidently understood Google too.

It is over 9 years since all of this happened.  Events in Iraq may have wound down, but the U.S. addiction to aerial bombardment continues unabated.  Would our current leaders try to sell us on drone warfare in front of Guernica?  Would another fussy cameraman emerge to complain about a horse’s head?

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6 thoughts on “The Cover-Up

  1. (Maybe the U.N. 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 terrorism briefing.)

    this is the one i remember the clearest.
    ashcroft was such a boob that he didn’t want to be upstaged by one.

    1. mueblespasayo

      One thing I left out was the cancelation of, “Poetry and the American Voice,” that was scheduled for early February 2003. It was to be hosted by Laura Bush, but was canceled when some of the poets started writing material against the Iraq War. Here a couple of good quotes from the April 2003 Monthly Review. [http://monthlyreview.org/2003/04/01/april-2003-volume-54-number-11]

      “In canceling the White House poetry symposium Laura Bush declared that it would be “inappropriate to turn a literary event into a political forum”-as if art had no proper connection to politics.”

      Great point. Maybe the problem was that there was too much truth in art and too much fiction in the policy.

    1. mueblespasayo

      I definitely had you in mind when I riffed on Foucault. I shoud probably read some of his stuff before I comment about it. I’ve read about 10 pages, but it took a hell of a long time.

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