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The "Guernica" Myth

You may have heard the story about how Colin Powell forced the U.N. to cover Picasso's "Guernica" while he made the case for war in Iraq. It isn't true.

1:00 PM, Apr 16, 2003 • By CLAUDIA WINKLER
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"TOO GOOD TO CHECK" is the technical term for a story like the censoring of "Guernica." Secretary of State Colin Powell, so the story goes, went to the United Nations to present the case for war against Iraq to the Security Council, then took questions from the press standing before a blue backdrop--a backdrop specially erected at the insistence of the warmongers to conceal a tapestry version of Picasso's great painting depicting the horrors of war.

The episode was a bonanza for antiwar, anti-Bush propagandists and those eager to believe them. Writers of letters to the editor recycled the claim as fact. Artists embraced it as higher truth. Some professors were less than meticulous about checking their sources. Here's a typical reference, from a Canadian newspaper, the Victoria Times Colonist of March 20:

Even powerful politicians like Colin Powell can flinch before the artistic power of an artist like Pablo Picasso, says an incoming University of Victoria professor.

Art historian Alan Antliff said Powell's handlers demanded a tapestry of Picasso's famous antiwar painting Guernica be covered during a recent press conference at the United Nations. The U.S. secretary of state apparently was unwilling to make a pitch for war with Iraq in front of Picasso's artistic statement.

Many accounts of the incident come fitted out with weasel words, like that "apparently." Others are draped in the poetic license of parody. A February 23 "fantasy" in New York Newsday by columnist Paul Vitello begins:

As a courtesy, U.N. officials will again cover up the tapestry reproduction of Picasso's anti-war mural "Guernica," as was done during Secretary of State Colin Powell's Feb. 5 appearance.

This time, by agreement with the representatives of the U.S., the screaming mothers and corpses of children depicted in the famous mural will be covered with a tapestry reproduction of the Texas state "Lone Star" flag.

Such devices are essential, since the easily ascertainable facts have no usefulness to the anti-Bush cause.

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." 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.

Nothing in this account is the teeniest bit implausible. By contrast, everything about the claim that "American officials" or "Powell's handlers" "demanded" this "censorship"--and that a Dominique de Villepin-friendly U.N. instantly provided it!--fails the laugh test. Yet expect the suppression of "Guernica" by the Bush administration to enter the settled leftist lore of the Iraq war.

By March 10, an artists' collective in Los Angeles had put "Guernica" on a billboard at the junction of Sunset and Hollywood boulevards. At night, it was illuminated by black light, to reveal parting curtains and the U.N. logo rendered in ultraviolet-sensitive paint.

"The billboard is a protest both against war and perceived censorship," says an account in the Melbourne "Age," adding, "no one believes the U.N. covered up 'Guernica' because the image was too busy to work as a backdrop for TV crews." With greater economy, the AP, reporting on the billboard, explains: "U.N. officials said the curtains made for a better backdrop for television cameras. Pundits suspected censorship."