[NOTEBOOK]Painters, pictures, propagandaAlthough it could be rude to the visually disabled, I recall the saying “like blind men meeting an elephant.” This means mistaking the false for the true and the part for the whole, preoccupied with prejudice. Such was the attitude of many French intellectuals about the Korean War.
A representative figure was Jean-Paul Sartre. The day after the war broke out, on June 26, 1950, L’Humanite, the newspaper of the French Communist Party, ran an article, “An argument for the invasion of North Korea,” saying that South Korea had invaded North Korea ― that South Korean puppets of the United States were waging a momentous war, and the army of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea coped triumphantly with South Korea’s invasion. Although it turned out to be false, Sartre supported this argument vehemently. Unlike Maurice Merleau-Ponty, who sided with the frequent violence on its people by the Soviet Union as “progressive violence” but withdrew his argument after confirming the imperial propensity of the Soviets in the Korean War, Sartre made a quick remark that “the North Korean army made a mistake, trapped by South Korea, which had been instigated by the United States” even after the argument for an invasion of South Korea prevailed, according to “French Intellectuals and the Korean War” by Mineum Publish-ing Co.
Sartre’s illusion speaks for the atmosphere of the French intellectuals in the mid-20th century who viewed communism as hope for the future. In this atmosphere, the artist Pablo Picasso joined the French Communist Party in 1944. He said, “Aren’t Communists the bravest people in France, in the Soviet Union and my homeland Spain? How could I be hesitant?”
The Soviet Union made an effective use of the Communist Party member Picasso in propaganda and incitement. On January 18, 1951, Picasso completed a masterpiece on the motives for the Korean War. This was “Massacre in Korea.”
Given Picasso’s political propensity at that time, “Massacre in Korea” can be thought to be a pro-Soviet Union and anti-American work. But there is nothing particularly anti-American in the picture itself, where soldiers in medieval armor point their guns at women and children. Although its title is “Massacre in Korea,” the painting contains the universality of protest against all wars and violence. In this sense, Picasso was, indeed, a genius.
The problem is that people see this painting according to their own positions, like the blind men seeing the elephant. The United States, of course, defined the painting as an anti-American work and even banned its exhibition. The French Communist Party did not welcome the painting either. The reason was that the identities of the murderers were unclear. Picasso himself also said, “ I don’t have any reason to be against the United States.”
How has it been in South Korea? Picasso and “Massacre in Korea” have long been taboo in South Korea. A prosecutor, Kim Jong-geon of the Seoul District Prosecutors Office, detained Park Jeong-won, the president of Samjoong Chemicals, who had produced products called “Picasso Crayon Pastel” and “Picasso Water Color” on a charge of violating Anti-Communist Law and suspended the advertisement of the company’s products, according to an article in the JoongAng Ilbo on June 9, 1969.
Strangely enough, when the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Korea said that it has recently been seeking to exhibit “Massacre in Korea,” some media outlets added a comment that “the motive of the painting was civilian killings committed by the U.S. forces in Shinchun, North Korea.” I asked some experts and this does not seem to have been true. As it was described in the novel “The Guest” by Hwang Suk-young, the massacre in Shinchun was more likely to have been a bloody slaughter between the right and the left. Kim Won-il, who wrote “Picasso” and published it last month, also wrote in his book, “Although I looked around the Shinchun Museum, guided by North Korea, I could see no picture that showed killings by U.S. forces among the pictures of the dreadful sights at the time. There is also no evidence that Picasso based his painting on this incident.” How would Picasso see this dramatic sketch of the “elephant” called Picasso? I’d like to see the painting, certainly, if the National Museum of Contemporary Art succeeds in bringing it to Korea for exhibition.
* The writer is the culture news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Noh Jae-hyun
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