In the middle of a desolate landscape, with the ruins of destroyed buildings in the background, the drama of war against the civilian population: six soldiers are about to shoot a group of women and children. The military is portrayed as heartless robots, half-dressed with pieces of metal and helmets, while the innocent victims, naked, devoid of any dignity, desperately awaiting the fatal moment. Only a very small boy, who is unaware of the danger of what is happening, is playing in a carefree way on the ground. One of the women – the one on the far right – is in shock and it seems as though she still doesn’t believe what is happening; another seems resigned and closes her eyes waiting for the shots; and the other two – one pregnant with the eldest son holding on tight to her and crying, and the other one with her little baby against her breast – are terrified. This is the shocking scene that Picasso painted in the work Massacre in Korea.
Pablo Picasso. Massacre in Korea. Valauri, 18th January 1951. Oil on canvas. 110 x 210 cm. MP203 © Sucesión Pablo Picasso, VEGAP, Madrid 2019
Picasso created this work at the beginning of 1951 so as to denounce the killings of civilians during the advance of the United States Army within North Korean territory, during the Korean War. This painting of oil on plywood, which belongs to the Musée National Picasso-Paris, is currently being exhibited in the museum, in the exhibition Pablo Picasso. Paul Eluard. A sublime friendship, within the field that exemplifies the political commitment of Picasso and his friend Paul Eluard during the period after the Second World War. This is not the first time that the painting can be seen in Barcelona because the work had already visited the museum in 2004 on the occasion of the exhibition Picasso: war and peace.
Massacre in Korea is a work with a direct message. Picasso, in the midst of the Cold War, stood by the North Korean civilian victims, who at the precise moment of the fight were suffering the consequences of a very bloody conflict.
However, apart from the title, Picasso does not contextualize any particular fact of the Korean War and paints the characters in a universal way. Only the river, which divides the painting in two, makes one think of the division of the Korean territory, which, by the way, is still true today.
In the way that Picasso lays out the violent scene, one can clearly see the influence of the famous painting by Goya The Third of May Execution (1814) but also of The Execution of Emperor Maximilian (1868), by Edouard Manet. In the three paintings depicting shootings, the executioners are placed at the right of the scene and victims to the left.
Picasso takes sides with the innocent in the painting, as he had done in the Guernica during the Civil War, but the work did not please anyone at the time. It upset the leaders of the French Communist Party, of whom Picasso was a militant, who considered the aesthetics of the painting too far removed from socialist realism. And obviously because of its theme, it came as a complete shock in sectors of international criticism, close to American museums like the MOMA in New York. “Although nobody likes it, it is something, isn’t it?”, said Picasso.
But good art is universal and timeless and always surpasses the circumstances of the moment, and finally the Massacre in Korea has remained one of Picasso’s most important pacifist works in defense of human rights, beyond ideologies and sides. The expert on Picasso, Pierre Daix, asserted that over the years the picture had taken on a “science fiction” look and had “entered within the great tradition of paintings of cruelty, a 20th century version of the Massacre of the Innocents”.