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The Ideologies Behind Modernist Pablo Picasso and Postmodernist Ai Weiwei

Picasso’s "Guernica"

Picasso’s "Guernica"

Modernist and Postmodernist Responses

Art visually embodies the ideologies native to the context it was produced in. Modernist Pablo Picasso and Post-Modernist Ai Weiwei represented art movements that differed in responding to political, consumerist and traditional ideologies. In Picasso’s cubist style, Guernica (1937) comments on the morality of warfare while postmodern approaches to political corruption show up in Weiwei’s Remembering (2009) with non-traditional materials and media platforms. Patriarchal ideologies included classical concerns, which Picasso voiced concerning modernist femininity in Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907).

In a postmodernist fashion, traditional ideologies like Confucianism were challenged in Han Dynasty Urn with Coca-Cola Logo (1994). Ultimately, as artists are never divorced from their context, their artworks inevitably reflect dominant societal ideologies.

Challenging Ideology

Modernism and postmodernism challenged ideologies around politics, gender roles, and consumerism with differing approaches. Picasso advocated the return to classical values modernism (1900s-1930s) entailed with a serious, moralistic approach to societal concerns (Beebe 1974).

Anti-war ideologies permeated Guernica through its focalisation of victims of German test bombing in the Spanish Civil War (Gottlieb 1964-65). Patriarchal ideologies created fears that European heterosexual males such as Picasso showcased in Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. Postmodernism (1970-1990) composed of artists challenging existing artistic conventions in response to societal issues.

The contextual influences on Weiwei included his upbringing during totalitarian China (1949-1978), the decay of Confucianism with the rise of the Chinese Communist Party. Confucianism dominated China’s Imperial rule before communism in 1911 (Yao 2000). The ideology venerated virtuous actions, loyalty to superiors and community support (JH 2021).

Weiwei argues Confucianism diminished under capitalism, censorship and authoritarian China’s political corruption as portrayed in 2009’s Sichuan earthquake.

Poor building standards and substandard construction resulted in the collapse of thousands of classrooms with children inside, while surrounding buildings survived (Pei 2021). Weiwei’s provocative use of unconventional materials challenge and mock the boundaries of art bled the influence of 1920s Marcel Duchamp.

Weiwei's "Remembering"

Weiwei's "Remembering"

Picasso's Guernica

Both artists risked censorship to confront the horrific consequences of political corruption and accentuate the sentiments of the victims in Guernica and Remembering.

Picasso uniquely evoked anti-war ideologies through showcasing the bombing of Guernica in a cubist style while using traditional oil painting on canvas. Brutal disjointed shapes formed the burning street along with dynamic uses of lines and lighting accentuating diagonals (Sandberg 1960).

In a modernist fashion, unity and simplicity was created through the movement of repetitive shapes with a uniform monochromatic pallet (Proweller 1971). The masculinity of the bull represents the Spanish while the femininity of the horse signifies Nationalist Spain and the mother capital of Madrid (Gottlieb 1964-65).

The horse’s silent cry forms a skull forming from her nose and teeth while an arrow pierces her. Further anguish of the Spanish is embodied by the woman fleeing and the woman weeping, however, the bull watches all this with emotional detachment (Sandberg 1960). The bulb surrounded by spikes and aggressive use of light and shadow signifies the bomb explosion.

The audience is exposed as observers merely informed but unengaged when compared to the bull and the newspaper texture in the centre (Gottlieb 1964-65). Contrasting the anguish there is an optimistic symbol of the flower in the lower ground symbolising Spain’s hope for regrowth in the future with anti-war sentiments (Sandberg 1960).

Consequently, modernism focused on morality with simplicity, an optimistic note regarding as single truth, along with originality as shown by Picasso.

Weiwei's Remembering

Like Picasso, Weiwei pointed out the government’s detachment to the tragedies but did so in post-modernist methods. This included photography, collaboration and the use of social media to an international audience.

By exposing China’s authoritarian and dismissive nature, he pushes for democratic ideologies where public opinion matters (Mooney; Weiwei 2012). For instance, China’s government had to be pressured by Weiwei and his team into releasing the 5,335 identities of children killed in the 2009 Sichuan earthquake.

Compared to Picasso, Weiwei combined activism into his art, encouraging citizens to uncover names of the children for social media when the government refused. From this, Remembering is an unapologetically momentous mosaic composed of 9,000 school backpacks each bag representing a deceased child. In traffic light colours positioned by a road, the backpacks echoed a grieving mother, “She lived happily on this earth for seven years" (Callahan 2014).

The artwork’s shape resembles a billboard that parodies consumerist society and ironically advertises the inadequacy of the government. This avant-garde approach was further satirized by how the artwork is presented on a building, making a cynical statement on how the government cuts corners on building stability.

Picasso's "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon"

Picasso's "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon"

Les Demoiselles d'Avignon

Les Demoiselles d'Avignon reflected conservative ideologies of modernist painters. The artwork targeted an audience of European heterosexual males like Picasso, expressing the anxieties of gender roles and dark people posed on patriarchal boundaries (Chave 1994).

The motifs of the femme fatale and African masks challenges traditional expectations of beauty with cubist original geometric shapes. The femme fatales are portrayed as boisterous, with open body language like arms behind their heads to clearly present chests. The allusion of fruit to reproductive systems such as grapes insinuates ovaries on the ground and pure white sheets are wrinkled by activities, suggests the impurity of femininity.

Background curtains form a vaginal shape, implying a primitive wilderness with blue sky, strained strokes of clouds, and flesh and earthy tones. The limited colour pallet and angular shapes create unity and simplicity. The women on the right adorned sacred African masks with a wood texture shown through diagonal lines. The Eurocentric women slowly transition in the mimicry of African caricatures, suggesting fears of white society becoming primitive.

Contemporaries regarded this as an aggressive onslaught on women with racist tones (Chave 1994). Hence, opposing feminist ideology, Picasso shows the potential assassination dark-skinned people and masculine women can pose to the patriarchy.

Weiwei's "Han Dynasty Urn with a Coca-Cola Logo"

Weiwei's "Han Dynasty Urn with a Coca-Cola Logo"

In contrast to modernism, Weiwei’s embodies post-modernist attitudes of cynicism, playfulness, amorality with Han Dynasty Urn with a Coca-Cola Logo. Audiences along with critics regarded Weiwei as a “jester,” applauding his satire of political, social and the art industry (Callahan 2014.).

While Picasso valued originality, Weiwei uses pastiche in using an existing urn and logo, the lighting techniques reminiscent of artifacts photographed in contemporary museums (Aloi 2007). The urn carried the high value of historical value, and memorabilia of the art making and reverence of the funeral practises of the Han Dynasty.

However, the high value of the urn is ironically defaced with low art the Coca-Cola logo graffiti to cynically suggest ancient traditions are replaced with ideologies of capitalism, corporate control, globalisation, and mass production (Marshall 2008).

Weiwei use of graffiti implied accessibility of low art to appeal to all society, while the oil paint of Picasso suggested a focus on high society. Therefore, while both artists agree governments are responsible in affecting society, Weiwei claimed capitalist values corrupted society while Picasso blamed minorities and women.

Modernist and Postmodernist Anxieties

Conclusively, both artists were manifestations of modernist and postmodernist anxieties over warfare, political corruption, classical morality and consumerism.

Picasso and Weiwei illustrated political frustrations with differing methods such as Picasso’s innovative but traditional use of oil paint along with Weiwei’s satirical jabs at the government, both risking the same forced censorship. Similarly, patriarchy was portrayed as an ideology preventing moral decay, while Weiwei diminishes tradition with modern values of capitalism.

Ultimately, both artists represented a polarity between tradition and rebellion, two sides of a cycle artistic movements show as inevitable shifts in attitude needed for societal progress.


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Callahan, William A. 2014. “Citizen Ai: Warrior, Jester, and Middleman.” The Journal of Asian Studies (73.4): pp. 899-920.

Chave, Anna C. 1994. “New Encounters with Les Demoiselles d'Avignon: Gender, Race, and the Origins of Cubism.” The Art Bulletin (76. 4): pp. 596-611.

Gottlieb, Carla. 1964-65. “The Meaning of Bull and Horse in Guernica.” Art Journal (24. 2): pp. 106-112.

JH, Liu. 2001. “Introduction to Confucian Psychology: Background, Content, and an Agenda for the Future.” Psychology and Developing Societies. (33.1): 7-26. doi:10.1177/0971333621990447.

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Mooney, Paul And Weiwei, Ai. 2012. “Chatroom: The Art Of Dissent: A Chat With Ai Weiwei.” World Policy Journal (29.3): Pp. 15-21. Https://Www.Jstor.Org/Stable/23326803

Pei, Minxin. 2021. “China: Totalitarianism’s Long Shadow” Project Muse (32.2): pp. 5–21.

Proweller, William. 1971. “Picasso's "Guernica": A Study in Visual Metaphor.” Art Journal (30.3): pp. 240-248.

W. J. H. B. Sandberg. 1960. “Picasso's "Guernica."” Daedalus (89. 1): pp. 245-252.

Yao, X. 2000. An introduction to Confucianism. UK: Cambridge University Press.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Simran Singh