A tapestry of Pablo Picasso's powerful anti-war tableau "Guernica" has hung outside the U.N. Security Council since 1985, and it would be difficult to imagine a more fitting example of site-specific art.
The original 1937 painting depicts the terrorized and dying civilians at Guernica, a small Basque village in northern Spain that Generalissimo Francisco Franco's Nationalist regime, battling the Republican government during the Spanish Civil War, allowed the German air force to use for target practice. About 1,600 civilians were killed or wounded in three hours of bombardment.
Pablo Picasso's powerful anti-war tableau "Guernica"
"A diplomat stated that it would not be an appropriate background if the ambassador of the United States at the U.N. John Negroponte, or Powell, talk about war surrounded with women, children and animals shouting with horror and showing the suffering of the bombings."
The estate of Nelson Rockefeller, who gave the money to buy what is now the U.N. compound, donated the tapestry expressly for that famous wall as a show of faith in the U.N. mandate.
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.
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