Letters from Ukraine: 25/02/22

Contemplating the growing tensions in the lead-up to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, George Gittoes reflects on the historical relationship between art and diplomacy, and his own efforts to paint in the wake of conflict.

Over the last four days, leading up to the invasion of Ukraine, I have been doing this drawing sourced from Rubens’s two major works Minerva Protecting Peace from Mars (also known as Peace and War), 1629-30, and Consequences of War (also known as Horrors of War), 1637-38. 400 years on, Rubens, the great classical scholar and humanist pacifist, would be shocked to think war was continuing in Europe with advanced flying weapons and metal tanks. His diplomacy helped enormously to end the war between Spain and England, and he spent the last years of his life working to bring peace to the Spanish-occupied Netherlands.  He was able to talk sense to the Kings and Queens and warlords of Europe, and used gifts of his paintings as flattering rewards to the monarchs for putting down the swords. 

I have not struggled with a drawing this much in years, and it is still a long way from being able to go onto canvas in oils, if ever. I am not sure if it was a good idea to try mixing Rubens with Gittoes. I have never been a great fan of Rubens’s painting, but I have infinite respect for his hatred of war and efforts for peace. While studying these two works I discovered some elements of Guernica, 1937 – it is clear Picasso looked hard at Rubens’s efforts on this subject while inventing Guernica.

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