The Woman, the Girl, and the Screaming Horse

PicassoGuernica

The memory. The painting. Picasso’s Guernica.

Greetings from Madrid! I’m here to relax, to learn, to seek similarities, to find differences…to be overcome by the beauty of it all.

And today I was overcome, by the presence of an old acquaintance: the gigantic Guernica, arguably Pablo Picasso’s most famous painting. We have a little story, the painting and I.

I have a very clear memory of seeing Guernica, decades ago, with my mother and my sister, in Manhattan. I can picture the monumental canvas from the viewpoint of a young child, maybe six years old, standing left of its center, gazing up at the disturbing figures in their somber colors. It was the horse that affected me the most–the horse screaming in the midst of the broken people, beside the impassive bull.

“What is this? I remember asking my mother as I tried to make sense of the images.

“It’s about a war–in Spain,” she replied. “It was painted by Pablo Picasso.” Mom was an artist herself, so I had heard of Picasso, had seen photos of his cubist imaginings. I nodded slowly, wincing at the horse in his agony. The image never left me.

Years and years later, though, I had cause to doubt my memory when I read that Guernica was housed in the Reina Sofia in Madrid. That made sense–Picasso was a Spaniard, of course–but how, then, could I have seen it in New York?

The answer lay in the painting’s complicated history. Picasso painted it, as we know, to memorialize the victims of the 1937 bombing of the town of Guernica in the Basque country, in the northeast of Spain, during the civil war that saw fascist dictator Francisco Franco take power. Though such complete devastation and killing of civilians would become all too familiar during the rapidly approaching years of World War II, at the time, the destruction of the bombing raid on Guernica was unprecedented and utterly shocking. When Picasso completed the painting, he declared that it would never hang in Spain until the country was released from the grip of fascism and had become a peaceful republic once more. The painting toured the world, and eventually it came to be housed in the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)…in Manhattan.

So I did see it–on one of the many trips into the city that my mother took us on in the summer and around Christmas, when school was out.

Picasso lived until 1973, and two years later, Franco died. Once fascism had fallen, negotiations between The Prado, Spain’s premiere museum, and MoMA finally brought the painting home in 1981. It hangs now in the Reina Sofia, where the Prado moved its collection of contemporary art when it ran out of room.

So this evening, in Madrid, half a world away from MoMA, half a lifetime away from that little girl in front of a giant painting, I encountered Guernica once again. I tried to be patient about finding it, moving slowly at first from room to room. I examined the Dalis and the Miros, lingered over the photos of Lorca (another victim of the civil war) and his La Barraca theatre group, but finally the suspense got the better of me and I left my daughter–my traveling buddy–behind and went in search of the huge canvas.

And I found it. On a great, white wall all by itself. The crowd was thin, so I was able to move right up close, left of its center once again, and look up at, of course, the horse.

And I was overcome. I mean, really overcome. My hand flew to my throat, tears welled in my eyes, and there I was: crying in a museum. I stood there for a long time, taking it all in, absorbing it, remembering it.

As if that was necessary. The six-year old me saw it once and never forgot it.

Soon my daughter appeared at my elbow. “I see you found it,” she smiled. I nodded. I could barely talk. She stayed a few minutes and then moved on, but I stayed and stayed.

So why, exactly, was I crying? I’ve been occupied by that question for hours, and now, in the middle of the Spanish night, I believe I have an answer: It involves the grownup-I-am knowing so much today–about the painting, and Picasso, and fascism, and suffering. The grownup-I-am cannot help but be moved by the tragedy that incited the painting, by the immense talent that executed it, and by the thought that despite its clear and terrible message, the painting couldn’t possibly stop war, or suffering, or human cruelty.

But it also involves the child-I-was, who was there at the Reina Sofia today, too, along with her sister and her mother–her mother who has been gone now these past three years. The child-I-was was on a trip to the city, holding her mother’s hand, seeing the canvas for the first time, trying to understand the suffering of the horse. The agony of the painting swirled into the happiness of the memory, the absence of my mother colored the memory of my mother–and I short-circuited. And cried in a Spanish museum.

That said, though, there may be a second, simpler reason that I cried; one that speaks to the power of art. As I mentioned, I know a lot about the painting, its artist, and its background now. On that long-ago trip, I knew almost nothing. And yet the painting moved me, a small child, that day, as surely as it moved the grownup me this evening.

I still winced at the horse’s suffering.

That’s the power of great art. You don’t have to “understand” it to be affected by it. Even a child can see the agony in Guernica. Live for a while and it can make you weep.

Standing there today, I could picture us decades ago, my mother, my sister, and I, taking in the same sight. My mother showing us a painting that could have been considered too grownup for us, making us understand that art has power: you can paint a lovely landscape and make people delight at its beauty–or you can paint a war and make people wince at its horror.

Connections, understanding, and memory–I found all of them in the Reina Sofia today. I was overcome. It was extraordinary.

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Reflecting Is Not Loafing. Really.

Eternal reflection: Rodin's "Le Penseur" (The Thinker)  [Wikimedia Commons via http://www.flickr.com/photos/46922409@N00/308920352/ Thinking at Hell's gate]

Eternal reflection: Rodin’s “Le Penseur” (The Thinker)

“The painter or draftsman must be solitary, and most of all when he is intent on those speculations and considerations which, continually appearing before the eyes, give material to the memory to be well stored.”

Thus Fritjof Capra, in The Science of Leonardo: Inside the Mind of the Great Genius of the Renaissance, quotes our hero, Leonardo da Vinci, on the subject of contemplation and reflection. It was apparent to the master that in order to process what we have learned and to commit it to memory so that we can use it later on, we need to be still for a bit and think about the things we’ve observed, absorbed, and created.

The problem with this concept, though, is that reflection involves a distinct lack of moving about. It’s quiet and, well, reflective–so in some cases, it might resemble, to an alarming degree, sitting around and doing nothing. In education, where teaching time is brief and precious and the last thing to be valued is letting the kids sit around with nothing constructive to do, the practice of reflection can be easy to pooh-pooh. Nevertheless, it’s a valuable tool and an effective method of evaluation; reflection can help students process what they’ve just learned even as it provides insight for their teachers into what the class understands and what still remains to be mastered.

Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education’s Project Zero has, over the past 37 years, been examining the development of learning processes in children, adults, and organizations. Their Visible Learning initiative features a set of “Thinking Routines”–mini-strategies that teachers can embed into their lessons so that students can reflect on their own work–on what they have learned, and on what they have yet to understand. Thinking Routines are like little games or challenges. They’re fun, they take up very little classroom time, they provide both the teacher and the students with a way to make learning visible, and they illuminate a path for continually adjusting and tweaking what goes on in the classroom.

The subset of Core Routines, in particular, encourages students to reflect on what they think they already know about a subject and what they’d still like to learn. For example, the routine called “What Makes You Say That?” consists of two simple yet powerful questions: “What’s going on?” and “What do you see that makes you say that?”

One of my favorite routines, which I often use at the end of one of the series of arts-integrated writing workshops that I teach, is “I used to think…But now I think…” I like to present this routine in the last few minutes of the last workshop, asking students to write their answers out and then calling on them to share their responses with the rest of the group. This routine can indicate progress in a much truer way than a multiple-choice test can.

Sometimes the insight I gain through this routine is deeper than I expect. Last year, I led a week-long Spring Break workshop for fourth and fifth graders from a poor neighborhood in South Florida; I centered my curriculum on a young-people’s version of Homer’s Odyssey, re-told by Gillian Cross and gorgeously illustrated by Neil Packer.  My young students spent the week hearing and discussing the episodes and then using writing, visual art, and movement to craft their own creative responses to the ancient classic. On the last day, I used the “I used to think…” routine to see what about the weeklong process had impacted them. I gave them a few minutes to think and write in their “Reflection Journals”–little handmade books that they had created during the first workshop. One boy made me grin with his answer:

“I used to think…the older times were really boring and like I was going to pass out. But now I think…they were really fun. I don’t know if the other Greek books are boring, but I know the Odyssey was super fun.”

Good to know that his knee-jerk reaction to ancient literature  had been tempered by his arts-integrated experience!

My favorite response of all time, though, came from Jakayla, a tough little fourth-grade girl and the self-appointed ringleader of my Spring Break group. After a few minutes of reflection, Jakayla concluded:

“I used to think…that this would be all about writing. But now I think…it was all about finding what you love.”

Lest this all seem too kumbaya-warm-and-fuzzy, understand that every day, in the simplest fashion, I would determine what facts and vocabulary the students were absorbing: I would fire questions at them at random moments. “What was the Cyclops’ name?” “Who turned the sailors into pigs?” “Where is Odysseus trying to get home to?” The kids would practically fall over raising and waving their hands in the air with the answers. There was no need to test those simple facts; the children were learning the story and its elements as a natural result of listening, writing, making art, and acting out the episodes.  The simple Thinking Routine, though, along with a few moments to reflect quietly on what they knew and felt, and the opportunity to write about it in full sentences rather than bubbling in a row of circles on a computer-graded test, painted a clear picture, for me and for them, of the joyful learning that took place that week.

In his introduction to John Francis Rigaud’s translation of Leonardo’s A Treatise on Painting, John William Brown notes that when the great artist was painting The Last Supper on the wall of the convent of La Madonna delle Grazie,

“[T]he Prior of the Dominicans…became impatient whenever he saw Leonardo in contemplation instead of continuing his picture; he being one of those who imagine that a painter must be neglecting his work whenever his hands are not actually employed on it.”

Leonardo, of course, strongly disagreed with this view. As do I.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons via http://www.flickr.com/photos/46922409@N00/308920352/ Thinking at Hell’s gate

We Are Large. We Contain Multitudes. (And the Mona Lisa.)

This is a hint.

This is a hint.

Learn things. Create things. Indulge yourself. That way lies joy.

There are lots of recipes and formulas (formulae?) out there for finding joy; those four sentences sum up mine. And I’m willing to bet that there are a lot of you who feel the same way. We’re in good company, after all: finding joy through curiosity and the creative process reflects the shining spirit of Leonardo da Vinci, a particular hero of Glorious Curious. Painter, sculptor, architect, musician, mathematician, engineer, inventor, scientist, theatrical designer, writer–Leonardo studied and excelled in a plethora of seemingly unrelated areas. 

“He was a universal genius whose outline can only be surmised–never defined.”

So wrote the Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt. Or, to paraphrase Walt Whitman, our man was large; he contained multitudes. 

And his curiosity about all things great and small is legendary. Sigmund Freud, in Leonardo da Vinci, his psychosexual analysis of the original Renaissance Man, called curiosity “the one single impulse [that was] very forcibly developed” in the master. Freud cites Edmondo Solmi as noting that Leonardo indulged his curiosity at first by investigating things related to painting, things like light and color and pigment. This led him naturally to study the objects of painting–animals, plants, the human body. And then, just as we find ourselves doing when we spiral down the rabbit hole of the internet, leaping from one story to the next, one website to the next, until we’re so far away from our original destination that we don’t quite know how we got where we are, the study of objects led Leonardo further afield to the study of mechanics, of astronomy, of weaponry, and even of paleontology.

The interesting thing about this rather desultory approach to studying the universe, Freud contended, is that all of Leonardo’s seemingly unrelated investigations led him to adopt a new perspective on his art. His paintings became connected to the universe itself. He viewed them through the filters of all he had learned. He couldn’t possibly isolate them any longer, but neither could he possibly investigate all their nearly infinite connections. Freud claimed that this dilemma is probably what caused the master to leave so many works unfinished–though we have thousands of his sketches, drawings, and designs, we have only about 17 finished paintings by Leonardo. But oh, what paintings they are. Two of them (come on, you know which ones) are widely considered the most famous paintings in the world.

This is another hint.

This is another hint.

Michael J. Gelb, in How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci: Seven Steps to Genius Every Day , tells us that

“Leonardo’s childlike sense of wonder and insatiable curiosity, his breadth and depth of interest, and his willingness to question accepted knowledge never abated. Curiosità fueled the wellspring of his genius throughout his adult life.”

Gelb quotes the scholar Kenneth Clark, who said that the master was

“…undoubtedly the most curious man who ever lived….He wouldn’t take Yes for an answer.”

Leonardo’s approach to art and life rests firmly at the other end of the spectrum from that of an artist such as Edward Hopper, who famously said, “Maybe I am not very human–what I wanted to do was to paint sunlight on the side of a house.” Hopper narrowed his focus (to beautiful effect, we might add). Leonardo broadened his. Two different approaches to mastery, to making sense of things, to creating joy. (Understand, please, that I’m not trying to compare the talent or output of these two men–just their approaches, to their art and to the world.) Though I appreciate the intense focus on one subject that many artists engage in, I celebrate the way Leonardo cast his net wide and drew in all the things that fascinated him.

That’s why Leonardo stands as a Hero of Great Stature here at Glorious Curious. Walt Whitman is another hero around here, contradicting himself and being large and containing multitudes and all that. There are other heroes, too–I’ll write about them from time to time. I’ll also write about food, music, theatre, beauty, mindfulness, and a pile of other subjects that intrigue me. Take a look at the site’s Raison d’Etre page to read more.

I began publishing this blog today, March 20, for a reason: today is the UN’s International Day of Happiness. It seemed like an auspicious day to begin a blog dedicated to joyful things. I hope your own curiosity and your own quest for creative, brainy joy will keep you coming back to see what’s going on.