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.

How to Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit-Bag

It’s Day 7 of BootsnAll’s #indie30 project; the question of the day is (fanfare, please):

What kind of packer are you?

What? Too much?

What? Too much?

I like to think that I travel pretty lightly. Though I’m not a backpacker, I usually head overseas with a small suitcase filled with a few sets of mix-and-match clothes, a toiletries bag, extra shoes, a notebook, and a voltage adapter.

Though there was that one time, about 10 years ago, when my life seemed to be falling apart and I fled to Spain to foist my sad and broken self on my friend Maria and her family…

The night before I was to leave the States, I pulled a small suitcase out of the closet, threw a pile of clothes on the bed, and realized that there was no way they were all going to fit. So in my emotional exhaustion, I did the only thing I could:

I got a bigger suitcase out of the closet.

I crammed all my stuff inside, zipped it shut, and hauled it to the airport. Because of storm delays, the bag got lost in Madrid; though I was going on to Tenerife, in the Canary Islands, my giant suitcase went to Barcelona. When the airline finally delivered it to Maria’s mother’s house the next day, my friend, knowing that I’m usually an efficient packer, marveled at its size. I just shrugged; I was too wrecked to care.

That weekend, we were to head to the north end of the island to stay with Maria’s sister for a couple of days. “I’ll give you a small bag,” she said, “and you can just take a few things and leave this one here.” I shook my tired head. “No,” I said, pointing to the mammoth. “THIS is my weekend bag.” I simply was not capable of curating clothes and sandals and putting together a weekend wardrobe. So the giant bag got hoisted into the trunk of Maria’s mother’s car along with everyone else’s little totes and duffels.

Yep, I was mocked. Yep, I didn’t wear half the things I had taken. But in the end, it was okay–the healing properties of that trip, the magic of tapas and helado in the middle of the day, the homemade wine decanted into an old Johnny Walker bottle, the drives into the mountains, the walks beside the sea, the wandering amidst the centuries-old architecture–and the ability to rest, to bask, without judgment, in the comfort of an old, deep friendship–made it all okay.

So. The moral of my packing story is this:

Travel heals; so go. Pack lightly, yes. Plan properly, yes. But if you just can’t, if you’re just too tired and sad to think clearly, if you simply have to flee the country or burst into flame, then just take a bigger suitcase out of the closet, and go anyway.

Postscript: The title of this post is from a World War I marching song, “Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit-Bag and Smile, Smile, Smile.” No, I wasn’t around when it zoomed to number 1 on the charts. But yes, I remember it from watching old cartoons in the 70s. It used to be a well-known piece of popular culture. But now…who knows? Thought I’d identify it for the young’uns.

Image: By BazzaDaRambler (… luggage. Uploaded by Oxyman) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons