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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