Tuesday, February 16, 2010
I’m writing this in the late afternoon on a train bounding through rural Catalonian orange fields on the way to Barcelona. On the right on top of a mountain is a Roman fort which still looks intimidating even though it’s been abandoned for some 1600 years. Small towns fill the landscape and floating through them provides a short break to the endless fields. The towns look poor with short graffiti stained adobe terra-cotta-like buildings that could just as easily be in a suburb of Mexico City. In fact, if it weren’t for the world-class train, the occasional Roman ruins and the anarchist graffiti and billboards in Catalan, I would swear that this was southern Mexico. Also Mexico-like are corpses of small buildings in the middle of the fields, stone buildings with thatch roofs which have caved in. The windows are shattered, the stonework is crumbled and yet when you see the bird nests popping out of every creak and crevice you can’t help but feel that these ex-buildings are the most beautiful thing to be seen for miles around. Unlike the industrial towns with graffiti walls these buildings look handmade, natural, like they sprouted right out of the cliff face from which they were made. Some of the (ex)-structures (some were shelters for farmers who go deep into their fields, some were houses, some primitive grain silos) look like they could easily be more than 300 years old. Like the buildings, the memory of the Catalonian people is long, having been knocked down and rebuilt many times. You can feel the age of the history as you pass through these towns. You can feel the continuous human presence. It was a provincial Catalonian town like this which produced Salvador Dali.
This time last week I was in Madrid considering the work of Dali’s most famous contemporary, Pablo Picasso. Like Dali, Picasso began his artistic career in Catalonia and first received recognition as an artist here. (Picasso, however, was not Catalan and was born in Malaga.) Picasso’s stunning Guernica was painted in 1937 at the height of the Spanish civil war to be the Spanish Republic’s entry in the Paris based World Expo. Due to the political turmoil the painting had to be heavily guarded, as rumors were swirling at the time that Franco had ordered a “hit”, so to speak, on the painting. Guernica is a Basque town which was bombed on market day by German airplanes on Franco’s order, killing hundreds of people in the first aerial bombing of a civilian population in history. Picasso’s depiction of this unfortunate milestone in human development is an enormous cubist work; at least 10 feet high and about 25 feet long. Unlike traditional Spanish art which shows heroism and valor on the battlefield, Picasso’s Guernica reveals nothing but terror and cowardice. Like most Spanish war paintings there is a man with his horse. In Picasso’s work, however, the man is not a soldier riding erect but an old peasant crushed under its weight. Picasso’s women are not standing tossing flowers as their husbands return from war, they’re dead with the flowers grasped in their hands and there are no men to be found at all. While Spanish war paintings are bright with almost cheery hues, the only colors to be found on market day in Guernica are black and white. The painting is busy with action, every inch is stuffed with moving objects; people, tools, fruit, pieces of people, chunks of animals, smoke, dirt and twirling lines that seem to collide with themselves all blur into an image of what might very well be the world collapsing into itself.
Art critics find lots of symbolism in Guernica; religious imagery, references to political events of the time and re-workings of entire paintings by other Spanish masters and by Picasso himself. But I can never remember any of it. For me Guernica is more than a painting, it’s a marker in time of the beginning of the worst eight years of human history. Picasso envisioned his painting to be a warning against the targeting of civilians in the then seemingly inevitable Second World War. A warning that was, unfortunately, never to be heeded. In Spain Picasso’s Guernica has been considered a national treasure since its return from exile after Franco’s death. For Spaniards it encapsulates the entire civil war experience and by extension the four decades of fascist rule. No single physical object has as much significance for Americans as Picasso’s Guernica does for Spaniards. Few images encapsulate so much pain for an entire nation (the burning WTC towers would be the equivalent for Americans). Hence, it’s little surprise that the painting and the Queen Sofia Art Museum which houses it are a common trip for Spanish schoolchildren. And for me seeing young Spanish children observe and consider the painting was far more interesting than seeing the painting itself.
As the Yiddish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer liked to point out, children make better art/literary critics than adults. He attributed it to their lack of a need to praise work they don’t understand in order to appear sophisticated. I’d add to Singer’s comment that children make better critics, especially of paintings, because they have better imaginations than adults. Children can imagine the implications of symbolic imagery and short nuggets of information better than adults. An adult hears a news report that 200,000 people died in Haiti and processes the information as a statistic. The child hears about the earthquake and pictures a single person stuck under the rubble cold and afraid without energy to give voice to his screams. While the adult prefers an exact picture or a diagram to understand a tragedy, the child is better served by abstract images that convey emotion. Hence, watching children explore Guernica up close for the first time was a real treat. Or perhaps “treat” isn’t the right word. Truth be told it was absolutely devastating. But fascinating none the less.
Three school groups came by in the half hour or so I was looking at the painting. (Guernica is so large and complicated that it feels more appropriate to write “watch” the painting because you need to look at each section and watch it come to life like a cartoon, all the while playing alternative scenarios of how the scenes unfold in your mind and letting the different parts of the painting interact with one another.) The first group was from a mostly immigrant public school with about thirty kids between the ages of five and seven, the second was from a preppy private school (identical uniforms gave that away) with kids aged between 8 and 10, the third group was speaking Basque and had kids who were about twelve.
The kids from the Madrid public school spent the most time “watching” the painting. The teacher began by reminding them about Guernica, which they had apparently discussed in class and a tour guide asked them to look at the painting and pick out things they could recognize. The children were quiet, stunned, staring at the painting in a deep silence which was only broken by the arrival of the second group. A black kid with a thick African accent said “the horse is in pain, I think it’s dying.” The teacher asked him how he knew and another, an Asian girl said “because he is, look at his mouth.” And the class went over a good third of the painting in this manner, naming an object, trying to figure out what happened to it or what it was feeling if it was a living creature, and then discussing how the image contributed to the overall painting’s meaning.
Teacher: “Do you see the woman there, what is she?”
“A mother” a small boy answers.
Teacher: “How do you know she’s a mother?”
Silence. Then the African boy answers “because she’s looking at him and crying.” he said, pointing out a bundle of rags pretending to be a boy.
“But she’s already dead” said another, a blonde boy with bright blue eyes who looked like he wanted to run away.
“She’s standing” said the African boy.
“No”, the blonde boy said, “she’s already dead, she’s just being tossed through the air….Like a doll.”
“How do you know that’s a child?” the tour guide asked, motioning to the rags.
“Because she’s trying to protect it but fails” said the African boy.
“But she’s dead” said another.
And they continued this way for a good fifteen minutes, scrutinizing the images, touching them with their eyes and reanimating them with their imaginations, making the horse neigh as it crushes the peasant, making the mother try to shield her child only to be killed herself by shrapnel, making the farmer duck under his own cart and making the fruit in the cart fly like bullets.
The second group, from the private school had similar reactions but spent less time looking at the painting and more time questioning their teacher.
“Was anyone ever put in jail for this?”
“Do people in the rest of the world know that it happened?”
“What happened when people found out?”
But it was the reactions of the third group; the older Basque children, which truly terrified me. Namely, they didn’t react. They not only weren’t scared or angry or shocked or grieved or even bored, they seemed totally disassociated from their immediate reality. At first I attributed it to their age. Many twelve year olds, especially boys, think that teenagers and adults never show fear, so they try to never show fear themselves in order to appear older. But there was a lot more to it than that. A kid that age will show boredom or interest or annoyance. These kids were like human stones. There but not there.
When the “human stones” metaphor crossed my mind I realized that I had seen this scene play out exactly the same way before in a museum. I had been one of those kids. For the Basques of this young generation, Guernica is like the Holocaust for my generation of Jews. We grew up with it as such a fundamental part of our history that there was no point questioning or reinterpreting it. And because there was no point questioning or reinterpreting it, there was no point thinking about it or engaging with any artistic representation of it in any way. The Holocaust happened because the Holocaust happened. We are here because the Holocaust happened. We are Americans (or Israelis) because the Holocaust happened. Because it was so central there was no point dealing with it.
At the same time that we felt that there was no point in dealing with it, we felt guilty for feeling this way. So we put on an act for our parent’s generation and the survivor’s generation to play the part of mourners, turning into human stones as we passed physical representations of the past. This was especially true when we were 10,11, 12 years old, when we were trying to learn to change from expressing our fears in a childish way to expressing them as (we imagined) adults did. And ironically it was this very act of disassociation which was most alarming to our parents.
I saw the same thing in the Basque children. They knew they were supposed to be sad about Guernica but they weren’t because for them there was no world without Guernica. And I could see them tuning out at the same time that they were trying to show a grief they didn’t feel. And I wondered if they, at just twelve years old, worried about how they would educate the next generation just like I did when I was twelve when I realized I didn’t feel the same sense of grief in my heart that I was expected to. It will be these fears and anxieties manifested as “human stones” in the form of young children walking through art museums which will be the long-term legacy of Franco’s Spain.
But not all hope is lost for the Spanish people. While it seems that Basque youth, like American and Israeli Jewish youth have been completely and utterly desensitized to the past to the point of numbness, I see hope for Spain in the new Spaniards who have not grown up raised by parents burdened by the same tragedies of the past. For the African boy and the other immigrants in that Madrid public school who will help create the future Spain, Guernica is new and terrifying. And because for them it is not just unalterable history but something which did not have to have happened, it’s lessons will be analyzed and reinterpreted. And not soon forgotten.