Alain de Botton in The Art of Travel (Penguin, 2003) has a chapter on mind-altering art. He uses the example of Vincent van Gogh’s time in Provence to show how great art can help us come to see things differently. Cypresses before Vincent are just drab grey-olive trees with nasty hard leaves, poking up into the sky offering little shade. After viewing Vincent’s paintings of cypresses, de Botton argues, one now notices their spiral woody construction, their internal darkness, their place in the bright yellow sky, and their contrast against the brilliance of a sunset or a harvest.
Guernica by Picasso is another such mind-altering painting but seeing it properly can be challenging.
We arrived at a reasonable time at the Reina Sofia Museum (take the Metro to Atocha Station) but by 9.30 the line was already out the door though moving fairly briskly. Within 15 minutes we had our tickets, a brochure with floor plan and were through security. Each floor has an internal verandah off which galleries run. These are helpfully labelled so you can approach modern Spanish art in chronological (turn of the century, pre-war, post-war) or thematic order (classicism and super-realism, cubism, surrealism and magnetic fields, telluric art ).
The star of the collection is Picasso’s Guernica, so having spent an hour or so on Turn of the Century – Progress and Decadentism (including a wonderful 1897 Lumiere brothers film – Serpentine Dance) as well as surrealism and cubism we went in search of room 206 – and the great painting. Down the corridor, counting off 204, 205 and there was room 206 behind a temporary barrier with a sign ‘Closed for installation of new temporary exhibition’. Oh no!
But then we sought out a guide who advised us that, yes, the great work was on display but should be approached from the other direction – so, wiping the tears from our eyes, off we went.
The ante-room to the painting shows a number of Picasso’s studies for the work as well as a stark black and white photograph of German bombers flying in formation over the northern Spanish town. (In 1937, this was a rehearsal for the blitzkreig of the Luftwaffe in WWII, and arguably the first use of aerial terror against civilian populations as a deliberate part of a modern war effort).
Through a portico and there it was. Surrounded by around one hundred other art appreciators, there was the painting, huge at 3.5 meters tall and nearly 8 meters wide. A woman in a raincoat and a yellow cloche hat stepped in front of me, her head inclined to the earbud which was whispering something in Cantonese. Behind me a school group was ushered into the room, their teacher hissing for them to be silent but they giggled and mucked about, pinching and poking each other. I moved further to the side. Oh yes, there were the iconic elements, the bull’s head, the gored horse, the electric light, the head upturned against the blaze. We all shuffled one step to the left as more people entered the room. A turkish guide spoke quietly into his microphone and his gang, orange receivers around their necks, nodded in agreement. By this time I was looking at the painting from the side a vast grey expanse extended up across the wall.
I would have loved to have sat quietly with the painting for a while (or even a few moments). To have thought about its composition, appreciated its monochrome palette (perhaps tried to detect the hints of red and green in the greys that the artist used); and then as a cry against terrorising the defenceless and as a lucid statement against trans-national fascism running like a wildfire across Europe in the 1930s; and as a political artefact which finally returned to a democratic Spain in 1981, 44 years after it was painted.
Yes, you’re right Alain (and Sister Wendy and all those BBC documentary makers), great art has the capacity to move, to change the way we see things and yes, there is something about being in the presence of the object itself, its immanence, that you don’t get from a reproduction. But what you never say, is that viewing great art is difficult: it is often while you’re personal space is being intruded upon by others, it occurs in noisy rooms with the burble of many languages in many headphones.
We left Guernica as yet another group squeezed into the room and walked through the late-morning sunshine over to the Parque del Buen Retiro. We sat in a cafe and drank (or more acurately spooned) fantastic hot chocolate and watched young lovers rowing across the green water in blue rowboats beneath the white rococo monument to Alfonso XIII.
Image: Mona Lisa, Louvre Museum, Paris.
For a review of the Reina Sofia Museum visit the Museologist Blog –