Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Guernica and The Black Paintings (I)

I am in Madrid with my eldest daughter, Daisy, who is fifteen and a half. It is early August, around six weeks after the disastrous Brexit vote, and it's very hot. The heat assaults us every time we step out of the hotel lobby. We haven't been here long, but we're already feeling a little aggrieved by the Metro system. Every time we arrive on a platform a train is just leaving, it seems, and there is invariably a wait of around five minutes for the next one. One of the lines which serves our nearest station is closed for the summer, so it's already a little harder to get around than it ought to be. But the city has charmed us, proving to be cleaner and quieter than we were warned we might expect it to be. This afternoon we're following my itinerary, which will place us in front of Guernica and some of the highlights of the Prado.

We emerge at street level in the neighbourhood of LavapiƩs, where the streets seem to smell of last night's barbecue, and walk down towards the Museo Reina Sofia. Closer to the museum locals and tourists are lunching in great numbers on shaded pavements, and I am baffled again by the instinct of so many of my countrymen, which urges them to be more remote from civilisation (exemplified here by the cosmopolitan mix of diners talking at sensible volume over food and drink consumed in a spirit of leisure) rather than closer to it. No-one at the ticket booth is in any rush to assist us, and it becomes clear, eventually, that this is not to do with any native indolence, but rather because admission is free after 1.00pm. Now, I was aware that the Prado offers free admission after five, but this is a bonus. At least I think it is.

Guernica is hemmed in by smaller galleries displaying Picasso's preparatory sketches and the room in which the painting itself is hung is long but reasonably shallow. It is also extremely crowded, so you feel a little like you're at the back of a crowd waiting for a parade to pass, rather than experiencing one of the Twentieth Century's great expressions of artistic energy. The painting itself is huge, but not surprisingly so, as some pieces already familiar in reproduction are when you first see them. It is as if the reputation of Guernica has outstripped even its expansive dimensions. Perhaps one's impression of the painting suffers as a result of its overfamiliarity (though I did not find this to be the case with Las Meninas, an earlier masterpiece which I saw later in the day and found immensely moving, in spite of my still greater familiarity with the image.) Perhaps it is necessary to imagine seeing the work during or in the immediate aftermath of the war whose effects it seems to depict, although I had just flown to Madrid from a nation which seemed to be turning against itself, informed by a wider reinvigoration of fascism that threatens to poison the whole continent. Anyway I found myself focusing more on what troubled me about the painting rather than enjoying what Picasso had achieved.

I have an idea about what Picasso was trying to accomplish in making the surface of the canvas so resolutely matt (apparently he commissioned special oil paint in order to create this effect). It seems that the painting is in some way supposed to resemble a black and white photo reproduced in a newspaper. To me though, this flatness deprived the picture of some energy, as if he hadn't really progressed from the drawings through to the finished work. The contrast between flat blacks, greys and whites is not as dramatic as it would have been had conventional oils been used. The components of the image are more harmoniously placed than they appear in the claustrophobic reproductions I was used to seeing, so that what I had expected to be chaotic seemed overly ordered. At the same time I found that the execution of the painting was almost sloppy, though I am also aware that this may be part of an intended aesthetic, that Picasso may have been attempting to create a tension between composition and realisation, that the canvas, in parts, was supposed to appear scruffy and unfinished. Nevertheless I felt a sense of wavering conviction, as if the artist had understood, too late, that the finished work would not live up to what was originally conceived.

What bothered me most about Guernica, I think, was its very consideredness. The tortured figures were too neatly balanced, the cartoonish limbs and digits too mannered. It is of course possible, laudable even, to investigate the insanity of war in a calm and measured fashion, but this is not what Picasso was at, if I understand his masterpiece correctly. He wanted Guernica to be a vast, mad yelp of a painting, a cry from the heart echoing the pain and horror of conflict, but for me, standing in front of it with a hundred or so other people, it seemed a bit too sane, too self-conscious and too public. I would only have to wait a couple of hours to find a more convincing and intimate argument about the senselessness of violence. One which wouldn't seem sane at all.