I’m in the Picasso museum in Barcelona. It’s beautiful, made up of five palaces – turns out a Spanish palace is just a big house, but these are impressive house-palaces; all cut stone walls, vaulted ceilings, naked baby reliefs holding up door lintels – and of course old, authentically old, European old, meaning it was actually built hundreds of years ago – way before any Ken Burns documentaries. Barcelona’s “new” parts are our “old” parts.
For a self-avowed Neanderthal, a Picasso museum is an odd place to end up, but it’s actually my second time in a museum dedicated to his work. I made the same mistake in Paris a good many years, and a whole life, ago. I say mistake only in that Picasso was most definitely not a starving artist; he sold his work for millions while he was still around to use his fortune, and fame, to live out a comfortably, dysfunctional life. Thus his museums are left only with sketches, a few not-so-impressive-to-a-Neanderthal cubist pieces, and tons of early work, mostly in styles in which he would never have been more than yet another also-ran imitator of the masters. To magnify, and complicate, my mistake, this time I dragged along my kids – son, fourteen; daughter, eleven: Well, they are in the five house-palace museum in body, if not in spirit.
On a cool Barcelona summer morning, full of the hope good weather brings a city, we wait impatiently for forty-five minutes in a line snaking along the side of a narrow Catalan sorta-alley. The kids whine that their boring-wages – remuneration for accompanying me on this “stuuuupid-we’re-not-going-to-learn-anything” part of the trip – had specifically excluded long lines with Moroccan van drivers lurch-brake-playing with us, as a cat plays with a mouse. They did find it funny when a distinguished older lady – her boney-tall frame draped in a long black dress and topped with a wide-brimmed, cardinal-red hat – stood her ground, leaning heavily into her black wooden cane, glare-gazing at a mustachioed bakery van driver sweat through, what my son described as, “a million point turn.”
I zone out the whinegotiating, and instead eavesdrop on two older English couples in line behind us.
“We could keep ‘ur place in the queue, if ye want to go far a pint,” one of the perfectly-coiffed-grey-haired wives says flatly, implicating the other woman – likely her sister – with a nudge of her shiny black handbag.
One of the husbands scrunches up his pink-wrinkly face.
“I’d sleep through this bloke if I hada bitter now – I would. W’at’s he-all about anyway?”
“You know, he’s the famous one, had amaaazing girlfriends, and ‘e painted that picture of the bombing – with all the ‘orses ‘eads and stuff.”
“This is sooooo boring,” my daughter interrupts. “You never said … .”
“Yeah,” my sons interrupts the interrupter.
“we’d have to stand in line.”
“I didn’t know we’d have to.”
“Thought you knew everything?” she snaps, giving me her I’m-going-to-torture-you look.
The source of the waiting, whining, and consideration of pints of bitter at 11:00AM, was standard Catalan tourist management techniques – evolved in an environment where supply so incredibly outstrips demand. Inside the museum there were four ticket desks, only one of which was staffed, and that by a never-smiling-Spanish-Catalan-only-speaking young woman, engaged in rancorous conflict with the credit card machine.
The boring-wages, ten Euros per whining-child to be subjected to Picasso, were oddly enough, also the price of entry to the museum. Once I had double paid – my kids live hard by Reagan’s “trust but verify” motto; verification in this case being crisp ten Euro notes rolling between their thumb and forefinger – my son settles into a chair outside the gift shop, his phone already out.
“Aren’t you coming in?” I ask, with the innocence of a Neanderthal who, twenty minutes earlier, was contemplating whether two older English perhaps-sisters, completely unknown to me, would babysit my kids in line while I went for a pint of bitter with their, completely unknown to me, husbands.
“No. I hate museums,” he says, with that binary assuredness with which he approaches everything in life, and stares back at his phone.
Back in the first half of the 1900s, Picasso had taken a decent run at becoming European Philanderer of the Century. His only problem was the steep competition from his peers: The average French male. In between, during, and perhaps as a result of, his extra-marital exertions, he completed some of the most iconic, thought provoking art of the modern area. Like all great artists, he tapped into humanity’s need to see itself represented in a manner that stretches human consciousness to capture a glimpse of our essence.
Unfortunately, there were very few glimpses available to me, or the kids – well, they weren’t really glimpsing anyway – that day. Picasso’s best work is to be seen in the world’s best museums: Or not be seen at all, by your average Neanderthal, as it’s in private collections. In any case, that day I’m in the wrong Spanish city to have my kids absorb through art something of the insanity of our world, as described in Picasso’s most famous piece: Guernica.
He painted this scene “with the ‘orses ‘eads and stuff” in a visceral reaction to the ruthless bombing of the village of Guernica in the Basque country of northern Spain. The bombing raid was executed by Hitler’s Luftwaffe in support of Franco’s fascist forces. Most of Guernica’s able-bodied males were off fighting the fascists, and thus it was mostly women, children, the aged and infirm in Guernica that day. It was a market day, in a market town, and the center teemed with people. The Luftwaffe, experimenting with the power of air bombardment, for reasons the rest of sleeping Europe was about to discover, sent the first few waves of bombers in to flatten most of the buildings in the center of the town. The collapsed buildings prevented the market goers from escaping. Then they dropped three thousand incendiary devices onto the entrapment site, sending over a thousand women, children, the aged and infirm to a mercilessly hellish death.
In Paris, busy philandering – and then painting during, after, and about it – word of this atrocity reached Picasso. He was immediately driven to start into his enormous work which tries to capture, on a twelve foot by twenty-six foot canvas, the cruel insanity of mankind’s seeming inability to stop warring against ourselves. It took him about six weeks to finish this monumental work of art.
Reportedly, years later, in occupied Paris, a Nazi officer, while searching Picasso’s studio, pointed at Guernica and asked:
“Did you do that?”
“No,” Picasso replied, “you did.”
Back in Barcelona, things are going pretty much according to par. My son downstairs lost inside his phone, I’m slow-walking around the museum, my disappointment curated by my eleven year old daughter, from whom streams a monologue on what an enormous waste of time it is walking around museums.
“I mean,” she says, in her imitation middle-aged-already-too-tired-cynical voice, “look at that.”
She points to a sketch that looks like a few crayon lines fell out of the sky onto a sheet of heavy paper.
“I mean, I could better than that – seriously!”
We battle on through the galleries; zero grams per cubic millimeter of art being absorbed.
“How did they do that?” she asks.
I turn hopefully.
She’s pointing at a cut stone wall.
“What?” I ask, walking over, trying to see what she means.
“That,” she says flatly, pointing at a stone in the wall.
“That particular stone?” I’m totally energized, but totally confused.
“All of them, how did get these big stones up this high?”
“Oh, I see,” I try to hide my confusion, “humans, human donkeys, the Catalans probably kidnapped some Irish to carry them up this high.”
Downstairs, by the ticket desks – now fully manned by four smiling-chatting Catalan millennials; with no customers to serve – team O’Farrell rendezvous, assesses the situation.
My son has given up – hopefully – or was routed out of, his chair by the black-dress-red-hat lady, who is now in the middle of a deep nap: Her black cane resting precariously against her thigh.
“How was it?” my son asks, barely dissembling an interest in what we’ve wasted our time on, while he played productively on his phone.
“Really good,” I double-dissemble back.
“No, it was terrible,” my daughter cuts in. “I could do better paintings – seriously!”
“Yeah, and the gift shop is full of crap” he piles on, nodding at me, “even you wouldn’t buy anything in there.”
“Seriously?” my daughter asks, her innate consumer urges excited.
“Seriously,” he answers.
“Seriously,” I nod in full defeat.