I place the reproduction painting in the middle of the wall. Around it I have outlined, in red tape, a huge rectangle
Helen: Miss, that’s horrible. I could paint better than that.
Karen: Isn’t today’s topic Art and Beauty?
Jack: Well, I like it.
Twenty three, seventeen-year-old students settle noisily into their places. Only a few will participate. The essay will reveal how much the others were engaged.
‘What do you see?’
Jack: Dead bodies with bits chopped off. A bull. A horse. Swords. There’s been a massacre.
Karen: All the bits are in the wrong place. Broken up. Distorted. Did that Spanish guy, Picasso, paint this, Miss?
‘Good observation, Jack. Do the rest of you see what Jack sees?’
‘Yes, it’s by Picasso. Does anybody know anything about Franco?’
Leon: He was the Fascist leader of Spain during the Second World War.
Leon thinks he knows all about Fascists. I’ve seen him look sideways at me and mumble ‘Fascist’. My shoulders are broad. One day he’ll understand.
‘On April 27th 1937, with Franco’s permission, Hitler saturation bombed Guernica, a Spanish town opposed to Franco.
I walk to the back of the room. ‘The red tape indicates how big the original painting is: 11’8” x 26’.
Their heads scan the space.
Karen: It’s not beautiful. It’s really ugly. There’s hardly any color and, look over on the left side, there’s a mother holding a dead baby.
‘How do you know it’s a mother?’
There’s a moment’s silence. I know a boy will answer this question. Probably Leon. He loves to shock.
Leon: She has big dangling breasts.
Some girls blush. Others glare or giggle.
Leon: Well, Picasso’s interpretation of breasts. She’s looking up. Her mouth is open in an anguished scream. So probably it’s a mother.
Dean: It’s mostly black and white with a bit of grey to show the stark reality of the battle between good and evil, where there’s no middle ground.
I wonder if he’s been looking at my notes. Probably not. He’s my son and since a baby we have explored art galleries and discussed art works together. I nod, to encourage him.
Dean: If it’d been realistic, y’know with lifelike bodies we would have gotten hung up on the technique and not the message.
Sonia: There are three lights, a candle, a bulb and a lantern. Maybe…
Sonia hides behind her hair. Despite her opinionated ‘Yuck’ as she entered the room she is embarrassed that she might have said something wrong.
I bring up a quote on the power point display:
A painting…. When it’s finished, goes on changing according to the state of mind of whoever is looking at it. Picasso
‘Go on Sonia.’
Sonia: I don’t like war and I don’t like this painting but I think the big bulb at the top of the painting is Picasso shining a light on how horrible, how destructive, war is. See, there’s a broken sword.
‘Well done, you and Picasso are in agreement.’
Helen: Why does he have to distort everything?
Jack: Death and war aren’t pretty, are they? It has to be ugly. Form follows function, remember?
Helen pokes her tongue out at him.
‘Good question, Helen. And Jack’s right. Every line, every shape every symbol has a purpose. Maybe multiple purposes.’
I pull up another quote:
The public who look at the picture must interpret the symbols as they understand them. Picasso
Helen: So the person lying down at the bottom. That could be like a crucifix, like Jesus is in as much pain over the bombing as Picasso was?
‘Excellent, Helen. What else?’
Leon: It could be a symbol of sacrifice.
Helen: I think it’s Jesus. His outstretched arms have been chopped off and he’s being trampled by the bull and the horse.
Dean: The innocent people suffering: being sacrificed so that Hitler can….
Ten minutes later I re-enter the discussion.
‘Right. By next week I want you to have, in outline, an answer to this question.’
They groan and copy the question down.
We are driving home. I’m weary. My mind is on preparing the evening meal.
Dean: Picasso must have entered into the emotions of the people of Guernica when he was painting. With every brush-stroke he experiences their pain. That’s an incredibly beautiful and heroic act. Helen was right, Jesus would have grieved over Guernica. You’re right, too, art doesn’t have to be nice-looking to be beautiful.
He turns the music up.
I am re-energized.
To view the painting:
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