One of our first stops in Spain was the Reina Sofia in Madrid to see Guernica. Seeing Pablo Picasso’s anti-war masterpiece in person — suitably from around a corner at first, a fractured view — is arresting. The painting is immense, and it sucks the air out of the room as if it were even three times larger. It’s stark in its lack of color. It makes you immediately anxious. It screams with the power, terror, incomprehensibility of war.
I’ve always appreciated Picasso. He didn’t start a revolution in art, he WAS the revolution. But I’ve never liked him much. He was an arrogant misogynist, and I’ve never wanted to dedicate mental space to such a personality, no matter how innovative he was. But after experiencing this painting, I wanted to get closer… and what better way to get closer to Picasso than to travel to his birthplace in Malaga?
He only lived here for the first eleven years of his life, and he last visited the city when he was just 19 (he lived to be almost 92)… He made his mark in Paris, but left his heart in Malaga. He once said, “To be a cubist, you have to have been born in Malaga.”
It’s an insufferable remark. George Braque helped develop Cubism, alongside his more famous — and louder, more attention-grabbing — colleague. For a time, it was nearly impossible to distinguish a Braque and a Picasso.
Braque wasn’t born in Malaga, but in Argenteuil-sur-Seine, France.
But visiting Malaga on the heels of experiencing Guernica, I understood what Picasso meant.
Cubism was a revolt against classical representation in art. The High Renaissance trinity — Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael — had already achieved perfection. An idealism of perspective, human form, balance, color, composition… and for the next 300 years, artists tried to achieve something close to those masters… Until the Impressionists stopped trying to copy them and created something new (the foundation of modernism on which Picasso would later sprout). But even the Impressionists were still about realistic representation. When you looked at an Impressionist painting, you still saw a landscape, building, person…
So, by the time Picasso came along — he said — everything had already been done. He had to do something different. He exploded realism, exploded the human form and delved right into the heart of humanity… the broken, cracked, strange, unnerving heart. If the Renaissance masters tried to recreate perfection, Picasso shattered that perfection to show the cracks.
And if Cubism is a revolt against representation, Malaga is a revolt against reality. The constant Southern Spanish sunlight (much like my home in Southern California) breaks you down in its relentless idealism. Everything seems so happy and perfect that you start to — naturally — look for the cracks beneath all that fake, sunlit perfection…
I’m accustomed to this feeling. In Los Angeles, everything looks so perfect that it appears fake… shallow… easily breakable. It can’t possibly hold up against the brutishness of reality.
But unlike in Southern California, the streets in Malaga are old and bent. Every street, every building, every roof creates an uneven angle. You can’t see anything head on. The sun strikes white hot buildings, orange roofs, yellow walls… it’s not reality anymore, it’s blocks of color so bright that your eyes water. Here, the world is all angles and half-visions.
You can never see beyond a building or two… everything is cut off, but you know the city continues. You don’t have to see it to know it’s there. You know the pedestrian came from some square. You hear the sounds of a crowd beyond, smell the chestnuts from some unseen roaster, feel the life gurgling well beyond what you can see.
Cubism bent the world open, showing you multiple perspectives of the same thing. The eye on the other side of the head. The wine glass from all around. That nude descending that staircase from every angle you can conceive… In a cubist painting, you don’t simply see what you would see by looking straight on at a thing, but you are shown what you know is there…
And that’s Malaga. You know the church is there, even though you can only see the one steeple. The beach is there even if you aren’t standing with your toes in the water.
That’s how we experience life, isn’t it? We see what we cannot see. We feel what isn’t readily apparent. We hear and smell the next thing on the next horizon. We know things exist that aren’t immediately visible. We accept them, embrace them, and live our lives around them…
Because part of the beauty of this human life is knowing there is more out there than we can see. Knowing there is more beyond the bright, blinding light… That’s Malaga. That’s Cubism. And THAT is Picasso.