The tour guide took one last headcount before we departed that morning. There was a light Mediterranean breeze as our guide, Dave was discussing the itinerary before heading out the gate past the borders of the Spanish military installation. Our destination was the Andalusian city of Malaga. The birthplace of Pablo Picasso along with a host of other historical sites. My main agenda for this trip was to write a feature story for the base newspaper on the Picasso Birthplace Museum, where many of the works on display were curated from his families private collection.
The day turned out to be a kind of personal discovery. Picasso always fascinated me from a distance. I’d imagined what his work was like, but never had the opportunity to see it up close. I wondered if I really knew what his artwork looked like or if it was someone else’s paintings I had seen in books and magazines. For my feature story, particularly since it was the museum of his birthplace, I wanted to get to the root of what his art was all about. It wasn’t until that afternoon when our tour bus split off into groups that I would get the chance to peer inside his odd, exquisite world.
As we entered the central downtown area, I looked out over an array of buildings with their ancient stone structures. Dave, our guide began to talk over a loudspeaker about the city’s tumultuous history during the Spanish Civil War and the reconstruction that had occurred there over the past few centuries. Like many cities in Spain, there is proof of the Moorish occupation everywhere. Much of the architecture remained in tact as various old castles rose overhead near the town square. The Moorish Alcazaba fortress, dating back to 1065, which featured an archeological museum was also another point of interest on the itinerary that day
As the passengers rushed off the bus, there was Dave, left all by himself. I sensed that he was going to be the only other one with any interest in the Picasso museum. All along the way he and I had sparked up a conversation about many things. He was like an aging hipster, which I didn’t mind, but it did annoy the other passengers when he’d get on the loudspeaker and ramble on about strange pop culture references. I can’t recall exactly what kind of awkwardness he displayed, only that he reminded me a bit of Jerry Garcia’s long distant cousin. I had a feeling it was going to be a long strange trip that day.
So Dave and I decided to hit the town together. We had approximately seven hours to be back in time so that the bus wouldn’t leave us stranded. By then, it was mid afternoon, plenty of time for a drink at one of the outside bars. There were bars and cafes lined up and down the main drag with small red plastic tables and covered awnings. Old cobblestoned streets went in every direction with the faint pleasant smell of Spanish tapas and fresh locally baked bread. We sat at a bar near a large cathedral on one of the plastic red tables. The view overlooked a city that appeared as if it stood frozen during the time of the Moors.
As Dave and I had our first beer, he explained that the lack of progress in many Spanish cities had been due to the harsh dictatorship of Francisco Franco. Franco had ruled the country after the Spanish Civil War had ended in 1939. From that point until his death in 1975, he left much of the people of Spain and their communities in economic despair. ” El Caudillo (The Leader) as he became to be known, instilled a lot of terror during his reign. He managed to brainwash the entire country through controlled media as well as a state education system,” Dave said. Even though Franco’s dictatorship was traded for Democracy after his death, the effects of his regime could be felt in all facets of life. Remnants during the time of that regime were housed in the museum we were headed for that day among the many works of Picasso. The final exhibit was a photography exhibition that collected various photographers who captured the atrocities of life under his dictatorship.
It would be to my own horror and disgust seeing the terrified faces being displaced in all their stark black and white imagery; elderly women and starving children looking back with expressionless stares. Much of the photography reminded me of earlier adolescent visions of looking through high school textbooks about the aftermath of holocaust survivors.
After a few beers and an ongoing discussion about the Tyranny of Franco, we passed by the Iglesia De Santiago, a beautiful baroque cathedral founded in 1490. It’s notable as holding the official birth certificate of Picasso and the church where he was baptized. As we drew closer to the museum, I noticed a huge procession down the street. It looked like a happy couple getting married at another church which was not too far from the museum’s entrance. A long line of well dressed people waited outside to enter. In the distance we heard the sound of a large cathedral pipe organ playing church wedding music.
As we approached the entranceway to the museum, a security guard had us place our camera and bags on a counter. No photos were allowed. The museum was privately owned by the daughter-in-law and grandson Christine and Bernard Ruiz Picasso, whose private donations constituted most of the collection. As we entered the main gallery I looked down at the brochure that was handed to us at the front counter explaining the entire museums contents. It was broken into sections of interest rather than specific time periods. Picasso’s take on the classics in one area, overlapping perspectives in Cubism in another room, ceramics re-workings of the Old Masters, to his late paintings of the 1970s. The temporary black and white photography exhibit of Franco era portraits were housed at the end of the exhibit.
Dave and I broke off for awhile so we could focus on any area of the museum we wanted. After walking around for about an hour mesmerized by most of what I was witnessing, I stumbled upon a particular piece that stood out among the rest. Sure, there were the signature nudes, the elongated shapes and doorways that led possibly into another dimension. The Cubism and abstracts that Picasso was mostly known for. But there was a painting of a cat that stood solitary in one corner of the room, as if it had been thrown in the exhibit at the last minute. It really stuck out and nobody else seemed to notice or care that it was there up on the wall. I couldn’t take my eyes off of it. The penetrating stare of the cats eyes as its mouth clutched a bird, it’s skin and feathers being ripped apart. There was something different about what Picasso was trying to say with this particular painting from the rest of what was in the collection. I walked up to have a closer look, seeing the title on the frame reading, “Cat Trapping a Bird.”
I later learned from one of the museum curators that it was on loan from the Paris museum. I located Dave and we headed toward the photography exhibit, still enthralled by the entire experience. In the exhibit, the black and white images on display centered on the Franco era as his reign came to an end. There were names and faces of unknown souls living in the poorest of conditions spread out through several rooms. A Portrait of a woman crying out in the street caught my attention. All of her wrinkles showing the struggles of a hard life blended in with the background, a place that looked eerily familiar. A resemblance of a not too distant future. Instead of old cobblestoned streets it looked like the back alleys of anywhere in America.
As I peered further into the portrait memories of the evening news during an election season came into stark contrast. It wouldn’t be too far into the near future when I returned that America would be a place as unwelcoming and more foreign than any other country I had ever lived. An expatriate heart looking at American society from the outside and not seeing much in the way of any progress. Just talk of building walls around itself, growing isolated from the rest of the world and more out of touch. That image really never left me and now its my constant reminder. That good times come around again, even if a society goes through hell and back in order to not repeat the same mistakes. I thought that if Spain could come out from a system of tyranny, so could America.
After a full day in the museum, Dave and I made our way back to the bus. Before that, we stopped at another outside cafe for a few beers. There were tourists passing by, taking in the ancient wonder of the city once occupied by the Moors. Underneath all of the past struggles, Spain left me with an impression that it was a culture full of great artistry. From every exterior wall to the modern artwork that came out of the last century, it’s a place of creativity and resilience. I could mention a few other names like Salvador Dali, but Picasso was no exception.
Later, as I was about to submit my article for consideration, I stumbled across an article on Cubism, where it argued that Picasso’s art was never really considered abstract. In contrast to the famous Cubist painter, Piet Mondrian, who linearized the form, Picasso never gave up the third dimension. He flirted with the idea, but never really became an abstract painter. I found this fascinating since most of what I saw in the museum that day to be leaning toward the abstract. It brought me back to the cat painting. The one that had engrossed me that day standing off in a corner. It wasn’t so much an abstract statement, as it was an artists inner struggle to cope with the idea of living and creating within a society trapped by totalitarian rule.
I considered the idea for a moment; it then became pretty obvious that this was how I envisioned Picasso as a younger man around the time when the painting was being conceived. Not the pictures of an older round looking man who was bald and wearing a black and white striped shirt. I imagined him surrounding himself in those early years in a blanket of protective creation. All of the elongated shapes and doorways put onto a canvas depicted a society he must have despised. One could really only speculate. It’s like those blank faced stares from the photography exhibit. The artists who took those pictures like any great painter knows that there may be some future time and place to display their work as a way to show more than what’s on the surface, like in the time of Franco’s dictatorship. Pure evil can sometimes transmit itself off the surface either from a museum canvas or darkroom print to fully manifest itself again, often into different human shapes and forms.