The Making of Guernica: Artist Notes from Pablo Picasso, Stay-at-Home Dad
We artists are indestructible; even in a prison, or in a concentration camp, I would be almighty in my own world of art, even if I had to paint my pictures with my wet tongue on the dusty floor of my cell.
—Pablo Picasso, Der Monat, 1949
Once again I’ve gotten nothing done today. My idea was to respond immediately to the bombing. After what Franco and the Germans have set in motion, we are facing horror of untold proportions. Naturally, our people are demoralized and afraid. An urgent response is called for. At present, I have four new ideas for sketches—
Sorry. Interruption. The kids are off from school today. Ay, what noise! All I asked was for them to listen to Daniel El Tigre for one hour, which is already more radio time than Dora and I agreed on. Yet every ten minutes it’s been something else. This one jumped on the sofa so hard it slid against the wall and knocked over the gramophone, that one spilled soggy Cheerioats onto the couch cushions and—oh what now? Good lord, someone is screaming. Will have to come back to my notes later. Time for everyone to get out of the house!
Phew. Well, Paolo is napping, and Paloma is screwing around with her peg game set. I just DGAF anymore. Papa needs time to think. And is that such a crime? Is having one or even two consecutive coherent thoughts to oneself really so much to ask for in this life?
So. Where was I? What I would like to do, truly, is respond to this crisis in a way never seen before. And I do have the sketches, early pencil notations. It’s not much, but it’s something. The bull with a bird landing on its back, the fallen horse.
Yet something else torments me now. I mean, was it right what I did at the playground earlier? Paolo had a shovel and this other boy took it from him and would not give it back. Paolo’s face grew crimped and red and I could see he was about to cry, but how to negotiate with this other little boy who was so stubborn? Whose own parent, I might add, was nowhere in sight. Who does that? Just leaves their kid in a sandbox and walks away?
The French, that’s who.
Which reminds me—Braque, that fucker, just got another major commission from the Academe des Belles Artes. What a sellout. I mean, are you subverting the cultural hegemony or are you not? Choose a lane, Braque!
Ugh. The real kicker is, I know he’s going to complete the project in two days. Because that’s exactly what you can do when you don’t have kids. Drink all day in your studio, smoke up a storm, take a late afternoon siesta, stay up all night, whatever you want! Then drive off to the Riviera the moment you’re done.
Whatever. I’m not bitter. Paolo and Paloma are the diamonds of my soul, the very breath of my spirit. I would do anything for—oh for god’s sake, he’s awake already? That wasn’t a nap, it was a blink.
Finally, Dora’s home from work, is playing with the kids in their room. All I hear are shrieks and hysterics. Tears are right around the corner, but she never seems to worry about that. She’s the fun one. I’m just Boring Old Dad, regular and bland as the train schedule.
Of course they’re going to tell her about the unlimited radio time and about the little boy in the playground who I made cry—what else could I do? He wouldn’t give Paolo’s shovel back!
Plus the gelato we all had afterward. (I had to take them somewhere. The whole incident was distressing for everyone.)
Well, fine. What is she going to do, be angry? It was her idea for me to stay home in the first place. Sort of. Her job just happened to pay more than mine does. And, at the time, making art while staying home with children seemed like a perfectly manageable situation. Back before either of us really understood what a child was.
Anyway, okay. Focus. Art. The bombing. The papers are calling this the most appalling air raid in history. The capital, as we all know, has been completely annihilated. What I envision for the painting are people and animals, a decapitated warrior, body splintered, distraught women looking on, a bird, no, a cockerel, cooing up at the sky, a bull, a ghostly wind, a mother holding a child who has—
Oh good god. Here they come. The stomping hungry hordes. I’ve got to get into the kitchen, stat! Who wants fish sticks?
So that was fun. Three times I tried to tell Dora about the project. She hardly seemed to listen. Bad enough to have the kids all clamoring around us. Papa look! Papa come! Mama, can I sit in your lap? I hate to be a brute, but is “Stop licking me!” really such an unreasonable request? Also, Paloma, please stop dumping salt into my water glass. I already had to pour out my wine after Paolo scraped the breadcrumbs from his fish sticks into it.
Anyway, Dora had that glazed look in her eyes. I was so excited to tell her about the scale of the project, the layers. I was thinking I want to incorporate certain elements of surrealism, revealing the stages of the process, almost as if the painting itself is moving, is alive, dynamic and yet dreamlike in some way.
“What does that mean, ‘dreamlike’?”
She sounded so irritated, like she was annoyed at me for even talking about it. Well, excuse me, I haven’t spoken to another adult for 18 hours, maybe I get a bit flustered sometimes. Maybe I’m not able to articulate myself perfectly well. Did she have to be such a bitch?
Well, she said, she wasn’t trying to be. Well, I told her, sometimes it seems like she’s not really interested. “You don’t even see me anymore.”
Which only made her defensive, because of course she saw me, I was sitting right there, and, she said, couldn’t she just relax, she was tired enough as it was, did I have to be so critical and tone-police her every comment? To which I said I wasn’t tone-policing anyone, I was just wanting to talk about this project. Go ahead, she said, talk, no one was stopping me. But then I didn’t want to talk about it at all, and she sighed, and I sighed, and we sipped our wine and of course then the kids decided to finally be completely quiet, so our whole flat was dead silent, and we all ate that way for the next ten minutes.
Great. Just great.
I didn’t even get to tell her about the horse with the horn coming out of its mouth.
Aaaaand bedtime was a shitshow, though what else is new. Wasn’t sleep training supposed to last forever? Apparently not. More water, another book, another hug, two trips to the bathroom, more water…at least now they are asleep. Ah, a quiet home. Is there anything holier? I can actually move from one room to another without someone lunging at my legs or rolling a truck directly into my path.
I should probably put away all their toys. Also, sweep the kitchen, prep the coffee for tomorrow morning, finish the dishes. But. There is time for all that later. Really, once and for all, I need to think about this project.
My heart just breaks for my people. How to even explain the situation to our children? Tonight Paolito asked me about Spain. “Is it gone?” he wanted to know.
“No, no,” I said. “Spain’s not gone.”
“But the city in the north?” he asked. “Is it gone?”
I never want to lie to them.
“What are you going to do about it, Papa?”
I laughed. “I’m trying,” I told him, “to make a painting.”
He asked me what I would call it, this painting. And you know? I hadn’t yet thought about that. What to call this project that, I am so certain, if I can only eke out enough time to complete it, will be a defining work of art not just of my career but of the entire 20th century.
“What do you think I should call it, Paolito?”
He scrunched his brow. “How about The Bull and the Horse and the Bombs and the Lady and the People?”
I laughed. “Seems a bit long.”
And yet. Did it melt my heart, to see he had been paying attention to me all this time? It did. It really did.
Sigh. What I really ought to paint is them. Paolito with eyes on his fingertips. Paloma, her smiling mouth large as a pumpkin. Even Dora, my Dora, her hands hard and strong as stones.
Then what? I can hear the critics already. Pablo Picasso, just another artist focused entirely on domestic life. Not political enough. Not global enough. Little paintings of his family. Not bad, they will say of my masterpieces. For a man.
No, I will show them. I must show them exactly what a man can do. I shall get to work immediately. The pegasus, I have been thinking, does not belong as is, escaping from the bloody wound in the flank of a horse. I can also nix the Athenian warrior’s helmet. Plus the background, I now think white is better than pale blue.
Oh but I’m exhausted just thinking about it.
What I really want to do, right now, is sneak inside their rooms and curl up beside them. Inhale their milky skin, caress their peaceful sleeping faces. How precious they are, how perfect. Aren’t they? Aren’t they truly something? These creatures that I have made?
6 replies on “The Making of Guernica: Artist Notes from Pablo Picasso, Stay-at-Home Dad”
Loved this story! I especially related to this passage:
“Aaaaand bedtime was a shitshow, though what else is new. Wasn’t sleep training supposed to last forever? Apparently not. More water, another book, another hug, two trips to the bathroom, more water…at least now they are asleep. Ah, a quiet home. Is there anything holier? I can actually move from one room to another without someone lunging at my legs or rolling a truck directly into my path.”
Ah Ha! The 21Century First World Family, fifty plus years passed the patriarchal coals of 1950’s Father Knows Best gives us Becky’s tableau , a cold frieze of a life struggling through less than six degrees of separation. She pens an icy satire where the elemental heat of genius( to paraphrase) who would if imprisoned “lick its tongue in the dust “ to paint the desecration of the masses, yet faces a fair-faced nemesis: our own children, being forced to live hour by hour in a family unit without negating genius.
Ah peace, whose ironies shake even the religious orders ! Browning, his sacred monks grousing familial ire, one monk to the other
“ grrrrrr, you swine”
Turns out – as Becky Tush reveals it fun to separate the painter from the paint, under the gun of parenting . Nice piece Becky Tush !
Spell Becky Tuch correctly ! Please !
Hi there, Becky!
Thanks for the article. Can you please be more specific with origin of the quote: “We artists are indestructible…”. For years I tried to find it with no success.
Brilliant, funny, so real portrait of life as a creative person raising kids, nearly all of us moms. I was there for years in the joy and hell of it, dodging Legos, singing made-up melodies to The Owl and the Pussycat and animating Winnie the Pooh, then writing music and poetry in all my stolen hours.