There are unique difficulties involved in coming face-to-face with one of the most significant paintings the world has ever seen.  As an art lover in Madrid this is a problem you’re going to face on a regular basis, but I still haven’t come up with a decent solution.  After all, when you’re gaping open-mouthed at the greatest painting of the 20th Century, no amount of looking is ever really going to be enough…

This is Picasso’s Guernica.  I suspect you may have seen it before:

Guernica

And chances are, if you like art, you’ve already spent more time reading books about (or listening to people talk about, or maybe even reading people blog about) this painting than it is actually possible to spend in front of it without getting yourself arrested.  So how do you truly absorb this work without simply ticking it off your list?  Without it just being another tourist experience duly experienced?

Well, to be honest, I’m simply not sure you can.  And, if you try to do so, you’re probably just sticking your fingers in your ears to the fact that any great painting ends up defined as much by its context, by its critical reception, its political meaning, its own mythology of creation and provenance and analysis, as it does by its application of paint to canvas.

So, I have stood in front of Guernica – a moment of such common symbolic significance that its Reine Sofia home honestly sells certificate-postcards proclaiming ‘The Guernica Does Exist: I Have Seen It’ for you to self-sign! – and it was good.

And, standing there, in front of a painting that, despite all warnings, was simply bigger, more oppressively monochrome and more full of character than I could ever have been prepared for, is there anything at all meaningful I could add to the weight of cultural baggage already attached to it?

No, of course not.  But I’ll try anyway, to add my own tiny insight to the pile… 

Because if you find yourself like me, standing in front of the greatest painting of the century of your birth and struggling to find a way in, try this: take a look at the hands and feet.  All the anguish of Guernica is there, in every twist and turn and bloated clenching digit.

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