Revisited is a series in which writers look back on a work of art they first encountered long ago. Here, Nathan Englander revisits Picasso’s Guernica.
When I was eleven years old, my mother took me into the city from our suburban Long Island enclave. It was 1981, and we were on our way to MoMA. We were going to say goodbye to Guernica, Picasso’s giant antiwar mural from 1937. At the end of the Spanish Civil War, Picasso lent the painting to MoMA, stipulating that it not be sent to Spain until liberty was restored. More than forty years after its creation, it was headed off to its Spanish home.
It was an impressive thing to see. I can remember how that painting loomed. But it was the horse in the center—set under that giant, all-seeing eye—that drew my attention. Because that image and I, we already went back a long way. Out in suburbia, I’d stared endlessly at the version of it that Picasso had painted as a study for the mural.
In the study, we see only the screaming gray horse’s head. The horse’s eyes, as in the larger painting, are tiny. But the head is set at a sharper angle, aimed up toward the heavens, as if seeking help that’s never going to come. The horse’s mouth is wide open, its nostrils flared. And between seven ground-down teeth, a horrible spear of a tongue sticks out. You can see the hair on the edges of the horse’s muzzle, which feels almost doglike, giving the face a domesticated warmth that makes the expression of fear all the worse.
I’d memorized that little painting for the same reason I was in the museum that day. Because my mother loved art and she’d taught me to love it, too. She’d been taking me to museums from the time I was a baby. And, apparently, I’d been sharing my opinions from the start. She told me that I once cracked up a gallery from my stroller when I weighed in with a loud “I like that lady!” in reference to a statue that was very prominently and undeniably a man.
My mother’s own interest in art had started in childhood. After high school, she’d gone off to RISD, but then dropped out after a year to marry my father and enter the Orthodox Jewish world.
She might have left art school, but she didn’t leave art behind. We were a family religious about religion and about culture. There were the museum visits, and there were her own paintings and etchings, which hung on the walls of our house. And in our basement, on the bookshelves, she stored the library she’d collected along the way. It was there that I discovered a cardboard portfolio, a kind of cream-colored sleeve.
The portfolio was published by New York’s Museum of Modern Art and titled “Modern Art Old and New, Teaching Portfolio Number Three.” It contained a collection of 11 x 14 images of famous works, including Picasso’s study.
It was an extraordinary selection, a mix of modern and ancient works, and archaeological finds. The forty different plates contained everything from a Canaanite idol to a Mayan painted bowl to Brancusi’s Bird in Space, all of it shot in black and white.
I’d lie on the basement floor with those plates spread out, and study the shapes, memorizing the images, losing myself inside them. I can’t tell you how many times, or for how many peaceful hours, I went through them.
Then I moved on and moved out, and the collection, along with most of the artworks in it, was lost to my conscious mind. But every few years, I’d stumble upon one of the pieces pictured on those plates and feel immediately overcome with a strange emotional rush, a feeling of extraordinarily deep connection. There are no words attached to the experience, beyond “It’s one of them.” I find it hard to express both how forgotten those images were to me, and how instantly and sharply they became known again upon being seen.
A decade ago, I took a trip down to Houston to see my wife’s family, and together we visited the Menil Collection. There, on the wall, I spotted one of those pieces. It was Salvador Dali’s Paranoiac Face. I stood there stunned, not by Dali’s artistry, but because the spark of image connecting to image, like a game of Concentration, landed me right back on that basement floor.
But that horse’s head is different than the others. The message it’s clearly meant to convey—one of helplessness and horror, of anxiety and despair—is one I’ve internalized as the very picture of fear. So much so that, when I was imagining dread, it’s that screaming horse’s head that surfaced into consciousness, making its way onto the pages of my new novel, kaddish.com.
The main character, Shuli, has just had a nightmare in which his dead father ends up in a panic. This rightfully unnerves Shuli, and he’s still shaken when he wakes up. In the morning, Shuli “wraps his tefillin and prays, haunted by the dream and the intrusive image of his father’s frightened eyes, the gaping mouth, and that terrible spear of a tongue.”
The horse doesn’t appear as a horse in the book, but the spirit of its terror is woven into the narrative in the private, personal way that memories take on their fictional form. It was just as it was with my eleven-year-old self, staring up at that giant painting. As soon as I saw that familiar face, I knew exactly where it had come from.
Nathan Englander’s most recent novel is kaddish.com. He is also the author of the Dinner at the Center of the Earth, the collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, as well as the internationally best-selling story collection For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, and the novel The Ministry of Special Cases (all published by Knopf/Vintage).