Artefacts and arty facts

This is the first art piece I wrote. I was just blown away by the Holbein in England exhbition at Tate Britain in 2006, and needed to write something. I think I was in a mood on Monday morning and needed to warm up.

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Last Friday I came face-to-face with Henry VIII. It wasn’t a comfortable feeling.

It’s strange, being intimidated by a 500-year-old picture of a dead man. But Henry made it his life’s work to make people feel inferior, and when you’ve had that much practice, a mere few centuries of death doesn’t make much difference.

It wasn’t all Henry’s doing, of course. Much of the skill came from another dead man, a German in exile, Hans Holbein, Henry’s personal art monkey; we were at the Holbein in England exhibition at Tate Britain. I’m no art historian, but I’ve wandered around a few galleries in my time, and I’ve never seen anyone come close to Holbein when it comes to faces. Even more than a photographer, Holbein showed people as they were — not just how they looked, how they were.

Here’s Henry VIII. His neck is wider than his head. He isn’t looking you in the eye. He’s looking over your right shoulder, and from his expression, it’s because he thinks you’re not really worthy of his attention. His eyes and mouth seem small on that expanse of flesh; the eyes are narrowed slightly, and the mouth is pursed. Henry obviously spends a lot of time sneering; the expression is engraved on his face. The picture fills the frame, dominates it; the background is a narrow strip. This isn’t happy, fat Henry, monarch of Merrie England. This is a huge, brutal man. It’s the face of a thug.

It’s not just the face, the physical presence of the man, that’s intimidating. This picture hammers home the fact that Henry’s power is even scarier than him. His clothes glitter. He’s wearing a silver jerkin over a white shirt with gold embroidery on the collar. The embroidery is picked out in paint which is obviously mostly powdered gold. The background is the same blue that you find on paintings of the Virgin Mary — it’s the same pigment, lapis lazuli, imported thousands of miles from what’s now Afghanistan. The background darkens as it comes close to the outlines of the Henry-image, like it’s distorted by his gravity. The colours glow like a religious icon. It’s an incredibly costly thing, this; it’s almost jewellery.

And it was a diplomatic gift to somebody, probably another head of state. That’s not a generous act, it’s an act of intimidation. Here’s a picture of the man who defied the Pope, who had his wife murdered by the state so he could remarry. It’s worth a not-so-small fortune. And he can afford to give it away. That’s how rich he is. That’s his power.

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Probably Anne Boleyn

The Holbein exhibition is full of moments like that. It’s not even the paintings that have the strongest effect; it’s the drawings. They are extraordinary. Holbein made pencil-and-chalk drawings from life, probably working very fast, then worked up the paintings in his studio. While the paintings are still and stately, the drawings are lively. Most of the men, even Thomas More, need a shave. The eyes dart around. Clothes are sketched in with quick, jagged lines with a few notes scribbled on them to indicate colours and cloths. Thomas More’s father is trying not to laugh. Lady Guildford is sneaking sidelong peeks at her husband. A young woman who might be Anne Boleyn looks plain, with her sharp nose and receding chin, until you notice how much work Holbein’s put into her eyes and her eyelashes, which are so thick she looks like she’s wearing mascara — if she looked straight at you, you’d never be able to look away. The paintings are of historical personages, but the drawings are the real people, slightly wrinkled, slightly rumpled, in need of a hairbrush. And here they are, these real Tudor people, in front of the King’s artist, a man who spends his life among the intrigues of some of the most lethal people who’ve ever existed, in a world where talking to the wrong person at the wrong time can get you killed, and where you never know who the wrong person is. Hardly any of these people look happy. Some of them look nervous. They had good reason to be.

On the way home, I couldn’t stop looking at people’s faces, and seeing them back five hundred years, in silks, furs and velvets, with wide hats or head-dresses, skewered by Holbein’s pen.


This was a piece I wrote for my work blog, when I wrote a work blog. The reasons I stopped are many, various, slightly petty and unresolved.

The engineering genius of a Renaissance man

By Stuart Nathan 12th February 2016 12:57 pm

Stuart Nathan
Features Editor

The Science Museum’s brilliant Leonardo da Vinci exhibition shows the 15th century polymath as the engineer he was and a man of his turbulent time, in a way we don’t often appreciate

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Regular readers might remember that one of the more pleasant perks of working on The Engineer is the occasional invitation to previews of new exhibitions at the Science Museum which, for a proudly-confessed nerd like me, is like a greedy child being given the keys to the sweetshop. Which is why, on Tuesday morning, I was to be found in the museum’s basement, gazing literally open-mouthed at the fruits of the brain of Leonardo da Vinci.

The Science Museum is the latest venue for a touring exhibition originating with the French organisation for public science communication, Universcience, and Milan’s Museo della Scienza e della Tecnologia Leonardo da Vinci (MUST). Entitled ‘Leonardo da Vinci: The Mechanics of Genius’, it presents 39 models of the machines Leonardo designed, including flying machines, weapons and tools. In doing so, it presents a side of the archetypal Renaissance man that many people will not be familiar with, and one that engineers in particular will find fascinating.

Today, we think of Leonardo (as he’s invariably known; never call him da Vinci, especially if you’re within earshot of a Renaissance scholar) primarily as an artist. We know he was a polymath, and his anatomical studies are well-known (although even those are more often linked to their use as research for art than anything else). What becomes clear from the exhibition is that Leonardo was, possibly above all other things, an engineer. That was how he made his living: the princes who paid his salary might have commissioned the odd fresco from him, but it was his machines they were really after.

Living in 15th century Italy, Leonardo’s world was one of city-states that were constantly at war with each other, and Leonardo spent a lot of his time compiling what we might see as prospectuses to show prospective employers what he could do for them in defending their own citizens and massacring those of their neighbours (you could easily draw parallels with the preoccupations of today’s politicians). An important part of these documents were designs for siege engines and weapons; and it’s clear that these were as much to terrify the enemy as anything else. One of the first objects in the exhibition is a huge crossbow, placed vertically and about three metres high. From Leonardo’s drawings, we can see this is a scale model: he intended the actual thing to be the height of a house, and its purpose was to fire flaming projectiles into the midst of the enemy. Leonardo’s letters often talk of the damage and great injury his designs could cause, but they also make a point of stressing the panic and terror they would inspire. Clearly Leonardo would have completely understood the deterrent theory of today’s nuclear states. You’d only have to see a house-sized crossbow once before you ran like hell.

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Run away!

Leonardo didn’t build these machines; but what he did do was draw them. He drew everything. “Nobody drew machines like Leonardo; his designs have an incredible vivacity that still speaks to us today,” explained Martin Kemp, emeritus professor of the history of art at Oxford University, one of the world’s leading authorities on Leonardo and a guest at the exhibition viewing. It wasn’t just the way the machines looked on paper that was so revolutionary, Kemp added: it was the thinking and analysis behind them, and the methods Leonardo invented to depict them.

For Leonardo, invention began with observation. Aged 20, his first proper job was as an apprentice in a workshop on the enormous building site for Florence’s cathedral, the Duomo. We know that he was involved in the construction of a huge metal sphere that now sits on top of the cathedral’s crowning dome, but he would have been familiar with the machines on the site, such as the cranes that were being used to lift the dressed stones, designed by the artist/architect Brunelleschi. He observed them, and he drew them. “He visualised things, understood things and drew things in three dimensions, so they appear as solid objects,’ Kemp said. “but the point about that is that sometimes important parts of the mechanism would be hidden behind something closer to the observer. So Leonardo drew what he called elementi but we would think of as components: detailed diagrams of how the mechanisms worked and the parts they were made up from. Nobody had done that before.” What is now very familiar to us as an exploded diagram was pioneered by Leonardo.

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Martin Kemp in full flow

One of the things that marked Leonardo out was his curiosity. It’s clear that he sought out mathematicians, talked to them and read their texts, and his machines are based on a rigorous understanding of their underlying principles (or at least as rigorous as the science of the time allowed; Leonardo didn’t know much trigonometry, Kemp noted, because the Ancient Greek texts on the subject weren’t translated into Italian at the time.) He also experimented throughout his life, into phenomena such as the properties of materials and friction, using instruments he designed himself. The exhibition includes models of instruments he used in his investigations of his lifelong obsession with flight, including an anemometer consisting of a flexible flap that the wind would blow against a curved scale to indicate its speed, and a hygrometer, consisting of a balance that weighed a wax sphere against a piece of wadding of equal weight when dry, but which would become heavier as it absorbed moisture from the atmosphere. They are brilliant pieces of instrumentation engineering, and as curator Jim Bennet, an emeritus keeper at the Science Museum who worked on the exhibition pointed out, completely unprecedented.

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Jim Bennet, casual

Bennet worked on the Science Museum’s contribution to the exhibition: a series of small mechanical models produced in 1952 for an exhibition to mark the 500th anniversary of Leonardo’s birth, which was staged at the Royal Academy and was the forerunner of the blockbuster art shows we know at the Academy today (if any of our readers remember this show, we’d love to hear from them). The other models in the exhibition were made for MUST, also in the 1950s; but the British ones, commissioned from a company in Wimbledon called Goacher Model Engineering, came first, Bennett said. He writes about them here. ‘We are claiming some primacy here,’ he said. Much smaller than the Italian models, the Goacher set is labelled ‘Leonardo for a time of austerity’, reflecting post-War Britain’s lack of funds.

The distinction we see between engineer and artist simply didn’t exist in Leonardo’s time, Bennet told me; our view of him today is coloured by the fact that the artwork survives whereas the machines didn’t. Never in charge of his own workshop, Leonardo would have known that most of his designs would never be built. There is no physical trace today of the completed engineering works that we do know of from his journals, such as a sluice that formed part of the defences of Venice; and the precious drawings were not known until relatively recently. Bennett thinks that it’s more a Victorian hangover than a modern view: art was seen as much higher status in the 19th century, and engineering had the taint of ‘trade’ about it.

Martin Kemp said that Leonardo saw his role as being ‘a second Nature.’ “He looked at what was around him, understood it very often by drawing it, and then took the principles he had learned and used them to create something new. When he was designing a flying machine, he knew that you couldn’t copy feathers; you had to understand how they worked, how they created lift, and then devise something that did the same thing.” Kemp added that Leonardo knew full well that his ornithopter – a flying machine with flapping wings operated by a pilot pulling levers – would never fly because of the power-to-weight ratio; after 1500 he switched to designing hang-gliders, but even these incorporate a mechanism to spread the wing-tips to improve their flight characteristics.

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Spread those wings

Equally, some of the machines were just for show. The famous screw-aerofoil helicopter was a novelty designed as an entertainment (an important part of Leonardo’s role at court); equally, a self-propelled vehicle driven by the energy stored in crossbow-like components wasn’t a weapon, but was intended to carry the figures of gods in an elaborate court masque. Incidentally, this sort of thing was going on all over Europe; England’s own Renaissance prince, Henry VIII, employed Hans Holbein the Younger in a similar role (as well as painting stunning portraits, he designed salt cellars and stage sets).

Kemp’s description of Leonardo’s process has to be one of the most eloquent statements of an engineer’s job I’ve ever heard; and the exhibition shows it off to a fascinating extent. Who knew that Leonardo designed machine tools? Yet there’s a fully working mechanism that automates the production of files. Interested in ropes and fabrics? Here’s a machine to twist 15 cords into a rope, and a spinning wheel that anticipates designs from the 18th century. Here are modern-looking bearings on a table for conducting friction experiments; and architectural designs based on the mathematics of budding flowers that wouldn’t be out of place, apart from their 15th century ornamentation, on the Stirling Prize shortlist. A small section shows how some of Leonardo’s ideas on mimicking nature are being carried into the 21st century; our old friend Festo’s robot seagull, which I last saw rapidly approaching my head, is displayed in skeletal form next to Leonardo’s ornithopter with its almost identical spars and levers.

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File under file machine

Leonardo was a man out of time and yet completely of his time; a humblingly broad and restless intellect that couldn’t be pinned down in his own life and still can’t today. Bennet admitted that if there had been a line manager overseeing him, Leonardo would probably have driven him insane. “But contemporary accounts say he was a really nice man; easy to talk to and fun to be around. He was very witty and loved to talk.” We’ll never know for sure, of course. But if you want to get an idea, and see how much you have in common with this amazing man, I urge you to get along to the Science Museum before 4 September.

If I might be permitted a personal note, this week marks the birthdays of both of my late grandfathers. One was an artist, the other a talented mechanic. They would have loved this exhibition. So, Jacob Freedman and Jack Nathan, this article is for you both.


I’ve still not lost the interest in Leonardo, so when the Royal Academy opened its new galleries including its copy of the Last Supper, which has been out on loan for years, I couldn’t resist dropping in.

Standing in front of the Last Supper copy at the Royal Academy

Giampietrino, active 1500-1550; The Last Supper

Leonardo never laid a hand on this, but his fingerprints are all over it.

They’re in the swirling shadows around the heads of Christ and the disciples; they’re in the play of light across the faces; in the spray of salt across a creased tablecloth; in the curiously androgynous features of the figures behind the table; in the tensed tendons of the sandalled feet.

Leonardo’s hands; now there’s a thing. There’s a story that he could straighten a horseshoe with his bare hands, but that sounds like a myth. Giotto and Rembrandt were supposed to be able to draw a perfect circle freehand; there are all sorts of stories about legendary strongmen. But we know some of what Leonardo could do with his hands. He could take a silver point and draw a burgeoning cloud in delicate lines on paper; convince us that shafts of light were passing through that cloud. He could trace the curls of an angel’s hair in oil paint with a fine brush: conjure up fantastical landscapes of imagined rocks that defy the laws of geology and gravity, yet still look real to us 500 years later when we understand such things. He could turn woods, wires and bones into a lute and make it sing. And although abhorring war, he could devise such terrible weapons that they would surely empty a battlefield; in the full knowledge that they would never be built.

And he could devise this.

An imagined room, whose fake light could convince the observer that it was real, receding into fake space. A life-or-death drama around a long table, with 13 men in movement, clustering together, surging forward, cowering in guilt, lurching in disbelief; and a moment of stillness and grace at its centre that could even touch an unbeliever like me so many centuries later.

It didn’t look like this for long. Ever innovating, Leonardo didn’t want the muted colours of a fresco. He wanted the glowing light and shade he had pioneered as a teenager; the oil painting he had learned from the Flemish and brought to Italy for the first time. So he experimented. Instead of mixing pigment onto wet plaster, he concocted his oil paints with glue and painted them onto the dry wall. He must have known soon later that it was a disaster. The glue didn’t stick, the colour started to flake, his brilliant image receded into dot matrix and dust. The monks’ kitchen, behind the wall, breathed steam into the brickwork and the plaster and made the painting bubble and fall. Those bright and shadowed faces, looming over the refectory, became spotty and obscure.

But we have this. Maybe even while he was still painting, some of his students – maybe three – dragged this enormous canvas into the refectory in Milan and started copying. They were good. It doesn’t quite look like him, but enough it does that we can see what it looked like just a few years after Leonardo put his ladders away.

Who saw it like this? Not many. The monks, obviously. They loved it so much that they took sledgehammers to their saviour’s feet, and punched a doorway through the wall. Maybe they thought the painting was beyond repair by the time they needed to make an extra way to keep their dinner hot. All that praying must need sustenance.

Who else? Did Michelangelo come? He didn’t like Leonardo – a jealous, obsessive man, he didn’t like anybody much. He’s in this room too, over to the right of this painting. A disc of white marble, carved into the likenesses of the infant Jesus in his mother’s arms, shrinking away from his toddler cousin John who holds a bird out before him – possibly a symbol of the crucifixion to come. The carving isn’t finished, only the baby and the Virgin have smooth surfaces, John and the background are textured and lumpy. But although we don’t know Leonardo’s strength, we can see the younger Michelangelo’s. He has worked hard marble like softened butter.

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I don’t think Michelangelo would have been able to keep away. I can imagine him in that high ceilinged room, a massive presence, beefy arms folded, brows drawn together, looking at the curly hair on Judas’s head and wondering if the old man had been copying him, exuding the smells of sweaty clothing and resentment. There are many faces in the painting with broken noses; they must have been common in the Italian cities where the hot-tempered locals often argued. Michelangelo’s nose was flattened; it had been crushed like a biscuit when his mouth ran away with him while he was copying frescoes as a student. One piss-take too far, probably. Did his breath whistle through the displaced bone as he inhaled? He would have hated that.

They called him Il Divino, but Michelangelo never could never hide his scorn.
Titian couldn’t draw, he said. Raphael was a thief. Leonardo – a legend even then – was still a dilettante who couldn’t even cast a bronze. That’s one that must have stung. The older man had been busy all his life, relentlessly curious and compulsively sketching and writing in his backward script with his left hand so he could keep drawing with his right and he wouldn’t smudge the ink. Problem was, what he was busy with wasn’t what he was being paid for. Those restless hands were cutting into stinking corpses, first so he could see how bodies fit together to paint them better, but later to discover the deeper mysteries, the organs, the passage of light through the eyes. He would use his fingernails to tease skin and muscle away from bone and tendon. If he weren’t so famous, they might have thought he was mad. If he hadn’t painted Jesus so well, they might have burned him as a witch, like they burned Savonarola when he turned out to be a false prophet.

But we have this painting, even though the original is mostly lost to us. Thousands of miles and hundreds of years from its origin, this hangs on the wall in the building where it inspired so many. And it mystifies. Is that a woman, gazing down on guilty Judas? Is it one of Leonardo’s pretty boys? Why are there bread rolls on a Passover table? Did Leonardo not know that these observant Jews would not touch bread at this time? Or was he saying that he discounted the myths that the Jews baked gentile blood into their Passover wafers? That rumour would have been rife around the Medici city. Is this itself a masterpiece, an echo of one, a gift from the past, or just the ultimate piece of Catholic kitsch? Standing before it, I sense a gaze at my back and look over my shoulder to see a serene bearded face, framed by long hair, looking over at me. But it’s not real. It’s another painting, another copy, this time of Raphael. I know he painted Leonardo (and Michelangelo, despite the insults). Am I looking the genius in the eye? Rebirth or coincidence? All I can do is look. Back in time, at an image that no longer exists, in a place it never was.


I got so many nice comments about this that when we went to Greenwich to see John Harrison’s clocks – another old interest of mine, thanks to Dava Sobel’s brilliant little book Longitude, I couldn’t resist writing someting. Please forgive the sketchy rendition of the quantum physics of metallic structure and bonding; I was trying to keep it short.

You really should read Longitude, by the way.

Fixed points

Time can’t stand still. Physics cannot be cheated. Energy flows from hot to cold; vibration is transmitted from atom to atom, from molecule to molecule. Disorder gradually, inexorably increases. Time’s Arrow points the way from past into present to future. Fixed points in time cannot exist.

Harrison Marine Timekeeper Number Three.  1757

Even where we think there is stillness, there is motion. When we think there is order, chaos will build. These hunks of brass look still – at least their frames look still, although inside them, wheels rock back-and-forth, springs stretch and relax and gears intermesh. But if we could look closer still, even their static parts are hives of movement. The metal is composed of nuclei, nuggets of mass, protons and neutrons held together by unfathomable force, close-packed in layers with more layers nestling into their hollows, but they are enveloped and surrounded by a seething sea of electrons, neither wave and particle but both at the same time, jostling together, approaching the nuclei but never colliding, no two ever in the same place. And because they cannot occupy the same space, nothing can penetrate their surface unless hard enough to separate the nuclei. The order of the lattice of nuclei is offset by the seething chaos of the electrons, preserving the order of the universe and the direction of Time’s Arrow.

Always in motion, this device fixes time. Wherever it is, whichever corner of a foreign field, whichever corner of the ship’s cabin, whichever expedition, anywhere in the world is forever England; not just forever England, but forever London; not just forever London, but forever here, where the river bends and the land rises above the beech trees; this spot. Greenwich. These four clocks were made to carry Greenwich Time, and to keep that time without loss, no matter how much the deck pitched and tossed; through calm and hurricane; the humidity thicken the air to soup or polar chill freeze ice out of thin air. They would keep the time. And the crew would watch the sun as it rose and marked the time it appeared to stop – more apparent stillness masking motion. When the sun stopped in its track, they would check the time on the chronometer and see how far back or forward it was to noon in Greenwich. And that would tell them how far east or west of this hill they were. With the height of the sun at its zenith telling them how far north or south, that would fix their position on the globe beyond doubt. Lose your time, and you lose your place. Lose your place, lose your safety. You end up on the rocks. Smashed to pieces, your crew bait for sharks or drowning in the depths. Your cargo lost for all time. Time reveals where you are.

Time was, this was a place of noise. Before John Harrison, who made these clocks, before Christopher Wren, who built this place, before Nevil Maskelyne, who lived here, at the bottom of the hill where the beech trees now grow, this place echoed to the roar of the furnaces and the ring of hammers. Steel was made here, steel fit for a king and to fit a king. Henry Tudor, athlete and sportsmen, warrior who never fought a war, brought over Germans and Dutchmen and Flemings, men of craft and skill and heretic faith, who could crush red stone and coal and roast them together until iron flowed forth, molten and silver; they could draw the sword from the stone. These men would heat their steel and shape it, draw it and mould it into armour to fit close to the body, hammering those nuclei into their lattices, eradicating disorder and making it as strong and hard as steel could be; the best in the world, made into the shape of Henry’s soul – his own image of himself, with gilt decorations by the court artist, Holbein, who painted the king and his wives and his would-be wives and his ministers, all to fall under the axe over the river at the Tower. Those heretical German books would turn Henry’s world upside down and shake his kingdom beyond recognition, triggering the Reformation. Chaos out of order, and returning to order only after centuries and Civil War. The blood that would be shed, by that steel and those ideas.

Following Time’s Arrow forward, John Harrison, a man of little education – like Shakespeare, like Leonardo – who had taught himself to work wood and turn that wood into clocks that needed no oil, thought he could make devices to fix the time. There was a prize on offer, a prize that would change lives by saving lives. Harrison took brass, hardened by the same methods those cunning armourers had used on their steel, and cut it, filed it, smoothed it and shaped it into devices with strange names – gridiron beams that will keep their length despite the heat: grasshopper escapements that could turn the unwinding of a spring into second-long intervals: caged roller bearings that could smooth movement despite the lurching of whatever held them. Over a lifetime, he built these four clocks. And here they sit, still but ever moving, marking the time, fixing the time.

There were mistakes along the way. None of the first three clocks worked properly; the second was abandoned as a dead end. The third, the most complex of all and 19 years work, only failed because unschooled Harrison did not understand how the springs would behave. The clocks would mark out over 200 years before even the most learned scholars could reach that understanding. But the fourth clock, the fourth achieved Harrison’s goal, although he could not build it alone. Around the world it went, Harrison four and its descendants, making sure Britannia ruled the waves, because – thanks to Harrison – Britannia knew for sure before anybody else where in the waves her ships were. All over the globe they went, building an empire, carrying knowledge and engineering wherever they went, carrying Darwin, carrying Dickens, carrying the words of Shakespeare, and bringing back a reputation whose darkness we are only now acknowledging – whales slaughtered and packed into barrels, whose oil lit the Empire and kept its machines running smoothly; human misery and pilfered bronze from Africa; the jewels of India still shining in the Imperial Crown; the engines that fuelled our thirst for speed, travel and energy and whose fumes still surrounds our world with a greenhouse whose cost we cannot yet reckon. John Harrison could never have known that. He just wanted to stop the wreckage of lost ships and the lives they took away; to win the prize for fixing the time.

And here the clocks are still. Lined up in semidarkness, shining in their glass cases. Jewels with no gemstones. Marvellous things to marvel at on a sunny Saturday. Where the river bends, and the land rises above the beech trees. Fixed points. Forever London, forever here, forever now.

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Remembering Guernica

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I am not a Picasso fan. You are supposed to be able to separate the man from the work, but I find it very difficult in his case. The presiding artistic genius of the 20th century was a terrible human being. Whether he was attracted to emotionally fragile women, or if he was the cause of their fragility is impossible to say. But of the five women with whom he shared most of his life – and there were others – one committed suicide, one was abused and forced to fight another of his mistresses for his affections, and one had to remain married to him after they separated because he refused to divide his property between the two of them.

Their names deserve to be remembered. Olga Khokhlova, who split up with him when he started sleping with Marie-Therese Walter, who was then 17. Olga had to stay married to Picasso until she died, aged 63. Marie-Therese was forced to fight – literally – with Dora Maar, and took her own life four days after Picasso died. Dora self-harmed and was physically abused by Picasso, and had a breakdown after they split up.

Picasso painted the women in his life many times, and they are recognisable although distorted horribly by his painting styles. How must it be, to a fragile psyche, to see yourself so remade by the man you love? To see your identity shattered and reassembled to suit his whim?

Hard to admire a man like that. And although I like his early representational work: the blue and rose periods; and the geometric Cubism he developed with Georges Braque; and I admire his restless inventiveness and need to create, his distortions seem cartoony and frivolous to me and they leave me cold.

But Guernica is another matter. It has been some years since I saw it, but the impact has never left me. I have a reproduction of it here, above my desk, but it cannot possibly do it justice.

Guernica is housed in the Reina Sofia gallery in Madrid, a former hospital and a remarkably tranquil building, with wide corridors, airy galleries and plant-filled courtyards.

Coming across Guernica in these surroundings is a shock.

So many people know the image, but so few know the painting. The word that comes to mind on seeing it for the first time is cinematic, for two reasons. The first is its size. It is housed in a large hall and completely covers one of its walls, the size of a large cinema screen. The second reason, of course, is because this is a silver screen; the image is rendered in shades of grey. Perhaps this is one reason it had such an impact on me. The lack of colour takes it a step away from reality and makes it easier to accept Picasso’s distortions.

This is a massive painting. Massive is a word often misused: its strict meaning refers to weight, resistance to acceleration if pushed. It does not refer to size, but to the physical effect an object has on the universe. If something has mass, it has gravity; it attracts other objects to it by literally distorting space and time. But Guernica is massive. It generates gravity, but gravity of a strange sort. This is not an image that you want to get close to, but equally it is not one you want to move away from. It roots you to the spot and distorts time. I spent half an hour motionless staring at it, and it seemed like 10 minutes.

Famously, Guernica is dense with symbolism. The symbols are slippery, meaning different things to different people. Throughout his long career, Picasso used the bull and the horse as symbols of Spain, and this is a Spanish picture even though it was painted in France.

The bull hovers at the edge of the painting, and the wounded horse is in the centre, exposed under the harsh light of a torturer’s naked bulb. You don’t need to be told that the naked light bulb with its explosion of light is wrong: it hovers like an eye and stabs the air around it with jagged rays. It is obviously an intrusion; as is the bomb and dagger combination that replaces the horse’s tongue. Do these symbolise the broken Spain of the Civil War?

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Intrusions

The bull is impassive, looking in two directions at once, but it plays no active part in the image. The horse is shoulder deep in monochrome gore; a dismembered soldier at its feet, a disembodied screaming face at its tail, and behind it, a figure dying in flames. Its body is tangled in a thicket of ghostly images, another bull goring it with its horns, twisted human limbs and shattered masonry or furniture.

It wrenches at something inside you, this painting. It is surrounded by studies and sketches, but the figure of a woman screaming to the sky as her dead baby lies in her arms has more impact as part of the whole than in isolation. That naked bulb seems to charge everything in its merciless light, revealing what should be hidden.

What’s missing is what did this. There is no sign of the wave after wave of Luftwaffe that rained bombs from the sky onto the town of Guernica, no indication of the horrible alliance between German Nazis and Spanish fascists. But there is no need. The atrocity, the violence, the destruction are all laid bare at Titanic scale and with brutal clarity. Nearly 4 m tall and eight wide, it sears itself onto the back of your eyeballs and tattoos itself onto your brain. It almost hurts to look at it. You walk out of the room shaking and needing fresh air.

Did it work, this painting? Did it spread revulsion of this war tactic, bring home its horror and inhumanity? Ask Coventry, with the shattered bones of its cathedral open to the air and its cross of nails on the altar. Ask Dresden, where the residents suffocated in the cellars as the firestorm sucked the oxygen out of the air. Ask Hiroshima. Ask Nagasaki. Ask Beirut, Baghdad, Tripoli, Basra, Damascus. Whether you call it Blitzkrieg, Shock and Awe, surgical strike or whatever euphemism you use, Guernica has never left us.

And Picasso? All but deified, a creative genius whose work is drawing the crowds in London today. Misogynist, abuser, toxic masculinity made flesh.

But he got at least one thing right.

picasso painting
Picasso painting Guernica. Photo by Dora Maar

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