Searching for Guernica: A Night at the Museum with Picasso

An Art World Sleepover with Adel Abdessemed and Christophe Ono-dit-Biot

In 2018, contemporary artists Adel Abdessemed and Christophe Ono-dit-Biot were invited to spend the night at the Guernica exhibition at Paris’s Picasso Museum—paradoxically, the centerpiece painting of the show was absent, since it can no longer leave Spanish soil. Armed respectively with chalk and a pen, they set out to find precursors of Picasso’s masterwork in the other paintings on display. But the Guernica’s overwhelming absence soon took Abdessemed back to Algeria, to a childhood spent with charcoal pencil in hand… before he fled repression in favor of freedoms both political and religious. The following is from the book-length story of that night.

*

The noise is overwhelming. In fact, it goes beyond noise. The insane screaming of a machine. It rises, high-pitched, penetrating eardrums, shaking the rest of the body, liquefying organs. They cover their ears but it makes no difference: this sickening howl paralyzes the brain, it drowns out everything, even the church bells that act as Biscay’s air-raid sirens. They rang out at full peal in the middle of the afternoon to warn the inhabitants of the sudden presence in the sky of those all-too-familiar dark shapes. But nobody was expecting them here, not today, on a market day.

The sky opens like a wound and vomits those metal mechanical hornets, swooping down to kill.

Just before this, it’s springtime. The sun is shining and people have come from all the surrounding villages. Children play near lowing cattle and women discuss the price of lambs.

It starts with a single airplane, which rains grenades on the center of the village. The blasts pulverize windowpanes and pave the streets with shards of glass. People run for the mountain or for bomb shelters installed in the town after the bombing of Durango on March 31. There’s one under the El Paseo square, where the market is held every Monday. Those who can, run. The others, too old or petrified by fear, stay where they are. People take them by the hand to help them. They scream as other planes appear, loose their bombs, and the wood-framed buildings burst into flames. The stench scorches throats, stings eyes, sickens stomachs. Those welcoming homes are transformed into furnaces. Amid detonations and blasts of warm air stinking of death, cries of pain rise towards the sky like imploring hands and clumps of earth are thrown several meters into the air by the impacts. Horses, tied in place, whinny in the flames. Beside craters, beside the charred bodies of their neighbors, their parents or an entire flock of sheep, women hug children tight to their chests, taking shelter where they can. They make themselves small and pray. Their lips move and the houses crumble.

If you stay in town, you die. In the bomb shelters, people faint from lack of oxygen. The children have been warned that if bombs fall they must bite down on a piece of wood so that their stomach muscles tense and the blasts don’t burst their intestines. But they’re not breathing anymore. Rubble blocks every opening.

If you leave town, you also die. Because now fighter jets are diving from the sky after those who flee, on foot or in carts. Their high-pitched roars spread terror even before they open fire. They fly so low that their victims, if they turned around, could see the faces of the pilots, concentrated on their unarmed targets, which they riddle with bullets in the narrow streets. They attack isolated farms in a radius of eight kilometers, but the Astra Unceta factory, which manufactures pistols, is spared.

Machine-gun fire pursues women and children, scattering their bodies like playing cards. The panicked survivors rush back to the bomb shelters, which are then destroyed by incendiary bombs. The killing is methodical and implacable. The sky has lost all color. The spiritual capital of the Basques, the town of the sacred oak where people have come to hold assemblies and swear oaths since the Middle Ages, is thrown into hell.

Three hours later, darkness finally chases the planes away. Although can we speak of darkness when the flames leap so bright and high?

I’ll stop there. I am tired and full of doubt. I look at my shirt, hung on the back of the chair and striped with charcoal lines, and at the notebook filled with Adel’s drawings, which I dare not open. I don’t know how to describe the night I spent with him in the shadow of Guernica.

Should I begin with the bombing, that massacre which has left behind no images except those we can create inside our heads by reading newspapers of the time?

Or with the painting which took its name from the martyred town and which has absorbed and devoured the entire event, now reduced for eternity to a single, globally recognized image? Guernica, the Mona Lisa of war.

I look at the black-striped shirt and smile. Again I see Adel attacking me, armed with the piece of charcoal that he called ‘Germinal’, laughing that infectious laugh of his which is, as his friend Kamel says, his greatest masterpiece. Again I see him, drawing like a madman just before dawn on the pages of the notebook and then, with quick strokes, on the walls of the museum, sketching fantastical shapes as if on the walls of a cave.

Our museums are our caves.

I smile again: yes, I will begin with him, the artist I accompanied last night, in search of an absent painting and the freedom to rediscover it.

“À l’attaque!”—I will borrow his war cry. He grew up in the war. Just the other side of the mare nostrum, in Algeria. A country where the name of God has been pronounced so often that He has tired of the sound and forsaken it. Where everyone has his own Guernica. And where it is forbidden to speak about it.

Let us awaken some memories.

*

His name is Adel Abdessemed. He is an artist who burns with an inextinguishable fire, a laughing phoenix rising from the flames, an eternal child.

He is an artist and a barbarian.

A barbarian: the only thing that is even a little bit alive in this dead age.

He is a barbarian and a Berber.

I’ve seen him—what—once, twice, three times in my life?

First time: in Venice, between the sky and the water. He had an exhibition in a Renaissance warehouse, all red stone and pointed windows. Inside, a cube of taxidermied animals. A compression that stank of flesh, ashes and burned fur, precursor to his “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?,” a still life that is actually more of a petrified death, with the exact same dimensions as Guernica—3.63 meters by 7.79. Like the cube, it is a tangle of real animal corpses, each one frozen in attitudes of terror and suffering, mouths open, eyes bulging, the creatures caught in their death throes. Foxes, hares, deer. The Big Bad Wolf, of course, is man. “An image should strike hard, but without hate, like a butcher,” the artist said, quoting Baudelaire. Already, I had noticed his generous, cascading laughter. A Niagara of joy amid all the tragedy: life must triumph.

Second time: in Arles, near an ancient necropolis. His arms were crossed, his body covered in flames, as he stared from the photograph, gaze defiant but serene, silently proclaiming his “innocence.” Indeed, “I Am Innocent” was the title of that life-size photograph: an artist on fire. Afterward he appeared in flesh and blood, smiling in his blue suit, his feet clad in Gallo-Roman sandals which went perfectly with the blocks of marble in the ancient ruins not far from there, with the sunlight and the cicada noise.

“I transformed my tears into laughter,” he told me, although I couldn’t understand him at the time.

Third time: in Paris, more recently, in the labyrinthine laboratory of his studio, a chaos of permanent creativity. A child’s messy bedroom and a tragic theater. A dissection of the world’s violence. There were dozens of wooden crates, boxes full of drawings, police barriers in hot-galvanized steel.

On solid workbenches there were busts of his loved ones: father, mother, wife, child, patron, sculpted in terracotta but covered with a second skin of razor blades, like chain mail. But to protect them from what? There were various tools, hammers and pliers, electrical wires running along the floor, snaking into toy truck trailers filled with ingenious devices and other wires sheathed in red and green like the fuses on homemade bombs, and the head of a huge Christ made from razor wire, the same kind used in Guantanamo to prevent the escape of the orange-clad prisoners.

That Christ has been exhibited before, face to face with Grünewald’s altarpiece at the Unterlinden Museum in Colmar, and it was incredibly powerful because Adel’s Christ looked as if he were crying from his empty eyes, the barbed wire like jagged kohl beneath. I brushed my fingertips against those metal eyelids. They drew blood. Adel’s art is cutting-edge in every sense.

*

I didn’t know this Spanish woman.

The invitation arrived by mail in a black envelope. Inside, another envelope and two cards, also black.

One of them bore only two words, handwritten in white: “Guernica Project.”

The other consisted of a few sentences, the gist of which was that a certain señora Concepción Perez was inviting me to accompany the artist, whom she believed I knew slightly already, for a unique nocturnal experience. One night at the Picasso Museum in Paris. We would be alone there until dawn. And only until dawn. Which night? When? Further information would be provided if I accepted the invitation. There were two boxes beneath the text, to be checked. One said ‘SÍ’, the other ‘NO’. On the stamped envelope in which I was to send my reply was an address:

Guernica Project 1, allée Federico-García-Lorca Paris, 1er arrondissement

No phone number, no email address.

I smiled when I read the name again: Concepción Perez. The name of the heroine in The Woman and the Puppet by Pierre Louÿs, a novel published in 1898 and made into two movies, the first by Josef von Sternberg in 1935 and the second by Luis Buñuel in 1977, with the title That Obscure Object of Desire.

“Do not approach that woman. Flee her like death. Let me save you from her,” warns the hero, who has been burned by her. The Woman and the Puppet: Louÿs’s title might have been inspired by an apparently light-hearted but oddly disturbing Goya painting, “El Pelele.”

It all had the feel of a prank.

Except that Adel Abdessemed—who had already been hung by his feet from a helicopter in order to create an impossible drawing; who had clung, in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, surrounded by sharks, tossed around by waves, to a plank on which he wrote the words “political corrrectness,” with three Rs; who had convinced the imam of the mosque in Lyon to appear naked in a video entitled The Pied Piper; who had embraced a real lion, mane, paws, claws, jaws and teeth, outside the door of his studio—was anything but a prankster, even if he laughed a lot.

(…)

Picasso… it was not a coincidence. Of course not. Concepción had arranged things perfectly, waving the ultimate artistic muleta at the bulls inside us, a muleta as black as blood deprived of oxygen: Guernica.

Who was Concepción? How had she obtained the keys to Picasso’s bullring?

I didn’t care: you may as well ask Ariadne where she found her thread.

I checked the box marked “SÍ.”

*

Drinks in hand, we hurtled down the grand staircase illuminated by a Diego Giacometti chandelier. To go faster we slid along the white marble, the moldings dancing as they gazed lovingly at us, as they turned us on. We arrived in the room where a projector was showing, on a screen the exact same size and shape as Guernica, a series of photographs taken by Dora Maar as Picasso was creating the painting in his studio at 7 Rue Grands-Augustins.

There are magical places in Paris. Number 7, Rue des Grands-Augustins was home to the Hôtel d’Hercule and the Order of the Holy Spirit. It was there that Balzac located the studio of Frenhofer, the fictional artist in his short story The Unknown Masterpiece. Number 7 was also the meeting place for the revolutionary group “Contre-Attaque,” led by Bataille and Breton, and the site of a staging of Prévert’s play Tableau des merveilles by Jean-Louis Barrault.

Number 7 as in the seven days of Creation.

“We’re not talking about God, I told you. God has nothing to do with artists.”

It was here that Dora’s camera lens immortalized the genesis of a masterpiece that would be anything but unknown. Dora worked for Christian Zervos, founder of the journal Cahiers d’art, one issue of which would reproduce this metamorphosis. The name “Dora” is from the Greek and means “gift.” Pablo’s gift to her was to reveal the workings of his art, allowing her to capture his slowly evolving grand design.

As the studio was too small for the canvas, it had to be laid at a slant. You can clearly see this in the photographs. The painter did not have the distance needed to gain perspective on the work: her photographs gave him that distance. It was one of her many gifts to him. Picasso was going through a difficult period at the time. He wasn’t creating anything worthwhile, and was reluctant to start work. His private life, with Marie-Thérèse, was tragic; it weighed heavily on him. “There are moments in life when one is neither dead nor alive, and for two years Picasso was neither dead nor alive,” his friend Gertrude Stein would explain later.

Dora and Pablo. Their first meeting is in Paris, at the Deux Magots. Picasso and his friends, and Dora with her big dark eyes placing her gloved hand flat on the table, taking out a knife and stabbing it between her thumb and her index finger, then her index and middle fingers, her middle and ring fingers, and so on, very fast, blade brushing knuckle, and back the other way, drawing gasps. Apparently it was the brilliant pervert Georges Bataille—her lover, and the author of Blue of Noon—who had taught her this cruel game, in which the knife sometimes misses the space between the fingers and strikes the back of the hand. Blood flows. The glove is scarlet. Picasso, the blood fetishist, sees red and is thrilled. He asks for the glove, and she gives it to him.

Another version of the story has it that she took off the glove before the knife game. And that those gloves were black and embroidered with little flowers. Blood on the petals? Like a red dew…

As I watch the photographs flash up one after another, life-size or close to it, I find myself thinking that the two of them must have fucked, after and perhaps even during the painting sessions, a pelvic thrust between two brushstrokes, in the light from lamps aimed at the painting and also aimed at their naked or half-naked bodies, as they pleasure and devour each other. The photographs do not show any of this, of course, but the drawing Dora and the Minotaur helps us to imagine it… The monster, as we can see, has no penis. It is Dora who takes Pablo. His photograph, I mean. And, unable to take her, Picasso ends up crushing Maar, reducing her to tears, to the woman who cries until the end of time. The next part of the story was not rosy. Or blue, for that matter. It was a vale of tears and madness. This black-and-white Picasso heralded the color to come. Dark.

“ADORA MAAR,” he would write sometimes.

The past tense in French. Pablo adored Maar. It was over before it even began.

I am drunk and the photographs seem to flash past ever faster. The painting is made and unmade, over and over again, endlessly. Dora shows what we would otherwise never have seen: the genius at work, changing his initial plans, adding elements, removing others. Sketches and hesitations: it is almost obscene to see his gropings in the dark so starkly exposed. Why, for example, when everything else remains in place—the bull, the women, the child—does the arm, reaching out, disappear? The fist at its end held what looked like a sheaf of wheat against the background of the dazzling sunflower sun. The ancient warrior changed sides, and he has nothing left to brandish but his pathetic, broken broadsword, powerless to ward off death as it falls from the sky, this new death that explodes, burns, sprays bullets with blinding noise. This death is represented by the painter in the form of a lightbulb: modernity manifest, the “Spirit of Electricity” as Raoul Dufy called it. The theme of the exhibition in which Guernica was shown was “Arts and techniques applied to modern life.” Does modern life imply modern death?

We are only eight years away from Hiroshima, mentioned by Adel in the letter he sent me. The vast and terrible brightness of Little Boy and its 64 kilos of uranium 235. So light, compared with the 30 or 40 tons of bombs that were dropped on Guernica.

*

Adel opened his notebook. As he caressed the paper with Germinal, a woman appeared on it, clinging to the neck of a sphinx. A Greek sphinx, not an Egyptian sphinx: one of those female-headed creatures that guard the terraces of the museum, claws folded as if after a feast, waiting calmly. Then he drew a woman, her face stretching out towards the right, as if fleeing. He created another, with small pointed breasts, her arms outspread, taking off into the void.

And next to an owl, a bird considered a good omen because it can see in the dark, he wrote the word “Nudity.”

“I’m going to tell you a story that not many people know. The story of Algeria’s last nude.”

What time is it? One or two in the morning? But this is no time for watches—we agreed on that—so we let it go. But do we let go of time or does time let go of us? It lets go and we fall. The Dictaphone records Adel’s words:

Her name was Nadia. She lived dangerously. She never lost the very dark eyes she had as a young girl. She was once a ballerina in the Algerian national ballet. She could have made it her career, but she was let down by the man she loved, so she did what was necessary to survive. It was said that she had a daughter, but she never talked about that. In 1968, she started posing at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Algiers. She had short hair, and a dark-skinned body. Like those ageless ancient goddesses, she was beautiful for life: at fifty, she still looked like a young woman. A few students were embarrassed; they said it was like seeing their sister, their mother, their grandmother… In 1983, the mandatory course in drawing nudes was canceled due to a fundamentalist student, one of those who threw acid at women. Nadia had to get dressed again, gradually covering up her skin, even though she was there to show us what skin was, what flesh was. Bones, skulls, skeletons… we already knew, all too well, how to draw those.

So there were no more nudes?

Actually, there were. The school principal, Monsieur Asselah, was a brave man. He was a free man, and he paid dearly for it. Despite the pressure, he agreed that there could be a small workshop for drawing nudes. For a few select students only. I was one of them. It was almost clandestine. Nadia took off her stockings and her bra, and we drew her. We liked her a lot. She brought us science and freedom. Because that’s what a nude is: science and freedom… The first time I was censored, it was over a nude. At the art school in Batna, before I went to Algiers.

What nude?

I’d painted a woman, sitting in front of a waterfall. A miniature, in gouache on paper. I called it Paradise.

Give me a better description!

He did, but not one that did justice to the painting. So I will describe it myself, because he showed it to me after this—his miniature Paradise: the woman sits by the water, in a mountain landscape filled with trees, wild grass, spray from the waterfall. She wears nothing but jewelry. Berber earrings sparkle amid her brown hair. There are silver bracelets on her ankles and wrists. Her legs are crossed. There’s an almost transparent veil between her thighs, and in her hands she holds a white cloth. She is probably washing herself, and she has probably been taken by surprise because she is looking at us, and that is the important thing. In that dark gaze, there is no hate, no fear, no anger. No, she has not been taken by surprise. She consents to our gaze. She poses. She is the nude model.

They withdrew it from the school exhibition. They censored my imagination. That was the first time I experienced censorship. I was very shocked, but there was nothing I could do about it. It ended there. If people had known, I think Nadia would have been killed, even decapitated. The GIA [Armed Islamic Group], it was ISIS before ISIS: the same morbid scenes of cut-off heads exhibited to the population, sermons written on walls in blood. Even the names that the killers gave themselves were the same. In the west of the country, one of them went by the name of Aldhiyb Aljayie, “Hungry Wolf. ” It was the reincarnation of our childhood fears. You see the match: on one side, the bloody fangs of the Hungry Wolf, and on the other, the soft skin and soft voice of Nadia, the nude model.

Nadia was not killed. Monsieur Asselah was. The last nude…

—————————————————

spanish night

From Spanish Night by Adel Abdessemed and Christophe Ono-dit-Biot. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Editions Stock. All rights reserved. 

Christophe Ono-dit-Biot and Adel Abdessemed
Christophe Ono-dit-Biot and Adel Abdessemed
Christophe Ono-Dit-Biot is a journalist, deputy editorial director of Le Point and a prize-winning novelist. His books include Birmane (Winner of the Prix Interallié), Plonger (Grand Prix of the Académie Française), and Croire au merveilleux. Born in Algeria, Adel Abdessemed is an artist exhibited worldwide from Moma in New York to the Pompidou Centre in Paris.





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