Who would gaze at a painting filled with flowers and sunshine and people at their leisure, both young and old, and see sadness and “the passing of youth”? I stood in front of this very painting, about two feet away, and read the card on the wall describing what some art historian interpreted in the artist’s early work. Pablo Picasso painted this nearly 120 years ago. The card said: “In a busy Parisian square young and old gather together. But there is a sadness about this painting—the struggling horse and the use of blue—which suggests that the 19-year-old artist already had a serious message—the passing of youth.” I was stunned.
Our family was abroad for a wedding celebration that August. It seemed a miracle that all seven of us, plus significant others and friends and a grandchild, had managed to fly to Ireland together and spend a few joyful days in each other’s presence. The novelty of visiting the place where our unknown ancestors were born tempered any current dissatisfaction we might have had with each other.
I do consider myself responsible for the success and happiness of my children, the continuance of my marriage. When I was 19, I noticed that most people were unable to handle the responsibility. I was different than most people, I knew. I would manage to hold it all together. I was oblivious to the realities of relationship. The impossibilities of pinning anything down for good.
On this day, I wandered alone around the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in Glasgow. My husband and one adult son were elsewhere in the massive building. I’d been soaking up the artistry of numerous now-dead creatives, trying to get where their minds might have been, why they chose to paint or sculpt or design what they saw. At first the sheer awe of witnessing works of art that had been made centuries ago slowed me down and engulfed me in wonder.
And as I stood there in the gallery, the words printed on the card next to Picasso’s painting struck me. Oh, I see. The children play. Babies are cuddled. An old man relaxes on a bench with others nearby. A woman carries a basket frothing over with bright flowers. A peaceful scenario occurs in a city that has seen plenty of strife, but that’s not apparent here. Still, all is not as it seems in the sunny atmosphere of a Paris afternoon, because—look at that horse pulling a wagon up the hill. Its body leans forward on bent legs; its head is down, maybe to avoid that whip the wagon driver wields. Blue saturates the air, creating a solemn mood.
This painting caused me to rewind not only my own 70 years but also humanity’s long, troubled history. Like the sound of a recording being zipped backwards, I reviewed what I thought I knew about the recent past, knowledge learned and believed in my own short reel of living. My parents were born in the early part of the last century. My grandparents, in the late 1800s—Picasso’s time. Since then, wars and plagues and phenomenal technological advances have forged a continuous forward movement. Nothing pauses, nothing stops.
Picasso faced this canvas long before me, recording his own take on humankind. His hand held a brush and dabbed paint just so. And now he’s gone, as are my parents and many friends. And I will be soon. And so will my husband and son, now wandering around Kelvingrove, and my other son who just got married in Ireland a few days ago, and another one who is on his way to Paris, and my two daughters traveling with their partners around the old country before our flight back across the Atlantic, back to our mundane lives that matter to us, at least as much if not more than this long-gone flower seller and the man who painted her.
A deep melancholy pushed tears up into my eyes as they grasped this small frame of color. I felt desperately attached to my family in a new way, and connected to all of humanity, struggling up an incline, as we are, in the sunny August air. I was humbled. What if Picasso hadn’t bothered to paint this scene? What else could have grabbed me by the throat in this instant and forced me to admit that I love my life? And all of life? All of it?
I moved away from the painting. I met my husband and son in the museum cafeteria where we had lunch and glasses of beer. I looked around at a room full of eaters. In a nearby gallery, the collected photographs of Linda McCartney recorded a beloved contemporary’s short life, reminding me of my vanished youth. That exhibit is why I came here, but the entire collection—three whole floors displaying more than we could take in—surprised us.
We didn’t expect this startling assault on our senses. None of it—the expressed joy and strife, the ancient artifacts of human living—none of it made perfect sense, but it all seemed precious, full of the color of life and worthy of the falling.