My New Spanish Loves

Recently I ambled from salon to salon in the Museu Picasso in Barcelona, my ears squeezed between headphones listening to a voice narrating a self-guided tour. Not long into the tape, my eyes fell upon two paintings that differed from the others.

Small and unassuming, both featured a line of trees. In one version the trunks stood abreast from left to right. In the second, the same grove, seen from the side, cast progressively short shadows over a path narrowing in the distance.

What held my gaze was not the scene that each rendered, but the identical moment projected from distinct angles: two vistas transmitting a single peg in time. The voice in my earphones faded, overcome by an epiphany louder than any lecture or book I had ever read on the topic of writing. These two paintings illustrated “Point of View.”

I noted the date on the plaque next to the paintings: 1896, a detail I would soon forget. My mind shifted to calculation mode. Picasso would have been 15 when he produced them, a reckoning that jarred me. Here I’d come to Spain to relax, not to be insulted. Was my own artistic development 50 years delayed compared to his?

How is it that brushstrokes birthed by the twist of an adolescent’s wrist could light a bulb in my head a century later? I recalled reading that Hemingway told Lillian Ross (in a 1950 New Yorker profile) that he learned to write by studying paintings from the past. Was my infatuation with the two Picassos another example of a long-gone artist teaching a writer?

With visitors pressing at my back, I had no choice but to proceed along the exhibits, begrudgingly joining the enthusiasts ogling heralded works. Students crouched over sketching pads. No other landscape or portrait incited the same palpitation as those two little paintings.

Soon I turned back, elbowing my way against the flow of the crowd to verify if the paintings were as inspiring as I thought or just flirting with an impressionable mind. Indeed, they were as I’d remembered, a set of unpolished gems calling little attention to themselves to anyone but me. They emitted no smoke or scent, no phonemes or syllables. But my instincts sensed profoundness. Their impact skirted my intellect and skipped ahead to my soul, as Tolstoy once described.

By now they were mine, lovers whispering to my writer’s heart. I advanced to the museum gift shop, hunting for a print of them on a bag, a bookmark, a coffee cup to carry back to the States. No trace of them anywhere.

The next morning, leaving Barcelona with but a memory of my paintings, I headed south to the Costa del Sol. The images from the day before dominated the terrain as I passed orange orchards, floating cumulus clouds whose shadows tinged soil a hue of auburn, towers and tile of the Pueblos Blancos (white villages) rising over the slopes off into vastness.

Upon arriving in Málaga, I emailed the Museu Picasso, explaining that two little paintings signified great genius and that I was desperate to see them again. The director emailed back, “Which paintings are you asking about? What did they look like? Which salon were they in?”

My brain froze. No warm Málaga breeze, shimmying hibiscus, gleaming turns of the Mediterranean Sea. Were the paintings in the first gallery? The second? Third? All I recalled was a young hand. Were they partially hand-sketched? The Blue collection? Before Cubism? The more I pressed myself, the less I could remember.

Over the next hour, awareness of my ineptness grew. I’d failed to note even the exhibit number. How could such a discovery be left unstudied? The great masters always took notes. Thoreau measured. Da Vinci diagrammed. Maugham recorded travels and writing processes. Wharton outlined. García Márquez applied a journalistic eye. On that October afternoon in the Barcelona Picasso Museum, I had overlooked basic observation.

I took a deep breath. I banged on the door of my memory. I demanded entry until my mind saw the lost paintings on a wall on the far side of an early salon. They were accompanied by larger paintings to the right. Piecing together these scraps of memory, I described to the museum director the morsels retrieved.

After more email exchanges, the director found the paintings. She sent them to me in digital formats. Hallelujah! I printed them out and put them in plastic protective sheets, never to leave me.

Today the presence of my two Spaniards reminds me that important facts are drawn from inspection, not just from desire or passion. These are ingredients in any enduring relationship, lover to lover, writer to reader, continent to continent, century to century.

Sharpening Observation Skills

Ellen Winner, director of the Arts and Mind Lab at Boston College, finds that artists such as Picasso have acute visual memories and show remarkable attention to detail (“Intense Provocative Disturbing Captivating Genius Picasso,” Claudia Kalb, National Geographic, May 2018). While most of us will never be considered prodigies, we can improve our skills:

  • Work on your recall
    Even as major events stay burnished in our memory, everyday details elude us. Skills can be strengthened by playing games and working puzzles requiring memory or logic such as Sudoku or “spot-the-difference” exercises.
  • Practice, practice, practice
    New habits are formed through practice, i.e., noting patterns, such as what people are wearing, when a parking lot fills up, or how many lights flash on the way to work. Author James Agee (The Writer’s Brush, Paintings, Drawings, and Sculpture by Writers), characterized observation as, “revealing what others had not taken the time to see.”
  • Keep your eyes open
    Scientists learn to discern relevant details rather than to “just look.” According to Michael Canfield, editor of Field Notes on Science and Nature, skills are enhanced through sketching, which forces the observer to make decisions about what’s important and what’s not (“Brilliant: The Science of Smart,” Annie Murphy Paul, Time, May 2, 2012).
  • Pick up a new, creative hobby
    Studying one art form will help another. Try dancing, sculpting, or playing an instrument. Dostoevsky, Plath, García Márquez, and Perlman are but a few writers who participated in other creative pursuits.
  • Consider the sciences
    Da Vinci maintained that the arts and sciences together lead to creativity (The Atlantic, November 2017). In A Treatise on Painting, first published in 1519, he described his hours observing light reflecting off different surfaces at different times. One example of his thorough study is his examination of the human face (Leonardo Da Vinci, Walter Isaacson, 2017).
  • Fill your toolbox
    Tools such as notebooks can be filled and kept for later consideration. Thoreau has been described as carrying a walking stick for measurements and using small scraps of paper to record the number of bubbles trapped in a frozen pond.
  • Consider visual context
    Art and photos offer lessons on mood, spatial relationships, and tension. Study expressions, time, weather, symbolic meaning, inanimate objects, details just outside the image, and ways an artist builds a focal point. Research suggests that children can learn to write by studying visual compositions (In Pictures and in Words: Teaching the Qualities of Good Writing Through Illustration, Katie Wood Ray, 2010), so we adults can, too.