It’s not often a poor girl attends a fancy Manhattan Prep school, but I did. Eron Preparatory was on East 70th and Lexington; the cultural high water mark for the world and I got to be there every school day for three glorious years.
It didn’t turn me into a thoughtful student. In truth, I didn’t give them much to work with; sullen and broody, I would have been a Goth devotee had a time machine taken me to the present. Back then, I was just a wise-mouth, doing as little as possible in high school, sure that a blonde prince would rescue me from college, marry me and…. There was no and. I was only 17, that’s as far as my dreams took me.
We had been given an art class assignment to visit a local museum and write about a painting we chose. The teacher offered a generous month to complete our projects. I was very busy daydreaming and writing Adrienne Joseph in all my handwritings in hopes that Michael Joseph would return my devotion and make me his bride before I had to apply to colleges. Although I rarely paid attention in my doodling time, I heard the teacher’s reminder. Our projects were due the next day.
With previously untapped speed and agility, I headed for the Museum of Modern Art. I didn’t care if I saw cubism or Dadaism, watercolors or oils. I needed a damn painting and I needed it fast. Let me give a little NYC historical background. In the 1960’s, regular folks didn’t visit the museums on weekday afternoons. No class trips crowded the galleries after schools let out nor were there bands of senior citizens roaming the corridors of MOMA. I was, except for uniformed staff, alone. I looked for seating that faced a random piece of artwork to begin my project. To my left was a room with a long bench, perfect to spread out my books and papers. I don’t remember seeing the lone painting that hung in this side gallery until I sat down.
I looked out onto Picasso’s Guernica; huge and terrible it waited in deathly silence for me to notice. I put down my pen as if in surrender. The painting, like the violence it portrayed, captured me. Even now, my memories of the mother’s silent scream as she held her dead baby and the writhing horse with mouth agape haunt me.
In real life, Guernica was a trial run, an experiment without volunteers, but a town filled with victims. If you haven’t seen the painting, look on line for an image, but I doubt a tiny copy will break your heart as the original broke mine. Until that moment at MOMA, I thought the world was the purview of grown-ups; a warm cozy place, where mothers cooed to their infants and majestic beasts held TV cowboys.
My memory doesn’t offer an A+ on my project or a life changing epiphany that changed the world, but I offer my thanks anyway, for a city filled with museums, always at the ready for even the least capable student, and to Pablo Picasso who shared his genius with a surly teenager forty years ago.