Ποιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

Staging the black and white mural

IV Staging

Indeed staging is a proper word. Like a set-up, the children had to follow a strict script. One can hear the sigh of relief in the final report that the children were not wild but behaved. It meant strict control could be relaxed a bit. What a strange way of expressing relief as if the anxiety of the adults should be the determining factor. Indeed, it seemed to them that nothing less than something great should emerge out of this mural done in Picasso's atelier was acceptable. The fear to fail drove much of the action in a wrong direction, but then there was the greatness of Picasso looming over their heads. They did not grasp that Picasso would have smiled at their foolish attempt to be perfect when the drawing hand of a child is sufficient to put any adult in the shade. It says something that the one bay, supposedly the best drawer and painter of the school, stayed but one day in the atelier and never came back again. For sure he saw that there was no chance for any sort of self expression.

Reductionism to symbols and signs

Notebook of one child beside a plane as symbol of destruction

'Le cahiers' contain sketches by the children. They were made after having done endless copies of what was hanging in Picasso's atelier.  Boris Tissot wanted to remind what studies Picasso had made prior to completion of the Guernica mural in 1937. In analogy to that he expected the children to do likewise. Only there was one big difference: their different sketches did not amount to a whole as was the case with Picasso. Instead they would only be allowed to put one single symbol sketch onto the canvas and that after having gone through a careful selection process heavily influenced by the adults.

Sketches by the children

The reduction was reinforced by a selection principle linked to what Boris Tissot wanted the children to adopt fore mostly, namely the artistic 'no' against war. Picasso's Guernica set, therefore, a precedent and to this the children had to adopt in an even stronger, equally one sided way than Picasso. For the scheme was that they should only express the negative side. This became later on on the canvas a number of dark or negative images like the burning house or the tree in chain.

By wishing to drive home a single 'no', Boris Tissot and his collaborators never gave the children space enough to make their own interpretations of Picasso's works for Guernica. Even this one model of an artistic 'no' can easily be misinterpreted, especially if made into a moral judgment or worse an ideology based on black and white moral judgments, the strange thing in these symbols is that while a burning house may be linked to bombs having put it in flame, not clear is at all the violence done onto nature? The split heads beside the tree trunk can indicate something but it would require a further study of the entire mural and the process leading up to it before attempting to give some explanation.

Still, the Final Report does offer one explanation as to why it had to come to such one sided expressions by the children, insofar there has to be added they were functionalised and instrumentalised by the moral lay-out forcing them to become one with adults and their world view as conveyed by Boris Tissot and his collaborators. For the message becomes clearer when the subject is a single one, and at that a most serious one, namely 'war' (and which is again perceived in an one sided way as if it is possible to stand on the other side and judge war):

"Kids Guernica is the institutional framework of the project. All over the world, children working on the project have produced colorful, joyful visions. And yet the subject is war; the reference to Picasso is clearly stated, as is the intention of the coordinators of Kids’ Guernica and sometimes the paintings to put an end to the monstrosity of war, to shout "No." And yet…

"Kids" is fully half of "Kids Guernica." Why should the kids necessarily be these happy, innocent creatures they are generally held to be? Why shouldn't they be thinking persons capable of reflecting a profound, individual vision of the world? What would keep them from tackling the problems of humanity with sobriety and depth? For children are /indeed/ part of humanity. They are not a separate category, looking on at adult turpitudes. They participate in and share these turpitudes.

The other half is " Guernica ." The artist's shout; his "NO!"

Guernica is a town: it represents thousands of lives, thousands of deaths… Also, thanks to Picasso, Guernica is the story of an artist's intention. How can wrath and rebellion be depicted? To embark on the same journey, the same phases, the groping, the sketching, the doubts, the decisions, and the techniques is to be immersed in Guernica .

With these considerations in mind, we got 35 children from a community recreation center in the 19th arrondissement of Paris to work and they accepted the challenge: to slip into Picasso's slippers (since we were going to work in his workshop) and paint an immense picture that would try to express a shared sense of revolt. Here is a trace of our eleven days of work…"

Source: Boris Tissot, Final Report

By turning back to Picasso, and by not reflecting the difficulty of saying 'no' (as explained in the text why this action in Picasso's atelier has been disputed), everything is turned into something negative, one sided and without some depth. This due to a lack of a differentiated outlook based on a literary text. Cassirer said it matters that the world is viewed in a friendly way for only then some optimism in humanity stays alive. Also Paul Tillich added the thesis that any recourse to tradition and use of symbols intends to do but one thing, namely distort the perception of the 'present'. And indeed the official mural is timeless as it is alien to time as a sense of the present is missing. The latter can be expressed as a lived through experience within the continuity of time and stream of human self consciousness. This children would have made possible by entering a collaborative learning process and could have followed themselves through what they had painted onto the canvas the previous day. Maybe that is why the tree needed to be arrested, in order to force its growth to a stillstand?

Needless to say there existed as well a floor plan once the specific sketches were ready and selected for the purpose to go onto the canvas. There was no freedom of choice either for any individual child nor for the entire group of children.

Misuse of Picasso as authority to tell the children how to paint

What made the action even worse, was the use of Picasso as a kind of 'moral authority' when it comes to find expressions about peace and war. The children were asked to make copies of the sketches done by Picasso. Some of them were hanging in the atelier.

The bull by Picasso

Picasso would have been dismayed if he had witnessed that his style of doing art was being used by adults to intimidate the children. As the Final Report indicates, they should not think about use of colours to express their happiness, but first of all learn what they, the adults, wished of them.

Even more surprising is the value judgment which Boris Tissot allowed himself when comparing the sketches of the children with what Picasso had done in preparation of Guernica:

"When the children looked at figurative representation alongside Picasso's stylized images, it was clear to them that Picasso's expressions were the more powerful. Each child artist had to make the transition from representing things to drawing signs which conveyed a meaning and fit into the child's plans. Signs generated an alphabet in harmony with the children's words and intentions. The children checked each step in the process and could explain their choices."

Source: Boris Tissot, Final Report

Gathering these sketches took up most of the time. During the entire time spend in the atelier, the children were allowed to work on the big canvas for only three days, and then not even freely, but under strict instructions and control. How was this possible of all places in the very same atelier where Picasso had painted Guernica? Some recapitulation is needed to understand what happened.

One important thing to underline is that for Kids' Guernica the only connection with Picasso is the size of the canvas. Nothing else. As a matter of fact, a study of Kids' Guernica murals over the past years could show that they evolve steadily away from the original Guernica mural done by Picasso. Naturally over and again can be found in some mural reference to the pigeon or even to the light bulb.

One of the early Kids' Guernica murals

Over time and development more and more Kids' Guernica murals begin to show an independent expression. Whether the mural from Afghanistan or Lebanon, they had no reference to Picasso itself but did confront this 'schizophrenia of peace' with peace on the one side and bombs on the other side of the street. Indeed, modern life at the beginning of the 21st century has become complicated but innocent civilians are still being attacked like those in Guernica only now not by airplanes but by drones.

Boris Tissot mentioned that the children looked at murals painted by other children:

"Another element in the setting is all the murals made by other children all over the world as part of the Kids Guernica project. We had to look and read, decoding the signs and understanding the intentions of these children. Then we had to realize that perhaps it isn't necessary to redo what has already been done. We had to decide that in a way, we were contributing a new mural to complement and enrich the gallery of all the preceding ones."

Source: Boris Tissot, Final Report

Alone this statement in the Final Report indicates that the action in Picasso's atelier reversed completely the progress children doing murals all over the world had been making. By not reading first of all the messages, but reducing murals to signs, symbols and images in order to understand the 'intentions', the narratives of these murals went unheard. Not once did Boris Tissot ask, for example, that Jad Salman explain the mural done by children in Ramallah, Palestine or Hatto Fischer the mural 'The War is over' of Poiein kai Prattein. Also Boris Tissot not only turned the children's attention away from all other murals and towards doing one of their own, but he introduced a fictitious 'we' as if a collective decision and not one imposed by the adults. This 'we decide' could have done away with the need to use Picasso as a model. Instead  by making the children copy in their sketch books copy of works by Picasso as displayed in the atelier, it prevented them from finding a language of their own. And this without heeding Picasso's nuanced language of not just portraying things in black and white but also in grey.

Moral scheme: black and white

Orginally the official mural had been conceived to be the sole experession of a black-white scheme to underline the morality of adults with regards to the theme of war, and in particular in France vis a vis Germans. The moral tone of condemnation as a national feeling was perpetuated in this unreflected reference to Guernica 1937 as the 'Germans' or 'German pilots' having bombed the city. Crucial is by contrast the aesthetical line followed by Kids' Guernica, namely to learn to avoid one sided, over generalized enemy pictures since any qualitative analysis for the reason of war and violence has to go deeper.

V The staging of the painting

A selected porton of sketches done by the children were scanned and transposed upon the canvas. This process meant above all cleaning up the lines which the children had drawn. Any computerized version thereof contains a strong element of alienation from the original. That may be good when doing designing a poster but it follows the method of graphic design and not what children would like to say.

Super imposed image upon the whole canvas

Boris Tissot together with another person placing the papers on top of the canvas while all the children sit passively on the bench and look on. They are not directly involved but are made into spectators of what is later on claimed to be a mural made by them. Why no one within Kids' Guernica really challenged this kind of method is to date a mystery. Perhaps some would say an adult led process is alright as long as the children are at least 5% of the time they spend in Picasso's atelier happy. Yet that would be rationalizing what really happened and not taking a critical stance towards Boris Tissot for thinking this would hold as a mural done by children.

Simply said, the 'official' mural was conceived by a graphic designer who collaborated with Boris Tissot. The children were not free to enter a collaborative learning process and decide themselves where to paint what.

Cutting out of forms

Once the lay-out was arranged on the canvas, mainly adults started to cut out the forms.

The graphic designer assisted here by Jad Salman.

The graphic designer in the midst doing almost everything while children were allowed to do only peripheral things.


To ensure that the drawing of lines were kept,  once some children had completed the cut-outs, then along them the lines had to be drawn. There was no individuality allowed insofar as they were not paint strokes but drawing of lines as straight forward as possible.

Use of rollers to cover the surface

The rollers used to paint the surface

As said previously, once this entire scheme had covered the canvas, there was no more space given for any surprise at the end. Everything was predetermined by this exact lay-out. At the same time, use of rollers means a surface is covered within definite boundaries as if a worker painting a wall. The method means no paint brush and touch of the soul of a child combine to work the surface. Yet any good painting prevails only once different surfaces have been worked on over and again. Otherwise it remains what it is right from the outset, just a flat surface. Any painter knows that while children would want to speak through paint brushes and not rollers.

Children outnumbered by adults

In the image above one visitor to the atelier looks on while the man with the white gloves is the graphic designer who controlled the entire process. At this point he was giving instructions to the children all with rollers, not paint brushes in their hands. In the background can be seen Boris Tissot talking to his daughter who supposed to take notes so as to follow the process as it unfolds.


VI The final realization

Boris Tissot giving instructions

This image says a lot as to what happened when the children were allowed to step onto the canvas. Boris Tissot and his collaborators had developed a floor plan. On the canvas can be seen white sheets of paper which contained sketches of children. They were selected and meant to be drawn and then painted onto the canvas precisely at that spot.

Boris Tissot pointing at what he thinks is a mistake

When giving instructions, Boris Tissot not only showed the children where they should paint the sketch which had been selected, but he also was strict when he thought some mistakes had been made. What not to do, that amounts to an adult imposition of an aesthetical criterion linked to the overall conceptualization of what the mural supposed to look like. In other words, deviations were not allowed.

Even more frightening was the response of Boris Tissot when he would call out the name of the child and if present in the group sitting on the bench, then he would proceed to explain what he expected of that child to do. However, in the case that the child was not present, then the sketch was removed immediately from the canvas as if the child had vanished. It amounted to a kind of erasing any memory thereof similar to what happened to portraits of key figures of the Communist party, for once they had fallen into disgrace, their image was immediately removed.

Cleaning the canvas like a stage before the next act

While Boris Tissot continued to give his instructions, the graphic designer used a broom to clean the canvas. It suggests that there was the danger that the children might make the canvas dirty or would not treat the canvas properly. Hence they were only allowed onto the canvas under strict supervision. If the graphic designer was not in the atelier as on Tuesday nothing could take place. All had to wait for the next day to complete the canvas.

Boris Tissot and graphic designer - a final word to the children

Alone to think this took place in Picasso's atelier makes one sad. Painting together means in reality that the children decide themselves where goes what and in what way. The little mural the children did all by themselves is proof enough of what children are able to do all by themselves. They have no fear to make mistakes as they are honest in their expressions. Things come spontaneously. Over and gain have children experienced the joy of working together when one of these murals were painted in some corner of the world. Only similar mistakes are repeated if schools assume this project can be adapted to fit the needs of the school and therefore be integrated into a formal learning process, so that the hierarchy teacher-pupil stays intact. This is not the case with Kids' Guernica. It means stepping outside any formal framework and to let the street and reality of life be the real teacher. Unfortunately too many would be artists amongst teachers or artists with an inclination to teach tend to misunderstand a Kids' Guernica action as something requiring utmost control of the children so that they do not do anything wrong.

Floor plan for the sketches

Floor plan - example 1


Floor Plan - example 2


Floor plan - example 3

The floor plan for each design showed the museum practice Boris Tissot is used to since he works at Centre Pompidou and does many international exhibitions which Pompidou exports as part of the global art business.

Sketch with mouse devouring man

By the time the child could put something on a canvas, it was a copy of the copy. They had started first by copying things Picasso had sketched and putting these drawings into their notebooks. Then some of the key figurative elements were super imposed upon the entire canvas and therefore determined the framework of references where then their individual sketches should belong. A lot is lost in this kind of translation or copying from one image to another. In the end almost all sketches on the canvas end up with lines as if drawn by one single person. The mural is, therefore, not merely flat in terms of its overall surface which has been subdivided into negative and positive spaces, but also the sketches are child like images but lifeless. Important details are also altered. While in this sketch the man confronts the mouse, on the canvas the dramatic has been intensified towards the negative and therefore the mouse seems to eat the man. His wounded head is marked by a cross or else can be interpreted like the Red Cross coming to the aid.

There is no resonance in these depicted images. Instead a deeper abyss of aweful conclusions open up as if the adults leave the children but a gaping hole to fall into but which unlike Alice in Wonderland does promise a fall into a world of a rich imagination where all sorts of things can happen. Rather it is just a darkness eating up any space left for a happy expression.

Sketch of child with kind of carriage

Of interest is here the difference between the sketch and the final image on the canvas. While the sketch has its nuances as a drawing and is therefore very differentiated, that quality is lost due to simple use of a rough paintbrush. Again it matters what style of line continues to dominate in every image painted onto the canvas. For a kind of uniformity is reproduced which gives the entire mural a taste of shallowness. There is simply lacking the presence of children who would draw and paint quite different lines if they were left free to express themselves.

The same sketch - close up


Alienation from nature

There is one more thing in need to be expressed. Surprisingly the 'no' that Boris Tissot wanted the children to express against war, and to base this on Picasso's model, made them find an indirect language as to what was done onto them. If not directly violence, then a kind of coercion to express solely the negative side of things. Here will be of interest to analyse and to interpret further the little mural they did by themselves since it resorts to colour but not only. But before doing that, the way nature is introduced almost unconciously in the official mural is an interesting side aspect. Already it has been observed that a house in flames is a natural outcome of war and can symbolize something. But a chained tree is still something else. And then there is the predominance in the mural 'lightenings'. They are all over the place and reminds of what Hegel wrote about lightening as a force man had attempted to tame in vain. Perhaps this allusion of a natural symbol to war can explain what is meant, but it can also point in the opposite direction and explain when something like an optimistic or happy expression is suppressed, then the air is filled with a kind of electricity - or anger - ready to unload. It can also reflect the wrong analogy adults use when they say an army struck like a bolting ligthening, for natural forces are something else than when mankind unleashes its technically advanced forces by use of all kinds of weapons, including planes but also tanks.


Lightening: the differences between natural and man made forces of destruction

Lighting amidst tumbling and burning houses with tanks rolling

Lightening, not war may explain as well the burning of a house. There is a confusion in the mural about the difference between man made and natural forces of destruction. Someone would claim ever since the Cartesian split between spirit and body had manifested itself in the cultural world of the West, man's relationship to nature became at best antagonistic.

In history, there can be read many discriptions that when war started, hell broke out. Like Dürer would depict war, it was in the Middle Ages a clear sign of apocalypse. Even Thucydides would correlate war with natural disasters like floods or the sky would suddenly darken. It underlines that man and nature undergo over time many transformations in terms of relationship, but nature has a way to strike back. Nowadays climate change as perhaps the most contemporary phenomenon seems to indicate that mankind with its over consumption can threaten the sustainable balance of climate on this globe called earth. If not altered, it would have many repercussions, including war due to resources becoming scarce. But even if such a correlation exists, the difference between natural destruction and man made war is so tremendous that there should be avoided trying to describe the one through the other, metaphorically speaking. This kind of artistic analogy can lead only to more confusion about the nature of war.

Alone a visit to the former battle grounds of First World War in Verdun can reveal still today what deep wounds war managed to inflict upon nature. But it is doubtful if this was on the mind of those who oversaw the completion of what supposed to be a Kids' Guernica mural painted by children in Picasso's atelier.


There is left but one puzzle: the recourse to the scissor with seeing eyes. Is it an deep imprint upon the human soul as to what can cut apart what really belongs together, and thereby this might be an explanation of war? Once people are separated and regard each other as enemies, they cease to enter a dialogue with the others. Rather they create one sided enemy pictures and therefore justify their own actions with what the others did or rather did not do. Regression towards violent reactions and the going to war can be attributed to a spiral of misunderstanding going out of control but in terms of the modern world in which the need of the economy that people consume wildly splits everything else of, including the need for sustainable development. The latter is a term to be used also for human praxis since once thrown off balance, then it means like a child wishing to walk for the first time and then falls, that a prerequisite is the trust in the parents who stretch their arms out in the hope the child does make it despite its feet still too weak to hold up the body for too long. Sitting down is a relief, to say the least. So the scissor may be a threatening image in life, namely not to make it when trying to walk and later in life when not making it past the 'cutting edge of success'. This then would allow for a further thematization between failure (or lack of success) and reasons for going to war once split off from the rest of the society which no longer communicates with the other half. If it is, therefore, true that the world has become a 'schizophrenia of peace', then the very existence of but one half means a blind, equal powerful force of aggression towards the other, now missing half to complete the picture.

There is a story about scissors. It is about a woman who ended up marrying the wrong guy just because he dared to cut with a scissor from the other side of the sheet of paper towards her when she was equally cutting the paper. He then asked if she would go with her to the school prom or final dance since they were preparing for the graduation ball. She said 'yes' but hoped for the contrary when telling him, he would have to ask her boyfriend. To her surprise he had no objection when he asked him if was alright that instead he takes her to the dance. She was hurt by her boyfriend having given this freedom but she did not articulate her own thoughts. So they went and when it was time to go outside during the dance this future husband took her in his arms and kissed her. She allowed it to happen but her arms were hanging down at the side. During her marriage she became so devoid of feelings for herself that she no longer knew whether she was dead or alive. She had buried herself in her own negativity or self denial for not standing up to herself.

VII Evaluation

What impact has this action upon the children, Kids' Guernica and efforts to further the peace process?

The fear of adults

There prevailed at all times fear in Picasso's atelier that the children would do a mistake - an incredible contradiction especially at that place and in knowing fully what Picasso had thought about what children can do, but not adults. This differences marks the controversy surrounding the action of Kids' Guernica in Picasso's atelier. But what mistakes could children make? Especially when they are capable to expressing their joy and all other feelings much better when not guided by adults but encouraged to express themselves directly and indirectly as best as they can at their respective ages.

Functional professionalism

Boris Tissot had claimed that he was the man in charge and that he would do it in his or rather in the French way. Students of Saint Denis University who visited the atelier together with their Professor Monique Kissel called it later the method of 'functional professionalism'. The latter describes the graphic art done by designers.

The 'official' mural

Almost as if a concession to all the criticism and wish of the children to use colour, there was added in the last minute that rainbow. Before they could paint it, the children who were allowed to paint, they had to practice the swing of the paint brush without colour before allowed to do so. It had to be perfect, this swing, and not be extended.

Non Participation of the children

Children waiting on the sideline

The children would be forced to wait on the sideline till they had received instructions by the adults and given the permission to enter the canvas as if otherwise a forbidden territory. Never during the entire time in Picasso's atelier were they free to do and to paint something on their own.


Group discussion

Marie Claude, 3rd person, Jad Salman and Monique Kissel

As more and more discontent spread throughout the children and their coordinators who would bring them every morning and go with them back in the evening, group discussions started outside, there where the smokers gather as well.

Monique Kissel, Collaborator of Boris Tissot, Jad Salman, Marie Claude

During the discussion outside two things became clear: Marie Claude had thought originally Kids' Guernica was something very different but when Boris Tissot proceeded, she went along to see what his interpretation meant especially to the children; and once the concept of Kids' Guernica was explained as letting children be free to decide by themselves, all the discrepancies making children feel uncomfortable, ill at ease, etc. started to make sense in terms of what should not be done. The collaborator in the group was an expert in story telling and had been engaged to let children tell their own stories. Among them were children whose parents had no documents and thus did not dare to go out into the streets out of fear to be arrested. Hence friends of the family had to fetch the children and take them to the school or playgrounds, or in this case to the bus collecting them to take them to Picasso's atelier.


Marie Claude, Boris Tissot and a third person in the kitchen of Picasso's atelier

Since a lot of criticism had accumulated the way the official mural had been done so far, there was made an effort to reason with Boris Tissot. One of these discussions took place in the kitchen of the atelier and before the children had arrived since care was taken not to carry out this dispute in front of the children.

Unfortunately Boris Tissot did not heed this, and instead proceeded by claiming this to be the 'French Way' of doing things. It meant that outsiders have therefore nothing to say, especially not if they do not understand the French language. This was, however, not the case as almost all persons had a least a working knowledge of the French language, and included in the group wishing to pursuade Boris Tissot were besides Marie Claude and Jad Salman as well Monique Kissel, Prof. for Art at the University of Saint Denis.

Jad Salman and Monique Kissel

A constrained silence ruled in the kitchen. Naturally Boris Tissot felt to be in a tight spot especially after Hatto Fischer had written in an email to all involved in Kids' Guernica what was happening at the atelier. In retrospect the failure to influence Boris Tissot in any positive way must also be viewed as a criticism of what was attempted to be done at this late stage. Naturally a lot more openness to collaborate would have been needed to ensure an inclusive rather than an exclusive practice. The core of the criticism was, however, how the children were treated. It was underlined by pointing out an adult led staging of a mural was not the concept of Kids' Guernica.

Exclusive practice instead of action for all of Kids' Guernica

Contrary to usual actions by Kids' Guernica, the presence of others from another country are most welcome. In this case Boris Tissot did not want any of the delegation from Poiein kai Prattien - Anna Arvanitaki, President and Hatto Fischer, Coordinator - to be present whenever the press came. He also failed to introduce the two to his two collaborators. Also when Alexandra Zanne asked if it was possible to come to the atelier in order to learn from the action as she was planning herself to do a Kids' Guernica action in Gezoncourt, France later on, Boris Tissot said 'no' to her.

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