Elm City Scrapbook is a column alternately written by Daniella Sanchez and Catherine Kausikan (GH ’25), which each week reflects on a different artwork in and around New Haven.
Don Quixote de la Mancha is a classic work of literature. Most people know about the middle-aged Spanish man who loses his mind after reading one too many books about chivalrous knights, and who then goes off with his squire Sancho Panza and his trusty steed Rocinante to protect the world from evil, all in the name of his muse Dulcinea de Toboso. Part of what makes the Don Quixote so popular today is not that it has been so frequently read, but that it has been so well portrayed.
There is something about Cervantes’s 17th-century novel that has allowed for intermedial translations across languages, cultures, and time. The adventures of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza have been adapted into a TV series, children’s books, Japanese comic strips, and a Veggie Tales episode. But the most prolific form Don Quixote has taken on is the fine and graphic arts.
As seen in some of the earliest manuscripts of the novel, artists have been obsessed with capturing the imagined world of Don Quixote, drawing out the classic scenes of him fighting off windmills or going mad with books scattered all around him. Some depictions are as detailed as the engraving of Gustave Doré, capturing every minute detail in elegant black and white. Others feel explosive and anachronistic like Dali’s, in which he brings Don Quixote under the gaze of surrealism. However, perhaps the most famous artwork of Don Quixote belongs to Pablo Picasso.
Pablo Picasso’s Don Quixote is a classic just as much as the novel is itself. Two silhouette figures are side by side – the shorter and rounder Sancho on his donkey and Don Quixote, tall and thin, rising above him on his gaunt horse. A sun similar to the ones hanging in kindergarten art classes is placed in the left-hand corner, and at the figure’s feet are tiny windmills.
We went to go see Picasso’s print at the Yale University Art Gallery for my Spanish class on Don Quixote and Cervantes. We asked ourselves why this image, out of Dali’s, Alexander Mueller’s, and even Dore’s engravings, was the one that had become a staple. There is nothing particularly special or even interesting about the work. It is just two characters standing side by side. It communicates nothing profound about the novel. It does not reflect the complexities between reality and fiction presented by Cervantes.
Yet Picasso offers us a simple truth. In the simplicity of his forms and his ability to capture the essential energy of these characters in three lines, a circle, and a rectangle, he gives us the purest form of the story. Similarly, Don Quixote gives us the truth of human existence by revealing to us the ways in which we create stories in order to live. Both works leave the reader stripped of the embellishments we add to the world, creating something that is truly timeless.