What started out as a few off-the-cuff thoughts on the artist has turned into a rambling semi-researched essay. It got unwieldly, but I think it still has some value, despite the fact that a zillion other people have written about this individual. On the whole I probably read as an enthusiastic but not enslaved apologist. I feel I know more or less where the artist is coming from – I “get” him & his work, I am also aware of his flaws and keep questioning him – or at least try to. In the process I discover more riches and depths, and reassure myself that the flaws aren’t fatal after all, but make the art all the more interesting, poetic or profound. Anyhow, I hope there are some thought-provoking moments within.
Cubism first of all
Where to start writing about the impossibly astounding maverick that is Picasso? For me it must be Cubism. Picasso took a decisive bold move away from relative convention to discover new possibilities that gave so much food for thought. I love the story of how he worked out these new ideas, soon in tandem with, and competing with, Georges Braque. The simultaneous deconstruction and construction of form (Picasso proclaimed “Every act of creation is first of all an act of destruction.”), fragmenting into planes, the spiky dense muted colours hiding the image in almost total abstraction, with here and there a playful clue – a moustache, a bottle, a pipe – teasing the viewer into looking for more. Does this “analytical” phase seem a bit dry and scientific? I think it was partly rigorous, but at the same time lively and ironic – but there were soon more playful developments.
The addition of stencilled letters hinting at signs and typefaces of newspapers brought their real world of café and boulevard more directly into the painting, jostling popular culture with fine art. But this was just the beginning. Braque added other textural techniques – combing the paint, mixing in sand which was swiftly followed by the introduction of collage into the mix to produce some utterly wonderful results. Papiers collés was a revelation for Picasso. Scraps of wallpaper and newspaper were used formally for colour, shape and texture, but also as directly inserted elements of real life and ‘low’ culture into the work. He proceeded to create many quick variants riffing on objects such as guitars with a few shapes and lines. These got more sculptural too in an interesting new spatial play mixing up 2D and 3D. Picasso shows wonders can be worked with a few bits of cardboard and a few strokes of charcoal – with the feeling that in theory anyone can take and run with such humble materials, and indeed collage soon spread around Europe like wildfire at the time, not only to the high profile Futurists, and later the Dadaists. Poet Apollinaire said in 1913 “One may paint with whatever one likes, with pipes, postage stamps, postcards or playing cards, candelabra, pieces of oilcloth, detachable collars, wallpaper, newspapers.” Yes, the message was eventually received loud and clear: Anything goes in the 20th Century – and real life was getting closer to high Art.
Perhaps in its purest state cubism is a dead end, and it is hard to do it justice without looking like Picasso and Braque. Early followers like Gleizes and Metzinger never really look that capable as cubists. But the originators had no set of rules, and soon moved on to see where they could take it next, and opened it up to more diverse expressiveness – just as it inspired Leger, Delaunay, the Futurists, Russian avantgardists, and others, to new pathways that are obviously inspired by cubism, but do not adhere to any tenets. Juan Gris seems to be the closest to a dedicated cubist, with his tight classical constructions of still lifes that I find pleasing, though more decorative than expressive. But really there doesn’t seem to be one defined thing that can be called “Cubism”, the label is a misnomer, and after all it was applied by the disapproving critic Vauxcelles. Rather than a movement, it represents a tendency in painting, and a launching pad for further adventures. One major shift propelled by cubism was into the realm of complete abstraction, which Picasso, for one, never allowed his work to stray into.
Hard to pin down
Although none of Picasso’s endeavours quite match the brilliant discovery and development of Cubism, he went on trying out new ways of playing with form and expression with sporadic success, though he was far less persuasive in later years. The sheer energy of his quest is exhilarating, bouncing from one idea to another, one medium to another, from harmonious cubist still lifes, to monumental neo-classical figures, savage primitive forms, intricate etchings, enigmatic spatial constructions, witty transformations of found objects, and the sunny timeless appeal of animals painted onto pottery. I do not like all of these equally, and some I find hard to like at all, but I do relish trying to follow the twists and turns of his imagination, childlike and serious at once. He appears to abound with contradictions. Accomplished and unfinished; playful/primitive and intellectual; Deeply felt poetry and sketchy parody; Cruel control freak and generous, affectionate friend; harmony and violence; exquisitely refined, and deliberately brutal (1). Ruthless egoist and global softie, in the words of Waldemar Januszczak (2), who says “The only final truth about Picasso is that there is a version of him available for everyone.” Not a demigod, but a supremely gifted, flawed (like the rest of us) man, and to the creative world, his generosity, even if unintentional, is boundless…
Great series, unfinished
So far so enthusiastic, but what are the reservations or counter-arguments? His rush of ideas on such a productive scale leave one feeling that his work is more enjoyable taken in series rather than in isolated works, that there are many sketches, try-outs and works of perfunctory speed, reinforced by periodic ‘worked’ masterpieces. Blogger Art Neuro (3) suggests Pablo simply got bored, and moved on – painting only what interested him, and notes the unfinished picture of Olga as maybe a symptom of this. Picasso himself said that to “finish a picture..means to be through with it, to kill it, to rid it of its soul, to give it its final blow the coup de grace for the painter as well as for the picture.” The artist certainly appears to be always eager to move on to the next idea. For me, I think of how a quick elegant sketch can be enjoyed as much, or more than a heavily worked canvas. The life is fresh and fluttering, the idea can be more visible and powerful. So is this the power in Guernica, in which the images are shorthand cartoons for horrendous suffering, that could have seemed trite if pictured more literally? On the other hand, Picasso wanted every rough sketch in the development of a finished work to be available for our scrutiny, and in a way does his reputation suffer from a complete lack of editing? He is revered for his prolific output, not for unerring quality. I suppose in a way the whole cumulative sequence could be seen as his ultimate masterpiece. How about Larry Rivers’ irreverent question “Which do you feel is more important in art, the doing or the done? Picasso chose the doing.” (4)
Not just a Thing
At times his subject matter might seem rather limited and repetitive, though even in the small world of the café table, endless variations on bottle, glass, glass, bottle (just like that!), newspaper – with enough verve there’s still a lot of mileage. He gives the clunky everyday objects an animus – gives them a bit of life, they may even seem a bit anthropomorphic, standing in for human models. Actual portraits merge together with objects and background, so it’s hard to tell them all apart anyway. This metamorphosis of forms is a strong part of the “magic” of his art. Leopold Senghor (poet & one time President of Senegal) observes a living rhythm in the work that he sees as influenced by African art, “..the opposite of monotony. It is not the simple repetition of an element: of a sound, of a word, of a plastic phrase..of a form..it is also a rhythm of contrasts and of oppositions, of dissonances and of counter-rhymes.” (5) And underlying the verve of the expression, and the spirited animation, the intellect is always in a constant flux meditating on the subject of art, whatever the humble object that is its focus.
Diary of Pablo
His subject matter is often autobiographical: he paints his friends, his lovers, his family, his studio, the café, the bullfights he attends, his moods, himself. The majority of what he produced seems to be directly influenced by things near, dear, and not so dear – the equivalent of a diary. Only occasionally does he do political, not always successfully. (See Philippa Warr on the Massacre in Korea). But he has also painted poor folk (blue period), circus folk (rose period), mythical beings (minotaurs, satyrs, etc – especially in his etchings, thought these too are likely to be stand-ins for himself and his women), and pastiches of old masters (most famously Velazquez Las Meninas). However its the “diary” works that I think are the most fascinating, but despite their specific sources – which they transcend, not because of them. When I read that a momentous monstrosity depicted on the beach is almost certainly a cruel rendering of his wife Olga shortly before they went their separate ways, it brings another level of interest, but I feel it’s more than I need to know. It almost diminishes the power of the work that I find appealing in its strange, powerful surreality, to bring it back down to the earth of his domestic anguish. The personal and archetypal do exist simultaneously, and as the viewer I can make my own mind up how to read it, layering on my own memories and interpretations. There still remains unknowable depths to the art, or at least I like to believe that. Januszczak (writing on his weakness as a propagandist) says “Straight-talking was never one of his strengths..he remained a devious and instinctive symbolist, clothing his meanings in heavy disguises and employing a secret artistic language that will never be fully decoded.”
What is Beautiful?
Does Picasso’s distorting style of showing faces make them ugly? Picasso paints ugly deliberately for its shock value or expressivity, but at other times it seems he just has off days. Picasso spoke of the “horror of people who speak about the beautiful. What is beautiful? One must speak of problems in painting!” Perfection is boring, even P’s more awkward manifestations have the eloquence of being alive in his style. If everything was identical in immaculate fussy airbrushed completion, our souls would indeed all be dead. Picasso had many hits, the misses are part of the freedom of creativity. Art Neuro succintly puts it: “He did not fear failure the way a perfectionist does; and to that extent he was a lot more free than most people would imagine.” (3) He has shown what a sure draughtsman’s hand he has, so when he tries to break away into something nearer a child’s view of the world, this is a deliberate freeing up of meticulous representation. He doesn’t draw what he remembers though, he still looks hard at what he is representing, even if in the process of transforming we find it hard to connect the result with the original. So he strives for the freedom of the child, but observes with the intense gaze of the weathered pro. Picasso also said “Ah, good taste! What a dreadful thing! Taste is the enemy of creativeness.”
The G Word
Does Picasso fulfil the definition of “genius”, ie. “an exceptional natural capacity of intellect, especially as shown in creative and original work”? Well, there are certainly those who would deny his status up there, and take objection to what they see as the “cult of Picasso”. I love the rich variety of his work, the potentialities that it contains, how it fires my
imagination, how he discovered new ways to make art – and I find insulting the suggestion that I’ve somehow been brainwashed into thinking he’s great because that’s how he’s written up in history. I gravitated toward the art naturally, before anyone told me who he was, and that’s my own mind and preferences in train. What do I care if he’s also a genius or not – the work has personally given me great pleasure and inspiration, and I am happy with that. Whatever, he certainly had genius, however limited it seems to have become in later years. Some critics insist that his own legend affected his work to the extent he stopped making art and started producing “Picassos”, his own life overlapping with his art history. Painter Eric Fishl says “He was an anarchist but, finally, he was not willing to overthrow himself.” However, some critics such as Jed Perl think he succeeds in divesting himself of his own virtuosity in his 80s, by deliberately trying to “divorce the essence of painting from the craft of painting, to let the image speak in its most essential, unadorned form.” He plays “fast and loose with anatomy” but his figures “wear their awkwardness not as an embarrassment but as a unique, precious gift.” (6)
Under the Influence
If there are those who would consign Picasso’s oeuvre to history, claiming that his ideas are not relevant in the contemporary art scene, this is the fate shared by many things that relate to out of fashion mediums like painting. I suppose if contemporary media is focussed around installation, conceptual, neo-dadaism, video and beyond, then there might appear to be a gulf of disconnection between Picasso and now (unless your references to him are ironic and parodying, but that’s old hat too). Marcel Duchamp might be the early 20th Century godfather of your choice in that case. Picasso, and Braque, opened up a door for everyone else, including Duchamp, and the ensuing trail of activated minds stretches out over the decades. As a metaphor, a door can be closed again, and maybe reactionary anti-Picassorians would like to – perhaps what the cubists did was to split an art-atom, and the after life is still radiating around us, even if only in the background.
There are still visual artists who confess an influence, for instance painter Dana Schutz, who admires him “precisely for his versatility” and has learnt from all over his output, eg “freed up colour, contradictory spaces, and liberatingly poor taste” she says “I never had the feeling I had to ‘get past’ Picasso, It was a more playful kind of influence.” (7)
Picasso stated, “I paint things as I think them not as I see them”, and maybe this is a good reason not to borrow too directly from him, else one might end up painting like Picasso thinks, not how oneself thinks. This is obviously a point that can be applied to other influential artists too. I have heard it said (Terry Frost?) that artists have a greater or lesser degree of gravitational pull, that you can fly near them and look, but you shouldn’t get too close or you might end up in orbit around them for the rest of your life. I have seen artists who, in trying to imitate directly the inimitable Picasso style, resemble the source but lack the same spark of life, and deny their own individual spirit as well. Conversely, Dana Schutz’s painting is full of the spirit of Dana Schutz.
His influence is much deeper than idiosyncracies of style – he showed the way to paint, sculpt and collage any way you want. Many artists took the cue consciously or otherwise, maybe even refuting cubism while still being energised by his anarchic example, as with the Dada collagists. More recently, sculptor Richard Wentworth admits to responding to the “energy, vivacity and sheer sense of fun” of Picasso’s adventures in sculpture, and finds his essence and perpetual reinvention the all pervasive and exhilarating influence, rather than any specific visual references. (8)
For me personally, looking at the best of Picasso always fills me with the joy of potential creativity, not dismay at how much ground he has already covered. He dared to be different, and part of the thrill in his oeuvre is that he took the risk to be hit and miss to discover genuinely new things. Tony Shafrazi (he vandalised Guernica in 1974 in an art “action”) talks of Picasso’s passionate and fatalistic commitment to disrupting established notions of art-making, which was where the real life of the art came from – that underlying any new vision of art is a spirit of joyous rebellion, and “in this rebelliousness Picasso’s art was most stunningly alive”. (9) Painter Bruce Boice praises his ability to do just whatever he wanted, through openness and lack of fear – “every way seemed available to him”.
Finally, after all the analysis and dissection, there is something ultimately secret and gloriously unknowable about his art, as with any deeply felt culture. I think it is easier to say what his art did, how he did it, how it looks, what it contains, than to say what it is. Picasso said of his painting that it came to him “from a far way off, who knows how far” and asked “How can one penetrate my dreams, my instincts, my desires, my thoughts, which have taken a long time to develop and come to light, especially in order to understand what I have posited, maybe despite my will?”
They didn’t stop at the audacity of cubism, but soon followed on with collage.
Playful variations on cubism & collage. Three Musicians has been read as symbolising Picasso (the harlequin) with his closest friends Apollinaire (Pierrot) and Max Jacob (the monk). Apollinaire had died in 1918. Described by Theodore Reff as “a profoundly symbolic expression of nostalgia and loss…he attempts to evoke their personalities as mysterious presences or spirits.” (10)
Collage, assemblage – exploding guitars. Brandon Taylor suggests P’s achievement around this time “was to remake art, not as new ‘content’ or a new type of illusion, but as a new category of thing. The language of two and three dimensions which upheld a professional division of labour between ‘painters’ and ‘sculptors’ looked suddenly archaic. (11)
Muted sorrow of war’s death and destruction, and life through fear and austerity. Picasso returned to hostile occupied Paris in 1941, creating in defiance, although he didn’t directly depict a war theme.
Macquette for a Memorial to Apollinaire
Picasso designed the memorial in the spirit of Apollinaire’s phrase “the statue made of nothing, of vacancy” written with a monument to a poet in mind. The sculpture represents this nothing-ness, with iron rods that outline the air in a 3D arrangement, but also appear as 2D lines to the viewer’s eye.
Even some of his late work. If it seems crude, rude and frenetic, there is an off-kilter freeness of the artist unashamedly painting and drawing in an attempt at ever more direct expression. Pro-Picasso art historian Douglas Cooper described the twilight work as “incoherent doodles done by a frenetic dotard in the anteroom of death”. I disagree with ‘incoherent’, as I don’t find it especially more or less incoherent than other eras, but the rest of his statement stands quite neatly, although one could put a positive slant on this last rush of production rather than just dismissing it as slightly raving slapdash.
Notes on references
Majority of images are courtesy of Pablo-Ruiz-Picasso.net
(1) John Canaday – Picasso – Symbol of a Conquest in Art, New York Times, 2009
(2) Waldemar Januszczak – Picasso: Peace and freedom, Tate Liverpool, 2006; Pablo Picasso and Francis Alys, 2010
(3) Art Neuro, 2011
(4) Art in America, 1980
(5) Leopold Sedar Senghor, 1977
(6) Jed Perl “Drawing Conclusions” in Art in America, 1980
(7) Boston News, 2006 – The rest of this article on Picasso’s influence is worth a read.
(8) Guardian, 9.2.1994
(9) Art in Ameria, 1980
(10) Theodore Reff “Picasso’s Three Musicians: Maskers, Artists & Friends”, Art in America 1980
(11) Brandon Taylor “Collage”, 2004
(12) Also kudos to “Picasso” by Carsten-Peter Warnke, 2002 & “The Ultimate Picasso” by Leal/Piot/Bernadac, from which I didn’t quote, but may have paraphrased, and certainly drew much inspiration.
Some extra quotes of interest
>”The goal I proposed myself in making cubism? To paint and nothing more. And to paint seeking a new expression, divested of useless realism, with a method linked only to my thought – without enslaving myself with objective reality. Neither the good nor the true; neither the useful or the useless.” Picasso
>”Picasso was attempting what is literally metaphysical – to make a defeating physical impossibility possible.” ? in Art in America, March/April p.117
>”Picasso’s vision, neither realistic nor abstract, succeeded in blending observation and intuition in a single impusle.” Patrick Waldberg, in Surrealism, T & H, 1965
>”I really think you can’t understand Picasso unless you understand that he always remains wedded to a particular very deep and Spanish sense of the superstitious power of art. And I think hes a man who spent his whole life – the whole Picasso project if you like – can be explained by his desire to re-enchant the landscape of the modern world; to re-enchant modern art – to give it these figures with staring eyes, to give it some of that power of the ancient superstitious images of the Catholic past.” Andrew Graham-Dixon, from TV prog on Spanish Art.