The Art of Picasso

 

I don’t know art. I’m not even sure I know what I like. But the simple fact that I don’t understand it is reason enough to study the matter. This past month I had the opportunity to visit Barcelona. While I was there I went through the Picasso museum. If you’re looking for the elusive dividing line between art and supercilious nonsense Picasso is a good man to study.

Man in a Beret

This was painted by Picasso at age 14. This? This is clearly art, and good art too. A photograph tells you what a guy looks like. A portrait does that, but (if it’s executed well) it tells you something about the subject’s character. This guy has had a hard life. He’s not to impressed with anything anymore, or anyone, especially this punk kid painting his picture.

At fourteen Picasso was painting pretty much what people told him to paint. Much like a teenager with political opinions, he hasn’t latched onto that style because it’s how he wants to paint, it’s just all he knows. These next two paintings are done in the impressionist style.

Margot

The Dwarf

Again, these are clearly art. There’s something complex about beauty going on here. On the top is Margot. She’s clearly beautiful, but I look at her and my instincts scream “DANGER!”. She’s the kind of girl who will snap your soul in half and suck out the marrow. Now look at the dwarf on the bottom. By the rouge on her cheeks she’s trying to be beautiful. By her stance and her expression she knows it’s not working. Even so, I’d rather talk with her than Margot.

Once Picasso discovered cubism he never looked back. This is a painting of his balcony. In the museum they had a photograph of that balcony; even a dullard like myself could look at it and say “I understand!”. He kept pigeons in hutches, you can see them on the left side of the picture. The view is out to the sea.

This is another painting of that scene, and another. In all there are nine of them.

Imagen 019

He painted that balcony nine times over about a week. What can we tell from those pigeons? Start with the obvious; they look like inflated hospital gloves. Evidently he doesn’t much care to make them look realistic, just enough to say “there’s a pigeon here”. Even so, you can always tell what the pigeons are doing. If you’ve spent any time watching pigeons you recognize the motions even with the hand turkey drawing quality. The shape of the balcony doesn’t change. Look at the curve of the arch; it’s remarkably consistent considering the other elements.

I think what’s going on here — and I’d like to remind you of that statement from the start where I don’t know art — I think that Picasso is trying to convey the essense of the picture and discard the inessentials. In a sense that happens in all of art; go back to the man in the beret; his clothes (aside from the eponymous hat) are shapeless and void. The light clearly shows his expression but doesn’t tell us a thing about what he’s wearing, or the background, or anything else. I think cubist Picasso has determined the form of the pigeon to be superfluous, that the essential ‘pigeonness’ is what he needs to convey. You get that quite a bit more from the motions of the bird than the physical form; it looks much like any other bird but moves differently. Take another look at that arch; the shape of the curve is much the same, but little care is taken for where it stops and starts. The pigeon hutches are scrawled in there like variables in a computer program. Dimension roost. Set contents of roost = pigeon.

I think, what happened, Picasso went mad. I understand the psych boys don’t like the general terms for these things, but I think the human mind is far too complex to specify like they want. I think when Picasso went to cubism his brain snapped in such a way that he saw a different perspective on reality. Some things are important, other things are not. He’s depicting what he really things is important. The pigeonness of the pigeons. The ugliness inherent in cubism acts as a caustic to scrape away anything that’s not important.

So what are we to say about cubism or modern art in general? You and I, we can pass judgment on it without muttering the shibboleths about how creative these people are because we don’t know art. Art, any art, any medium, is attempting to communicate truth. In that sense I’m willing to concede that cubism is art. But modern art is bad at conveying truth precisely because it doesn’t make sense to schlubs like me. You can argue that the puzzle it inherently presents demands attention, that solving the puzzle teaches you more than just a surface meaning. It’s a very powerful strategy when it works; I found contemplating those pigeons rewarding. However, the simple truth is I don’t respect most people enough to wade through their malarkey to see if there’s  a pearl of wisdom buried in there. I’ll take the time to study Picasso because I’m convinced that he’s a genius. I’ve got no reason to believe that everyone else trying this is a con artist.

And frankly, I’ve only got so much time for Picasso either. One artist isn’t the world. The classical paintings, the stuff that looks like stuff, works precisely because it is beautiful. Beautiful isn’t the right word. Accessible? Sounds too patronizing. It works because the painting is interesting to look at even before you’re sussing out the deep meanings. Maybe you never get there consciously. Maybe the conscious understanding isn’t so important. In the end I still can’t see how cubism is a patch on the classical styles.

You and I are also capitalists. Measured on that scale, when I went though the gift shop I bought a post card of the Man in the Beret, and none of the others.

There are 58 comments.

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  1. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    A very fine post, Hank, by which I mean I agree with it!

    • #1
  2. Hoyacon Member
    Hoyacon
    @Hoyacon

    I really don’t hang out here to fight about Trump, believe it or not.  It’s really because of stuff like this.  Thanks, Hank.  Much appreciated.

    I don’t think that I’ve ever seen the first birds on the balcony–love it.

    • #2
  3. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    The fact that photography was getting better meant that portraiture was being removed from painters. So, painters took to trying to speak a new language that photography did not speak better than they did.

    • #3
  4. Matt Balzer Member
    Matt Balzer
    @MattBalzer

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    A very fine post, Hank, by which I mean I agree with it!

    I’m not prepared to unquestionably state that second part yet, although that’s in part due to natural contrariness.

    • #4
  5. Dr. Bastiat Member
    Dr. Bastiat
    @drbastiat

    Hank Rhody, Doctor of Rock: The ugliness inherent in cubism acts as a caustic to scrape away anything that’s not important.

    I think that’s a charitable view.  You may be right, though.

    Great sentence, by the way. 

    Hank Rhody, Doctor of Rock: The classical paintings, the stuff that looks like stuff, works precisely because it is beautiful. Beautiful isn’t the right word. Accessible? Sounds too patronizing. It works because the painting is interesting to look at even before you’re sussing out the deep meanings.

    Absolutely.  And yes, beautiful is the right word.  I believe that there is such a thing as objective beauty.  Some things are just beautiful.  “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” may be sort of true for some things.  Sometimes.  But some things are simply objectively beautiful.  

    Artists that intentionally avoid beauty don’t interest me.  Maybe they should.  But heck, even I can paint ugly.  I don’t go to the trouble of going to an art gallery to look at ugly.  I go to art galleries to escape ugly, and to find beauty. 

    Don’t waste my time with ugly. 

    I’m sure I  must be missing something here, but I don’t care.  I love beautiful things. 

    • #5
  6. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    I suppose I should link to this here, too. There are some who still believe in the older traditions:

    Art Renewal Center

    • #6
  7. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    Arahant (View Comment):

    The fact that photography was getting better meant that portraiture was being removed from painters. So, painters took to trying to speak a new language that photography did not speak better than they did.

    Yeah, but eventually they started blathering on about overcoming the tyranny of the representational, by which they meant that they now had the freedom to slap at the canvas with a variety of paint bedaubed implements until they had something that they thought that they would be able to sell to some rube. A whole lot of it is tripe.

    • #7
  8. Hank Rhody, Doctor of Rock Contributor
    Hank Rhody, Doctor of Rock
    @HankRhody

    Arahant (View Comment):

    The fact that photography was getting better meant that portraiture was being removed from painters. So, painters took to trying to speak a new language that photography did not speak better than they did.

    I’ll grant that. Someone get Jimmy P. on the line; robots stealing honest painter’s jobs!

    The thing about it is though, a proper portrait requires artistic talent. You get that in photographs sometimes. A hack photographer isn’t going to manage it. But yeah, the fact that a mechanical device could replace the simple mechancal utility of portraiture did put the squeeze on that industry.

    Along those lines, friend of mine, his wife runs an etsy shop. Dog portraits. You want your dog done up in watercolor, here you go.

    https://www.etsy.com/shop/craftybooartsypea

    • #8
  9. Hank Rhody, Doctor of Rock Contributor
    Hank Rhody, Doctor of Rock
    @HankRhody

    Dr. Bastiat (View Comment):
    Absolutely. And yes, beautiful is the right word. I believe that there is such a thing as objective beauty. Some things are just beautiful. “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” may be sort of true for some things. Sometimes. But some things are simply objectively beautiful.

    I can buy that, except I’m getting hung up on objective beauty. I don’t hold with the poet who says truth is beauty and beauty is truth. There’s definitely a strong correlation there, but I don’t think it’s one-to-one. Going back to Margot and the Dwarf, Picasso was playing games with inner and outer beauty, but you can’t do that unless you also have inner and outer ugliness for contrast. Certainly I agree that we shouldn’t add ugliness like a toddler throwing a tantrum for attention, but  that doesn’t mean nothing ugly is of merit.

    Unless we’re going a step beyond the physical reaction and into a higher concept of beauty, a beauty that’s inherently linked to any artwork that conveys truth well. In which case we could say that a piece can be beautiful without being pretty, or pretty without being beautiful. I can see some merit in looking at the world through that window, but I’d have to be careful to define the terms first.

    • #9
  10. Goldwaterwoman Thatcher
    Goldwaterwoman
    @goldwaterwoman

    Art, as in beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. 

    • #10
  11. Nohaaj Coolidge
    Nohaaj
    @Nohaaj

    During my very impressionable years in high school,  my art and choir director adored Picasso.  Ergo, so did I, at least I thought so.  A few years ago I had the opportunity to tour some of the classic museums of Europe, and was awed by the classics,  Greek, Roman,  and especially art during the renaissance.  Subsequently, during a trip to NY i went to the Met and MOMA. MOMA was featuring Picasso.  I rented the headset guided tour and set off with my old mindset, ready to continue my pilgrimage paying homage and adoration to Picasso.  God it sucked. Even the cooing monotone docent couldn’t explain the “blue period” cubes and scribbles. I came away with a new appreciation for Picasso. He was truly a genius, with a great sense off humor, able to market Cubeism during his lifetime, laughing at all those who paid millions for his random cubes.

    • #11
  12. Hank Rhody, Doctor of Rock Contributor
    Hank Rhody, Doctor of Rock
    @HankRhody

    Dr. Bastiat (View Comment):
    I think that’s a charitable view.

    Necessarily. Much like a trial lawyer who has to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, when I test an idea I want to prove my conclusion almost in a mathematical sense. To do that you have to consider every counterargument, and put the idea in the best light it’s defenders could offer before you can discard it. It takes five minutes to look a the painting and say “my kid could do that.” It takes quite a bit more to suss out an idea thoroughly, even if you come to the same conclusion “no, you guys are pulling my leg.”

    Arahant (View Comment):

    I suppose I should link to this here, too. There are some who still believe in the older traditions:

    Art Renewal Center

    Thanks. I knew such things existed, but as I was saying just now I’m trying to understand the modern styles. I already appreciate realism.

    • #12
  13. Pugshot Member
    Pugshot
    @Pugshot

    My rule is: If it looks like I could create it, it’s not art. Therefore, Picasso, Mondrian, etc. don’t qualify. Sorry guys!

    • #13
  14. Hank Rhody, Doctor of Rock Contributor
    Hank Rhody, Doctor of Rock
    @HankRhody

    Pugshot (View Comment):

    My rule is: If it looks like I could create it, it’s not art. Therefore, Picasso, Mondrian, etc. don’t qualify. Sorry guys!

    I’m actually a fan of Mondrian, although I attribute that to too much Atari as a kid. That yellow dot in the red square is totally a power up.

    • #14
  15. Painter Jean Member
    Painter Jean
    @PainterJean

    Arahant (View Comment):

    The fact that photography was getting better meant that portraiture was being removed from painters. So, painters took to trying to speak a new language that photography did not speak better than they did.

    It’s commonly said that photography affected fine art portraiture, but that’s overly simplistic. There were a number of factors, too many to get into on this post. If you’re interested in the subject, a great book on the subject is “The Twilight of Painting”, written in 1946 by the artist R.H. Ives Gammell.

    • #15
  16. Painter Jean Member
    Painter Jean
    @PainterJean

    Goldwaterwoman (View Comment):

    Art, as in beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.

    If that were true in both art and beauty (the two are related…), then people would be just as moved by a scene of a landfill as they would be with a serene landscape of lakes and pastures. There is more objectivity in these things than many realize.

    • #16
  17. The King Prawn Member
    The King Prawn
    @TheKingPrawn

    Painter Jean (View Comment):
    then people would be just as moved by a scene of a landfill…

    You’ve obviously not spent any time in the PIT.

    • #17
  18. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Painter Jean (View Comment):

    Goldwaterwoman (View Comment):

    Art, as in beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.

    If that were true in both art and beauty (the two are related…), then people would be just as moved by a scene of a landfill as they would be with a serene landscape of lakes and pastures. There is more objectivity in these things than many realize.

    I am often moved by the scene of a landfill. They inspire me to wish we would adopt more rules to discourage waste that needs to go into landfills. More things like container deposit laws, for example. 

    • #18
  19. Painter Jean Member
    Painter Jean
    @PainterJean

    The King Prawn (View Comment):

    Painter Jean (View Comment):
    then people would be just as moved by a scene of a landfill…

    You’ve obviously not spent any time in the PIT.

    ??

    • #19
  20. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Painter Jean (View Comment):

    The King Prawn (View Comment):

    Painter Jean (View Comment):
    then people would be just as moved by a scene of a landfill…

    You’ve obviously not spent any time in the PIT.

    ??

    Do you really want to know?

    • #20
  21. Vectorman Member
    Vectorman
    @Vectorman

    I’ve found the following video (~1 hour) from Roger Scruton best explains the dilemma in  art:

     

    • #21
  22. Hang On Member
    Hang On
    @HangOn

    Where Picasso went wrong was by being introduced to African art without ever getting African art right. The artwork of Cameroun and eastern Nigeria are glorious and beautiful. Picasso’s imitation is ugly.

    • #22
  23. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera
    @TitusTechera

    Hank, well done.

    Now, let’s you & me be honest with the good folk here. You don’t waste your life sussing out the truth from Renaissance paintings or Hudson Valley School landscapes. Almost no one on Ricochet does. Almost no one in capitalist America or non-capitalist wherever the hell else does either.

    To be human is to be democratic & that is to be a Philistine. In capitalism, this means Picasso lives by the vast money stupid rich people pay & the stupid talk about creativity. Few think about him in any serious way. They wouldn’t know more than you do about painters, & you seem aware that you’re only beginning.

    The retreat of the artists into obscurity was caused by the vulgarity of commercial regimes. We want health & a livelihood & then comfort & then to live as we damn please–& no one will bully us into living with beauty or elegance. We prefer ugliness. Even without bullying, with every old institution that dies, we again choose ugliness–or maybe we don’t even choose it, it’s just the way things work out in our massive associations & massively powerful & widespread technologies. What if we couldn’t change it for all we tried.

    The idea that if Picasso & a couple of others would have painted like Leonardo America or France or any other place would be championing them is a beautiful lie. Just like the lie that we really care about beauty.

    Now, we can begin to talk about modernism in art. You are right that it’s about searching for essences as opposed to formalities. Better to say, instead of the abstract stupidities that dominate our lives, these people are ready to risk damnation to surprise the concrete. The word motion is unusually good for this, for modern life is, like I say about Americans: Always on the move, usually on the make. Sensitivity to change & deformity is essential to essences, because that alone can surprise people in a world where everything is taken for granted.

    It’s not Picasso that causes American glossies to photoshop everything to death. Or causes news networks that sell political paranoia to hire leggy blondes & buy transparent news desks. Or have everyone in popular entertainments be insipidly beautiful. It’s us. We’re what’s wrong with us. Picasso might be the way out of the insanity of the way we see things &, thereby, tyrannize ourselves & the world. But it will take pain & discipline, which neither you nor any other decent person has.

    There are still scoundrels out there who don’t do productive work & don’t identify ideologically with some decency–they often get it. One of my American favorites is Guy Clark. I’ll leave you with two of his songs, Cold dog soup, about how America treats artists, & Picasso’s mandolin, about how artists treat life. Of course, you might think he’s lying or deluded–after all, who’s he to tell anyone else? His experience is just his & the rest of us are pretty decided to imprison him in it.–Why the artists decided to make those prisons speak to the essence of things to begin with.–But I suggest you learn gratitude instead &, until then, learn mercy for the poor souls so deluded as to be artists.

    • #23
  24. Hank Rhody, Doctor of Rock Contributor
    Hank Rhody, Doctor of Rock
    @HankRhody

    Titus Techera (View Comment):
    To be human is to be democratic & that is to be a Philistine. In capitalism, this means Picasso lives by the vast money stupid rich people pay & the stupid talk about creativity. Few think about him in any serious way. They wouldn’t know more than you do about painters, & you seem aware that you’re only beginning.

    You know who buys the most art these days? Wizards of the Coast. If you want to think about democracy, beauty, and the capitalistic nature of art then there are far worse places to start than a Magic: the Gathering booster pack.

    • #24
  25. Songwriter Member
    Songwriter
    @user_19450

    @remodernamerica – Thoughts?

     

    • #25
  26. Vectorman Member
    Vectorman
    @Vectorman

    Hang On (View Comment):

    Where Picasso went wrong was by being introduced to African art without ever getting African art right. The artwork of Cameroun and eastern Nigeria are glorious and beautiful. Picasso’s imitation is ugly.

    The Chicago Picasso:

     

    • #26
  27. Nick H Coolidge
    Nick H
    @NickH

    My take on good art is the same as the late Justice Potter Stewart’s view on a different visual medium, I can’t precisely define it but I know it when I see it. If I have to spend too much time pondering if something is “good”, then I have my answer. Skill is necessary but not sufficient to create good art. 

    • #27
  28. Songwriter Member
    Songwriter
    @user_19450

    Quoting Leonard Bernstien (from memory – so I may not get is exactly) – “Art makes cosmos from chaos.”

    I always liked that idea. Art should help us flawed and finite beings to better see the order and the beauty of the universe, amidst its tragedy and ugliness.

    • #28
  29. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera
    @TitusTechera

    Songwriter (View Comment):

    Quoting Leonard Bernstien (from memory – so I may not get is exactly) – “Art makes cosmos from chaos.”

    I always liked that idea. Art should help us flawed and finite beings to better see the order and the beauty of the universe, amidst its tragedy and ugliness.

    He got that exactly right. Dunno quite how, but there it is.

    Of course, there is something else implied there. You don’t. Hank doesn’t. Neither does Stephen Hawking. The guy who made facebook or the iPhone–neither do they. Artists make cosmos. Now, again, who really believes this?

    • #29
  30. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera
    @TitusTechera

    Hank Rhody, Doctor of Rock (View Comment):

    Titus Techera (View Comment):
    To be human is to be democratic & that is to be a Philistine. In capitalism, this means Picasso lives by the vast money stupid rich people pay & the stupid talk about creativity. Few think about him in any serious way. They wouldn’t know more than you do about painters, & you seem aware that you’re only beginning.

    You know who buys the most art these days? Wizards of the Coast. If you want to think about democracy, beauty, and the capitalistic nature of art then there are far worse places to start than a Magic: the Gathering booster pack.

    Art is what the masters do. Everyone else can imitate, which apparently they feel compelled to do.

    But the notion that the imitators cannot kill the arts–or the masters–would be childish.

    Show me a master & I’ll buy your argument. It doesn’t have to be Rafael–a Picasso would do. Or even less than a master, but someone at least as good as Thomas Cole. That would be a start.

    • #30

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