Picasso–Like Him or Not

Pablo Picasso (public domain photo)

Bill wrote:

I don’t think Picasso was a genius of any sort except maybe marketing. I heard a man on TV saying Picasso could paint representational art if he chose. But what little of his early work in representation form I’ve seen was mediocre at best. He certainly was not going to get famous painting that way.
Are his works masterpieces? What is the definition of a masterpiece? For me, if a painting is great, it is great no matter who painted it. I would like to see an experiment centered around Picasso’s work.
1. Take one of Picasso’s paintings and change the signature to “Sever Tisthammer”, a Wisconsin dairy farmer. Do you think you would hear, “Oh, isn’t this a great painting. He is a genius.”?
2. Take a scribble by a 5 year old and have Picasso sign and claim it.
His work sucks to put it bluntly.
Now, I’m not against abstract art. There is no reason a painting has to be about something. It can be about paint, color, form, etc. Some of it is beautiful, has wide emotional appeal, and although it may look simple, can indeed be very difficult to create, requiring unique individual skills. I have yet to see a work of Picasso that had any appeal beyond the fact that the creator had somehow fallen into celebrityhood.

Bill: If we were talking about some old painter you didn’t like—Modigliani maybe—this wouldn’t matter. You just skip him. But Picasso is too important for you to turn away from. You simply must give his work more thought. It won’t do to huff and join the crowd of common sense folks that say they aren’t dumb and won’t be fooled.

I don’t know what the man on TV said or the examples of early work you’ve seen. In a Barcelona museum there are drawings Picasso made when he was 12 or 13 that will convince you he could do competent representational work, as his father wanted. (In a strict sense, he always did representational work. He drew and painted things and people, he didn’t “go abstract”.) And what about those first two paintings: the First Communion and Science and Charity?

Science and Charity by Picasso, age 17

Do you know what happened when he showed them to his buddies at the 4 Cats Café? They turned up their noses just as you turn up yours at the painting in my post. They laughed him to shame. “That kind of art is dead,” they told him. “Don’t you see that the world doesn’t need another damn picture of happy middle-class customs or restful woods, much less one about your personal struggles or undeception as you grow up? And are you going to be someone’s political propaganda?”

Those buddies changed the direction of Picasso’s drawing. Few have ever drawn as well, as spontaneously. When he became convinced that “saying something” was silly or worn-out he gave his prodigious talent an outlet in endless graphic experiments.
I don’t believe you that you have never seen a good one. For my post I had to look around a long time to find a “bad” one as an illustration. One after another of those on the Net were good—each in a different way, of course, which is what creation is all about.

I used to drag my feet on the way to a Picasso exhibition. I supposed I would see a lot of predictable cock-eyed ladies and mis-assembled puzzle-piece people, all in gray or in simple unimaginative colors. But then I was always wrong. Each of the works was novel, ingeniously constructed, sometimes funny, and the colors were better and more subtle than I had expected. I always walked away telling myself ”The guy really IS somebody.” Though it is also true that I found most of the works hard to remember.

I’m sure you could tell the difference between a Picasso and the five-year-old’s scribble. Picasso’s work is the height of sophisticated draftsmanship and design. The kid’s scribble may be cute or psychologically revealing or suggestive, but it is CLUMSY. Picasso couldn’t be clumsy even blindfolded and drunk.

Also, Bill, you shouldn’t blame Picasso for the way his work was commercialized. He took advantage of that—sure. Who wouldn’t? Chagall did too and Dalí and the other twentieth century greats. Picasso had lived through some very miserable years in Barcelona and Paris, where he had to sell paintings for food. It is proof of the genius of those men that they went right on painting, in spite of the easy money and the opportunity to live it up.


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20 Responses to Picasso–Like Him or Not

  1. wrjones says:

    Although not common, there have been others painting that well at 17. They start at 5 and are trained by skilled professionals.

    Throughout history there have been thousands of artists who painted as well as the famous but were never recognized. If Picasso had kept painting in a representational manner I don’t think we would know of him however well he painted at 17.

    Of course those with a knowledge of Picasso’s work would recognize in an instant that the work of a 5 year old was not by Picasso’s hand. But suppose he swore it was his? How many of those “experts” would now swing to saying what a great piece it was? And how many would say the work of Sever Tisthammer (actually produced by Picasso) was junk?

    I think there are many searching for someone to worship. It is hard to pick out a hero if he produces the same work as many other competent professionals. Picasso was so different when the “art experts” said this is genious; no more thought required, a new hero.

    Picasso, must be an acquired taste like fine wines. I’m just an Iowa farm boy, I drink Two Buck Chuck for the buzz.

  2. danu says:

    I’m no great admirer of the art experts (the few I do know where just pompous ass…) and there are works by Picasso I do not like but I side with swallows on this one: he really was something in visual arts…

  3. rich says:

    Are there thousands of potential Picassos out there, who just didn’t have the luck to be recognized?
    I doubt it!
    There are thousands of painters out there who would deserve more recognition, no doubt!

    Some time ago I had to go to some people. I had not been in their apartment before and on the wall noticed a painting – a man on a horse, just plain ink in black and white. Haven’t seen it before, but it struck me as a Picasso! At once! No need to see a signature or anybody explaining anything to me.

    Just something unique in his style.

    That’s where I disagree with Wrjones.

  4. 100swallows says:

    Rich: Here is more of the Moravia, where he says what he thinks those three artists have in common: “Three voracious and versatile geniuses who, having in just a few years burned up the career of the traditional artist tied to the representation of reality, they knew how to go beyond that previously fixed limit of artistic exhaustion, transfering their work from life to culture… From “The Explosion of Mannerism” –an essay by Alberto Moravia

  5. 100swallows says:

    OK, Bill, I have to allow that there could be men and women with the talent of Picasso who never had the chance to develop it. Mark Twain wrote about the Minnesota (or Wisconsin?) shoemaker who could have beaten Hannibal, Caesar, and Napoleon all in one but who never had the opportunity to lead an army. That is more unbelievable because a general needs experience, not just talent. A draftsman could well be homegrown (though not entirely either). All of us have seen cases of neglected talents and of people dying too young.

    But what about the ones who actually get so far as to become generals and picture-painters? There we have something to judge. Let’s see the work of this Sever Tisthammer. You seem to believe in quality–some sort of absolute, no?

    We can’t judge him fairly because Picasso has given us a taste for HIS stuff? Yes, but that’s the way culture is: there are thousands of years of antecedents. What doesn’t fit into the museum doesn’t count. Picasso is the one who did the trick and became the link in the chain. He’s the guy you have to deal with, not the unknown camel-jockey who would have changed the world.

    I really don’t think you believe he couldn’t draw. It is just too evident. Some would say he isn’t much of a PAINTER. (“What a genius!” Chagall said of him. “Pity he doesn’t paint.”)

    Anyway, you say you can’t see the “appeal” in any of his paintings. In this case I guess the discussion is over. I agree with you that the guy is often cold or somehow empty and a fellow doesn’t know what to make of that. Was he vapid? How could an intelligent man ignore the world of ideas and keep his feelings out of his work? The fact is, what Moravia said isn’t really true—all his life Picasso put autobiographical elements or touches into his work, and boy do we (not you, I know) happily grab onto them when we spot them!

  6. erikatakacs says:

    I’m not sure why anyone would entirely dismiss Picasso’s art. I think there is something for everyone when it comes to Picasso. I don’t like his cubist work much, they’re too cold, like Swallows said. But what about his blue and rose period pieces? I saw some of those in person, as part of a collection that mostly included the greatest impressionists, but I tell you Picasso’s blue paintings dominated the room. His harlequins were very emotional and personal. Had he died at 30, he still would have been one of the best painters in my opinion. What amazes me he never stopped experimenting.

  7. rich says:

    I liked that Moravia quotation – how these three artists tried to venture beyond “fixed limits of artistic exhaustion”.
    Actually there exists a portrait of Igor Stravinsky by Picasso, done in 1920 – just bare outlines. But WHAT outlines. One really has to be sure of one’s pen to achieve that, sure almost like Ingres!
    It’s a portrait bordering on the caricaturesque – but still it isn’t, I find it just fascinating and kind of a free drawing masterpiece.

    Isn’t it that in every art form, be it music or painting, sculpture, architecture etc. you will find a few great names, sparsely set, and just behind kind of a second rank crowd, all of them with great merits, but who just didn’t make it? As an example: Paul Gauguin the world-famous, and his contemporary Emile Bernard, who did some similar paintings… but who knows Emile Bernard nowadays?

    We may witness something similar in the coming Olympics: How does it feel to be on the fourth place, medal-less, a complete no-name, just a fraction of a second away from the one on the pedestal, waving his bronze medal to the cheering crowd?

  8. 100swallows says:

    Rich: Actually, I had the essay in Spanish and didn’t know how to translate the “antes insalvable limit del agotamiento” (the previously unpassable (!)limit), so I gave up and just said the FIXED limit, which is not good, I know.
    I know that drawing of Stravinsky and I admire it too. Matisse also has some good outline drawings. Few can do those well. Of course the Greek vase painters were great experts at that.
    In school too you learn a ranking and that some writers or painters are considered “minor”. What a fate! And you carry that ranking with you right along with their names forever unless you do some reading and thinking on your own. Of course around the greats there is always a circle of pretty-goods that support them–chorus girls dancing on stage with the star. As a kid I guess I just assumed they didn’t aspire so high or weren’t as pretty. Maybe they really weren’t. Or don’t you believe it?

  9. George says:

    Picaso didn`t made First Communion and Science and Charity
    that`s a little known hoax.

    Supposeddly his father made them, although & dunno if that`s true its obvious those ones weren`t made by the same hand that did the famous blue period.

    I really wish history books got updated on this matter since is one of the biggest lies in art history.

  10. 100swallows says:

    George: I wonder what your source is. I saw that the painting was donated to the Picasso Museum (in Barcelona) by the the artist himself in 1970, and it is signed. I agree it is hard to reconcile with the other things Picasso painted just a few years later; but juvenile works often show the strong influence of the artist’s father or teacher. Here is the information given by the Museu Picasso:

  11. rich says:

    …perhaps a “co-production”?

  12. Just to pick up on something Swallow, did you mean to imply that one could ‘just skip Turner’, or did I get that wrong?

  13. 100swallows says:

    Sorry, Robert, I didn’t mean to slight Turner. I said that because I assumed that Bill would not like the paintings in the Turner rooms of the National Gallery and also because I don’t think Turner is as important in art history as Picasso.

  14. artmodel says:

    Sorry to jump into this conversation late, but I just wanted to agree wholeheartedly with Ericatakacs’ comments about Picasso’s work from the Blue Period. I also have seen them in person at the Met and they absolutely “dominate the room”, as she put it. They almost diminish the other works sharing the space. Like Erica said, you could remove all of Picasso’s Cubism, and he’d still be a force to be reckoned with, in my opinion.

  15. 100swallows says:

    Artmodel: Jump in whenever you want to. I wouldn’t mind removing all his Cubism. The cheerlessness of the blue ones always struck me as somehow phony. I could never believe that the guy who drew with so much youthful enthusiasm would go around with a long face like that. Like one of these teenagers who monkeys grandpa’s grumpiness and tells you life is just nothing. At other times I have wondered whether it wasn’t a pose but shows Picasso’s real vapidity which however is always redeemed or masked by his sophisticated draftsmanship.
    But I like some of those blue paintings.

  16. Aryul says:

    Sometimes I love Picasso, sometimes I hate him. But no matter what, I recognize his genius.

  17. will says:

    I am a little ashamed to say that I hate Picasso, thoroughly. It comes from the guts, and my opinion never changed during so many years. I say ashamed because it goes so much against the feeling of the multitude that I long thought I was missing something essential – I thought I was blind, or dumb. After so many attempts to understand why this man generated such a violent feeling to me in a field, I mean Art, which should not be (or is it?) a battlefield, I came with the following considerations:
    – how intriguing is it that critics about the ugliness of mature Picasso’s works are often dismissed by saying that, ‘believe me’, in his younger years he has shown that he could draw well. Or by referring to that fact that ‘his talent is so obvious when we look at his blue or pink periods’ (incidentally I am not agreeing even with this). These periods had in fact nothing to do with his later works. Who would pretend that Mozart’s earlier symphonies were more beautiful than his mature ones? But there is no use in putting forward such silly arguments, since Jupiter is perfection in emotion.
    I am not a fan of Stravinsky, and he seems well chosen to match Picasso. I think the case of Joyce is different. Dubliners is a wonderful book, Ulysse I cannot read. But his addictions and misery may have played a role. He was not (I think) in the same implacable, cold and systematic state of mind as Picasso.
    -Precisely because Picasso had talent, he is all the more blamable because he used it not to build, but to de-construct, methodically, savagely,remorselessly. Moravia point is quite interesting, because it ties this attitude to the terrible time of the First World War in Europe. It may explain why such deviations, crazyness developed in many segments of culture in those troubled times, when Europeans had lived through such horrors.
    – I believe that the deepest critic I would make to Picasso is that he had purposely banished the key foundations of Art, i.e. Beauty and Nature. Here is a lovely quote that I found on a XVIIth century French earthenware plate:
    En amour et en peinture
    L’on cherche toujours
    Le trait de la Nature
    In love and in painting
    one always looks for
    Nature mark
    I cannot find any better motto for Art.
    -The last but not least resentment I have towards Picasso is that his work had convinced me that Modern Art was rubbish, and that since I hated his most prominent figure, there was no time to spend looking at others of the same time. Hopefully, and rather late, I discovered Rothko. He has been a revelation to me, and opened some inroads into abstract art that I owe him entirely. But that is another story…
    I hope I haven’t ruffled too many feathers. It is to the credit of the quality of your forum, Swallows, that such passionate arguments happen to burst out.
    Best Regards

    • 100swallows says:

      Will: Thanks again for all your fine comments. They show a lot of thought and experience and surely take you much time.
      Don’t worry–I found no ruffled feathers among all the swallows. They are getting ready for their trip north (the swallows, not me yet).

      Like you, I have fought with Picasso all my life. I’ve usually felt emptiness while walking through collections of his work, though I could see the novelty of each. Something was missing. Was it my fault?
      I tried to suppress any initial negative impressions and prejudices, at least as long as I could, and to surrender to him while “the jury was out.” But the jury never returned: I can’t make up my mind about him.
      One has to take an artist on his own terms. Pablo doesn’t come halfway. He liked doing what he did, which is often mere doodling, and he had his fun. But his depressing Blue Period figures mope around in the Nihil of the early twentieth century and his Cubistic stuff often seems like a desperate reach outside a fallen world, where the “cubes” he builds with might as well be the shattered pieces of the old civilization rather than a new way of “seeing”. He would perhaps say he didn’t destroy but, on the contrary, try to rebuild. And in any case, why couldn’t he do whatever he wanted to? I don’t think he is the one to blame for the impact he had on art. He was certainly made too much of. Every museum proudly exhibits a few of his works, however trite. His late work, about his own Satyric adventures, is entertaining and shows his marvellous drawing talent and sense of classical beauty.

      So I can’t really agree that he banished beauty or even nature, though he was incomprehensibly able to ignore them. Few people in all of history could draw with such precision, such grace, and such personality. I might almost ask you to name me another (try a Greek vase painter maybe). Matisse was wonderful but he had to work harder at it. Ingres was astounding but hardly as free. Michelangelo perhaps. Picasso drew as easily as he breathed; and even the least of his flowing images had all the subtlety and suggestive quality of a poem. His best etchings do show your “nature” everywhere, though it is Wordsworth’s nature, i.e. “recollected [and transformed] in tranquillity” and is often playfully converted into a puzzle.

      Yet, I admit, that is not enough for me.

      Like you too, I have seen and felt the strange effectiveness of the work of Rothko, though I find myself skipping through his explanation of its peculiar power. One after another his paintings hypnotize, not only those in that black chapel of his (if they do). Museums sometimes exhibit them with a bench in front for contemplation. No such bench is necessary to contemplate most pictures by Picasso.

  18. will says:

    Thanks, Swallows for your response.It is very balanced and helps me a lot at looking again at the points made. And also at giving a fresh look at some Picasso’s line drawings on the net. This blog does enable productive discussions, and offers lots of learnings. If one add to this the fact that its subjects are the very best ones in art -well one can understand how successful this site is!
    As for naming great draughtsmen, they are so many I admire! Michelangelo anf Rafaello are at the very top of course. But if I restrict myself in picking two names against the specific criterion of dazzling ‘doodle-like ‘ easyness, I would choose Rembrandt with his delightful pen and ink drawings of children, mothers,nannies, and other familiar scenes. In a swift, continuous ink line, he will for example describe the fear of a toddler in front of a big, placid dog, being comforted by a smiling caring grand’mother in a way that touches the viewer like no other artist would.
    Another name, in a different genre is Gericault who has produced stunning pencil drawings of men and horses, where again the line is uninterrupted, and which results in a movement and energy that compares to nothing else.
    Finally, about Rothko, I remember two exhibitions (one at the Guggenheim in New-York and one in Paris). As opposed to so many modern artists, he did not wreck anything of the past, he rather ventures on genuine new ground (after some maturation)i.e. colour magnificence and emotive power for itself. Because of this, he is one of the very few genuine creators in the XXth century art.
    Best Regards

  19. Anonymous says:

    I stand corrected the man was an artist, I don’t blame him for slapping crap together if that’s what the public wanted.

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