Last Friday, Mighty Reader and I spent a couple of hours at the Seattle Art Museum's special Picasso exhibit, 150 (I think) pieces on loan from the Picasso Museum in Paris, dating from 1901 (I think) to maybe 1970. I could look all of these facts up for you, but none of them is really that important. What really matters is that a large cross-section, a longitudinal study if you will, of Pablo Picasso's works were gathered together and displayed more-or-less in chronological order.
If you have a chance to go to an art museum, you really should. Especially if you can look at works of art you only know from books (or worse, from the internets), because seeing them in real life can really change the way you perceive the works. I can't count the number of times I've been at a museum and run into a painting or drawing I know and in real life it's been either much larger or much smaller than I thought it was. Really, size matters in this regard.
Many of the Picasso drawings I knew, for example, turn out to be not much larger than postcards, and so the level of detail seems to be compressed and somehow much greater when you see how tiny the pieces really are. And some of the paintings were very small as well, and the effect is radically different when the three women bathing are all seven inches tall when you thought they'd be three or four feet tall.
But none of that's really what I learned; I already knew those things and had a fabulous reminder last year when there was an Impressionism exhibit and I walked into a room to find myself face to face with a Titian that was six feet tall and ten feet wide and the figures were all literally larger-than-life. That was very cool. But as I say, all of this is not the point.
No, here's the thing. Picasso went through a lot of phases with his art. In the beginning he was more or less a realist, though clearly influenced by Impressionism. His "blue" period was pretty much straight portraiture and you can see Rembrandt, for instance, influencing the paintings. Then around the turn of the century Picasso started to break down the three dimensions and invent Cubism and that developed over the next several decades, but it was alongside a sort of high-graphic illustrative style that bordered on cartoon but owed a clear debt to the Renaissance artists with their interest in movement and weight of solid bodies and the animation of living things. A lot of Pablo's later stuff was just weird; I could see what he was doing but it didn't send me at all.
Mostly, I came away thinking that this was a guy who was always experimenting and looking and pushing at the forms and coming up with new solutions to problems of space and figural representation and color (though not so much as time went on with the color, I don't think) and foreground/background and visual planes and all of that. Immense variety in his output. And yet, through it all, there is Picasso in all of the work. When you see it gathered together it becomes clear what forces connect the weird bicycle seat/handlebar "bull's head" with the big bronze goat (cool!) and the stick figure "bather" sculptures and the "Guernica" painting and the "violin" sheetmetal sculpture and the cubist portraits of Dora and the sketches and paintings of children and the drawings of churches and villages and the realist portraits. You see Picasso's hand in all of it no matter the style or the medium, in a career that spanned 70 or whatever years.
Pablo Picasso (and is it just me who always automatically hears the Burning Sensations' version of Jonathan Richman's "Pablo Picasso" whenever the artist is mentioned?) didn't have a vision, a unifying theme to his art, not if you ask me. But he had a lot of ideas and he pursued them and he never tried to do anything except in a way that pleased him, at least from what I could see. I have no idea if there were market forces at work, controlling his output, but really if you were there in the galleries with the paintings and drawings and sculptures you'd not think it possible that Pablo created anything with the audience in mind. Some of his ideas or visions or whathaveyou were just off-putting (his images of couples having sex were just awful and there was a guy, I kept thinking, who had some serious issues with women and men), but they were still individualistic and brave and seriously intentioned, I think.
I don't care what you think of Picasso's art in an aesthetic sense; this guy was the real deal and showed no fear when he made art. I should look for comments about Picasso from Ezra Pound, because Pound once claimed that "No art ever grew by looking into the eyes of the public" and I believe his claim, and I'm willing to bet that Pound would have supported Picasso even if he didn't particularly like the art.
When I was looking at the Picasso exhibit I thought about people like Samuel Beckett and James Joyce, who were also breaking down the perceptions of their art in the early 20th century (if "Malloy" wasn't influenced by "Ulysses," I'll eat my hat), and then I thought about people like Iris Murdoch and Joyce Carol Oates who also pushed against the bastion of literature to make room for their own particular visions of narrative, and I thought about how brave it is to strike out on one's own and slip into the forest of Unknown to see what's in there, to clear a field and build our own houses and sow what seeds we have newly imagined.
So that's what--to bring this long and rambling post to a conclusion--I learned at the Picasso Exhibit: to be an artist is to be brave. To be an artist is to have an idea or two and to pursue those ideas and to not be frightened by the possibility that people will think you're an idiot. God knows that Picasso, Joyce, Beckett, Murdoch, Oates, Burroughs, Coatzee, Eliot, Lawrence, Naipul, Woolf, Faulkner, Porter, Stein, et alia have all been subject to ridicule but produced what they produced despite the criticism. So be brave, that's all. Look inside for your inspiration, not at the bookshelves. Be brave and mighty enough to be yourself. That's what I learned from Pablo Picasso.
Also! We ran into Ben Thompson, author of the fabulous epic nonfiction book Badass. Ben was at the museum with his lovely wife. He still hasn't signed my copy of Badass. I try not to be bitter.