13 August 2016

Picasso, the unprofessional. And why it wasn't such a bad idea.

It might come as a surprise that I write about Picasso when I might be explaining how my recent move to Vancouver went and what wonders of painterly inspiration I discovered in British Columbia.  Well, that will have to wait till I am ABLE to get to those places of inspiration since for all Vancouver's semi-adequate public transport, it is not enough to go out on a day trip to the lakes. In other words, One needs a car in order to reach what is truly unique in Canada (and the US for that matter) . 

 "Picasso, the painter and his muses" is on show at the City Gallery and I went to visit it. I am glad to report the show was well attended, crammed even. I had not thought much about it until I happened upon some lectures by Alan W. Watts that had nothing to do with Picasso but got me thinking...

Picasso. The name alone represents shorthand for twentieth century art much in the way Einstein represents “science”. And yet, Picasso carries so much baggage. Unlike Einstein’s theorems, anyone can have a go at his art and wonder about the odd position of eyes, perplexing or wanton disregard for classic draftsmanship (“But he used to paint so well…” people bemoan) and sexual exploits. Here is a  bit of what I love about Picasso: He got out of his way. He never called himself a ” professional artist”. He never “improved” except in the sense of being more himself, even if it meant changing. He embraced the material world as if it didn’t ‘matter’, a true 'materialist'. He let being a artist happen to him and not the other way around. And to hell with nirvana.

The reason I find Picasso’s paintings liberating is precisely because nothing seems forced, sweaty, shoehorned or meant to impress. Pretty much the same reasons I love Sargent’s artwork except where Sargent swims in technical prowess, Picasso  revels in mischief.  Neither man really “worked” at it in the 'proletarian' sense of  getting their “chores” done both Marxists and capitalists love so much. They excelled at being themselves. 

Katherine Besiegel, curator,  at the Vancouver Art Gallery.

The Vancouver show basically showed how Picasso hopped from muse to muse like a sun crazed bumblebee,  had many fruitful marriages and love affairs, let the women influence his art or was led to the women that matched his ideal at the moment and produced many, many portraits. In return, he seems to have been loved by the women something fierce -despite his being a fickle companion. This is all well documented so there's no point in detailing his affairs of the heart any further. The details of his sexual behavior are of no interest to me except for the bigger picture they reveal: a creature unrestrained and lustful.  Not all artists are well suited to dance with their calling and be allowed to spread themselves so abundantly...even though he was hardly unique in that respect. Klimt and Augustus  John come to mind, (100 children, really?)

 Young Picasso painted very well. He even won several awards. But , honestly, nobody would remember his "Science and Charity" painting if it wasn't for the exploits of the "future" Pablito. Let's not get tangled into history either, the sentimental pink and blue periods, his classic and cubist  forays. Let's not talk about his styles - in plural- or try to explain his rise to stardom. Everyone knows that Picasso became an art beacon only comparable and - in my opinion much superior - to Matisse and Bacon. There is an enormous amount of bibliography on his art and life available and I claim no added knowledge whatsoever.

"Science and Charity" Pablo Picasso. 1897

Hold on,  the big picture:  Art is what artists do because they can't help it. Artists least and last  desire is to explain away their goals on trite artist statements and making lists of awards and collectors. Most can't even explain how they do what they do or conduct a proper workshop -  much less with the added burden of traveling to  Provence,  for a week, with lots of wine involved. And what about commissions, what a drag, really. Sargent gave up commissions the minute he could at age 50, the lucky geezer. Artists DO all those things of course, some of them even have blogs and want to be called "professional" artists as if  making a living from art or  painting 8 hours a day would make someone 'better' than some  bumpkin kid in Tennessee  that just happens to create one stunner after another in his basement -with  lots of sleep in between and a job at Home Depot. What we call genius, if it is genius, can't be taught and no amount of hours, degrees or "professionalism" will compensate for  good ol' mediocrity. Otherwise schools would overflow with Mozarts and Feynmans.

Ideally, people would go to school because  they are interested in something already and they want to find out more, share how others go about it,  get to hone the skills they know they can hone. In some cases, school is where people discover what they already knew that they should pursue and pursue it if they don't get knocked off or into drugs! Professional artists make professional paintings, correct and durable and well composed. That is a looong way away from a "good" painting.  Some even take refuge into following a school, obfuscating detail, and (gasp) photo-realism.  The great news is that we can all relax, there is no getting "better", just getting to be more in tune with yourself. Toss the self-improvement books aside. There is only good, or even just sufficient, management of what's there. 

I see this in Picasso.  He didn't seem to care much about trying to get "better", better at selling, better at marriage, better at drawing, better at waking up at six AM to prime canvases...No. Picasso never  tried to "stick with it" and "put the hours". He changed styles like coats, following his bliss as they say. He was constantly at work without even knowing it.  He was lucky to be paid enormous sums for painting/sculpting/making freakin' plates. (And that's another sticking point, isn't it? His art fetched great sums even though it doesn't look like it took him that much effort to put it out there).

Before I get too ying-yang and Zen in this matter, let's look at  some long-winded explanations and  far-fetched theories that  could justify "bad" drawings? Here are a couple of attempts:

Disruption of the Western canon:  It has often been said that the Western ideal is one of individuality: Each one is the architect of his/her destiny. We can always improve our station in life, steer our lives towards comedy or tragedy.  I would argue that the true legacy of Western thought is the dissatisfaction with what is established, what has come before. Progress may be a misguided idea but it is a distinctly Western one. This has manifested itself in Western art as well. We see how we have represented ourselves as bags of skin with little connection to the surrounding space. In Eastern art, for example, everything seems to float and live in an immaterial world where the space between things is just as relevant as the things themselves. African art is so embedded in the environment it can't be understood outside of it, on the painted bodies and the ritual masks.  Naturally, Western artist of note have intuitively grasped some of these ideas in different degrees and contemporary art has little use for these distinctions. We owe a lot of that disruption to Picasso and the artists that caught on to these ideas, there are many.

Science reveals more: Picasso was a man of his time. Scientists knew already that  there is nothing truly 'solid' and they knew it through experimental means, not just as an Heraclitean notion. Even the David of Michelangelo is just a mass of tightly vibrating atoms held together by powerful electric forces. If they stopped, it would vanish in a wisp of heavy dust. In other words, the most beautiful works of art are already disembodied. Very few of  them will survive a mere three thousand years, if at all.  Picasso might reflect the knowledge of his times but is that even relevant?  Turner might have done the same before atoms were discovered with equally disembodied canvases.

Mother and Child 1921

I share with many a traditional (traditionalist?)  artist my way of understanding art, I praise  the renewal of "atelier" training and  the proliferation of artists that express themselves  by using paint and knowing how to draw  instead of  offering obscure ideas and far-fetched agendas or splattering their  navel-gazing on the walls.  This is still a  minority position in the wider world of the "art market". However. I do not automatically condemn everything that came before. Picasso or otherwise.

Portrait of Francoise.

My take-away.  Ah, but why do I care. Here is why: Who says you have/deserve to make a living... as an artist? You have to make a living AND you are an artist. Two different things. Related as they are, they remain different.   You'll dance in the kitchen if you missed Dance School because you got pregnant at fifteen, you'll write amazing emails because you can't possibly spare the time to write a novel  and you'll  hum fabulous songs because you lost your voice in an accident. You like to eat so you work and make a living and work towards a goal knowing that the work is where you dwell as the artist.  But the artist just is, already. No stage, gallery or publisher can add or subtract, validate or deny. Mentors are a blessing, so are schools but to try to reach for someone to teach us how to be professional artists is like hiring a policeman to make sure you obey the law. They won't. The last thing they want is competition. Ridiculous, I know. You might be lucky and find a mentor or happen upon an opportunity or just decide it is too much effort and let go. Forgive yourself. Persistence tears mountains down but it also kills the fly hitting its head against the glass.  Attitude is everything until it isn't.

If you start a business to sell fertilizer because you want to make a living helping farmers, that's good and fun and necessary. But if in the process, money becomes the final goal, no matter what ecological disasters might ensue, you become Monsanto and start justifying your enslaving of farmers via your GMO crops and then you are scum. Most corporations, by virtue of their sole interest in the bottom line cut corners and produce nothing but short-term benefits while they pile up the disasters. If you decide to be a professional artist (a corporation, really) because you want to communicate wonder, do art and don't worry about the final goal, monetary success is not the measure of you, just the success of your corporation as a business. Being a professional artist is great for those who can make the business side float the same way that you'll save a lot in frames if you are skillful enough to make your own. But being an artist does not require it. Aren't you glad Picasso taught you that? So start being.

P.S. Those who try to imitate Picasso are delusional. You can only imitate the voice that guides you, that "thing" that we might call a soul and that is the closest we'll ever come to a God.