‘Quand j’étais enfant, je dessinais comme Raphaël, mais il m’a fallu toute en vie pour apprendre à dessiner comme un enfant.’
(‘When I was a child, I drew like Raphael, but it took me a whole lifetime to learn how to draw like a child.’)
He is perhaps our best-known modern artist, a master of nearly every medium, the founder, with fellow artist Georges Braque, of Cubism*, and in addition to never having been called an asshole, it appears he was also an inveterate recycler.
*early-20th-century avant-garde art movement that revolutionized European painting and sculpture…considered the most influential art movement of the 20th century. Thanks, Wikipedia! https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cubism
« Picasso en est le roi et le roi des chiffonniers. Il fouille des poubelles et fait de ses trouvailles une admirable statue de chèvre. »
(‘Picasso is king there [at Vallauris, a commune in Côte d’Azur in southeastern France] and the king of scavengers. He rummages in rubbish bins, and out of his finds he makes a wonderful sculpture of a goat.’)
… a wicker basket body, a palm leaf back, two ceramic flowerpots for the udder, and other metal elements:…[the] objects were found in fields near Picasso’s Vallauris studio.
He used everything: cardboard, sheet metal, clay pots, chicken wire, nails, screws, discarded tools, wood scraps, plaster.
“I only like objects without value, waste, and if the things that cost nothing were expensive, I would have been ruined long ago.”
Who knew? Well, probably a lot of people who know more art history than I do. I know Guernica, of course, and the guitar player of his Blue Period, and of course the larger genre of Cubism, which I have to sheepishly admit never did much for me. Its essential motive and method are fascinating: the systematic dismantling of the familiar-a woman, a guitar-into moving constituent parts, essential elements and shapes that are then placed in a multi-dimensional universe, reassembled in such a way that it is viewable from every perspective…at the same time. I have to confess I found the idea more compelling than the resulting work; it resonated in my brain but not in my gut.
But I’d never seen any of his ‘recycled’ pieces. I saw them a few months ago at the Picasso Museum in Paris (http://www.museepicassoparis.fr/en/). These three-dimensional scrap collages filled an entire gallery:
These spoke to me in a way his later sculptures and paintings didn’t. I guess they’d have come as no surprise to me had I thought more carefully about the kind of artist he was, and how he was drawn to every material and medium he came across: clay, string, bronze, canvas, paint, wood, even beams of light. I stood in front of them for a long time, trying to hear; it was like eavesdropping on people saying something important in another room: urgent and out of earshot at the same time.
And then I saw these two images, a photograph and a painting of Jacqueline Roque, his second wife, to whom he was married for the last 20 years of his life, and ‘the muse of Picasso’s old age…for 17 of those years she was the only woman he painted.’ (Richard Dorment; http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/3610082/Picassos-saddest-love.html) They were not side by side in the galleries (in fact they were in two separate rooms) but I placed them that way in my own little mental gallery, and something clicked:
(In the gallery in which the painted portrait hangs, there are also dozens of scribbled studies of Jacqueline’s ‘mains croisées’ [crossed hands]; he was not going to quit until he got them exactly right. My few lame attempts at drawing taught me that the single most difficult thing to draw is, ironically, the instrument with which we draw: the hand.)
Fascinated with the elements of things, the origins, the essential and basic shapes that add up to a single piece, found or made, Picasso assembled complete objects out of found things, discarded trash, fashioning a coherent whole out of scattered parts. In his recycled art he found and added and accrued and assembled, created things of the world much as we might imagine an Artist-God would. And yet, at the same time, from one piece to the next he’d flip the process, confronting an assembled whole-in this case the person of his breathtaking wife, all of her parts in seamless harmony (their personal life, I gather, looked somewhat different)-and setting about dismantling her, reducing the whole back to an assemblage of primitive shapes, reordering them, and pinning them to a canvas, a kind of artistic dissection followed by the assembly of something entirely new, yet eerily familiar (take a close look at the face in the photograph, then the face in the portrait).
He played with everything as a child would, or, rather, like an adult aged backward to childhood, bringing the wisdom and perception and skill of an aging man along with him: building a tower, knocking it down again, the result in each case an image of the essences of tower, blocks, building and destroying. Simple to complex, complex back to simple; from disorder to order and back again, to arrive at a new order, a new way of seeing.
I’ve never been able to articulate with a precision that satisfies me what exactly an artist is, or does. But seeing the work of an artist I had, until now, never been dazzled or deeply moved by struck me silent; I stood before it and marveled in much the same way I did when I’d sneak into my young sons’ rooms to spy on them as they played. It felt like I’d come maybe one little step closer to understanding that the finished piece is not where the art lies; it is in the artist and his or her process and play: the marriage of craft to wisdom, thing to idea, unknown to known; experience to wonder, whimsy, inquiry and kinetic movement (these little objects practically vibrated), the re-purposing of scattered things and abstract forms. Artists are children and adults at once, and feel a pure and full engagement with the things of the world. They get their hands on those things and make something that didn’t exist before: a new thing born of the playful and deadly serious bond between people and the pieces of their world.