Comme un Enfant

‘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!

« Picasso en est le roi et le roi des chiffonniers. Il fouille des poubelles et fait de ses trouvailles une admirable statue de chèvre. »
-Jean Cocteau
(‘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.’)


Pablo Picasso, The She-Goat, 1950 

… 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.


Pablo Picasso, Little Owl, 1951-52

“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 ( These three-dimensional scrap collages filled an entire gallery:


L’Arroisoir fleuri, Paris, date unknown


Figure, Boisgeloup-Paris, 1935


Violon et bouteille sur une table, Paris, 1915

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 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:


Jacqueline Roque


Pablo Picasso, Jacqueline aux mains croisées, 1954










(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 gets 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.




Silence & Noise



What was your first word? Ask your parent(s). How did you get from silence to noise to speech? And was there ever total silence? From the time our ears form and open like flowers, science has revealed, we hear noise: our mother’s heart beating, our father singing, a barking dog, a sibling clomping down the stairs. Some expectant mothers press headphones playing Mozart against their bellies; the children of many musicians who recorded and performed while pregnant -Talking Heads’ Tina Weymouth, The Pretenders’ Chrissie Hynde, Sarah Blackwood of Walk Off The Earth-must have been born humming, their heartbeats’ rhythm already calibrated to melody and story and rhyme.

But when, and how, does the speech-light click on? When did you figure out that the noises around you-wind, waves, birdsong, car horns, human voices-were something you could make your own, produce yourself, attach to objects, twist around into meaning?


You used your voice from the very beginning, of course, and even without words expressed yourself eloquently; ask your parents how they dealt with how you cried at night. But when did that whole word-making thing get going?  When did it click that a series of sounds named things?

There’s imitation, of course, perhaps the first learning tool, after befuddled, squinting attention, to come online. We’ve all seen (or if you haven’t yet, you’ve got a treat in store) how infants only a few months old will mirror a parent’s expressions. Fascinating research into what are known as ‘mirror neurons’ shine a light on the possible mechanisms of not only speech and behavior but the origins of empathy and human interconnectedness as a whole.  But I’ll leave that to the experts:

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They see your mouths moving, and noises coming out, and things happening as a result, and quickly discover how to make that power their own. [Science has a way of throwing cold, objective water on such magical ideas, however: studies have shown that this ‘imitative’ behavior in infants is overblown, exaggerated, inaccurate, attributable to all kinds of other things; until at least several months have passed their brains and behaviors and processing of stimuli aren’t sufficiently wired together to perform as complex an action as ‘imitation.’ But nearly all of the debunked claims were made about infants younger than three months…so we still have the magic; we just have to wait a little while.]

Pretty soon they’re taking a stab at conversation, even if the words themselves still aren’t quite there.

What was the first word?  And why? What gave someone-or generations of someones in a slow evolution of sparks of comprehension, like a chain of firecrackers-the idea that mouth-shaped sounds could represent, comprehend, even construct reality, could cement communities, ensure cooperation, enable survival?  It had to have been far more difficult than the task facing an infant; she, after all, is born into a world ringing with words and people who can introduce her to them. What was the idea and motive force and inspiration behind the first spoken images.pngword? Who uttered it? There was nothing to imitate.  Or was there?  The noise of winds and thunder and falling rain? Bird calls? Mammoth bellowing? Hundreds of theories have been floated, and while we’re able to zero in on some potential explanations with far greater acuity than we once were, we’re going to just have to get used to the fact that, when it comes to this particular question, we will never arrive at a concrete answer. The whys and hows of the beginnings of human speech died along with its speakers. By itself, with no one to remember and pass it along or, later, to write it down, speech dies on the air, and even when if it is caught like fireflies and passed from one pair of hands to the next, the glint gets dimmer and dimmer until it eventually winks out.

But guesswork is valuable in its own right. How typically human, right? Putting our linguistic minds to work to seek the origin of our linguistic minds; attempting to put into words how we once began to put things into words; questioning how we began to question, explaining how we came to explain. Even if we never get the answer, the questions we ask get us closer to the heart of the mystery, the mechanics behind the magic: the True Beginning.

I’ve divided a brief (and I mean brief) summary of theories of language into two sections, and devoted a few posts each to them:
1) Science: the ideas and theories of linguists, biologists, anthropologists, historians, archaeologists, anatomists;
2) Stories: Philosophical and Religious and Mythological speculations.

[Depending on what age I’m teaching and the general mood and momentum of the class, I carve out a section of time either before (if the cylinders are really firing and people are animated and engaged), or after (if there’s more reticence and seeing some examples and ideas would prime the imaginative pump) we go over the Science and Art content. I ask the class/group/individual students to sit for a minute or two in *silence* and think about and imagine how speech began (I remind them to notice, too, that they can only do this with language, with words). Then it’s time for them to offer the class (or me, if it’s one-on-one) two things: a scientific hypothesis of their own making (with possibly some ideas for an  experiment that might support it), and an artistic explanation in the form of a myth, story, poem, or philosophical or religious reflection. I’ve had great luck with it.]

Up next: Part 1: Science. But first, a brief intermission!

Melinda Rooney ©2017