Thursday, September 5, 2013

Picasso's revenge

In a previous post, Picasso is so overrated!, I criticized Picasso's painting, Family of Saltimbanques, for containing several childish mistakes. Or at least I consider them mistakes, others may think that they were done at purpose, to send a message which only they can see.

The above mentioned painting was not the only one with mistakes. For instance, below is an annotated image of Boy with a Dog, painted in the same year. Again, we see a disregard to the proportions: this boy's hands are disproportionately long, being able to hang under his knees! The dog is fine.


Were these so-called mistakes really mistakes, or did they serve to a higher purpose, sending a message which could not be sent by conforming to the arid laws of proportion, perspective, anatomy? Last time I argued that they are mistakes, because they were made before Picasso's cubist period. If somebody can say that Picasso deliberately broke the rules, being one of the founders of cubism, well, he was not always a cubist. When being cubist, Picasso deliberately violated the rules, but before that, why would he try to be so conformist in all his paintings, only to break the rules occasionally? A possible explanation is that he was not mastering so well the techniques, he did not have so well the intuition of how objects are in space. Of course, to respect anatomy, he could use models, wooden manequins, and he could make first some sketches. Maybe he was lazy, or thought it is below him to do this, or that this would affect his inspiration. Perhaps he observed, or was told, that it's something wrong with the positions and proportions, that they don't fit well, but was to lazy to redo the entire painting, or thought that it represents so well what he meant, that he wouldn't change anything. 

Anyway, if he was making such childish mistakes, then he may have found in cubism his salvation. He found in cubism the freedom of expression, but not because the classical means were too limited. Rather, because he could not master them. So, it is not excluded that he thought he had something to say, but couldn't because he was "illiterate" in painting. Like an aspiring poet who doesn't know grammar and spelling, and decides to invent his own grammar and spelling. He couldn't play the game, so he changed the rules and invented his own game. It seems that, by this, he was able to find many others willing to play by his rules, and even to spend real fortunes on his works. If there is a public, then this is, after all, art.

I will close with a quote from Roger Waters (Curtis, James M. (1987). Rock Eras: Interpretations of Music and Society, 1954-1984. Popular Press. p. 283. ISBN 0879723696.)
Audiences at those vast concerts are there for an excitement which, I think, has to do with the love of success. When a band or a person becomes an idol, it can have to do with the success that that person manifests, not the quality of work he produces. You don't become a fanatic because somebody's work is good, you become a fanatic to be touched vicariously by their glamour and fame. Stars—film stars, rock 'n' roll stars—represent, in myth anyway, the life as we'd all like to live it. They seem at the very centre of life. And that's why audiences still spend large sums of money at concerts where they are a long, long way from the stage, where they are often very uncomfortable, and where the sound is often very bad.

13 comments:

Wes Hansen said...

I am an artist myself (you can see four completed works and a work in progress here: http://atomicdecompositions.blogspot.com/2012/10/artworks-and-such.html) and I have to disagree with you regarding Picasso: he is not the least bit overrated AS AN ARTIST! I don't much care for Picasso as a man and I don't much agree with his over-arching philosophy but as an artist he was truly a master.

Picasso was technically skilled by a very young age but as he once stated, "It took me four years to learn to paint like Raphael but a lifetime to learn to paint like a child." If you think the proportions in the painting referenced are the result of ignorance, consider his "The Old Guitarist" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Old_Guitarist) which was painted two years prior in 1903. And also consider that the painting you reference was painted a brief two years prior to his "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Les_Demoiselles_d%27Avignon); a piece of profound emotive content. The piece you reference was painted during the period in which Picasso was exploring and moving confidently away from his realist period and the progression is readily apparent (to me anyway).

If you have never painted yourself you should try it. Mathematicians and Physicists often use constraints to great effect but they are trying to model what appear to be logically consistent or at least coherent structures; art approaches the ineffable which is quite often anything but consistent or even coherent. What you consider correct proportions are nothing but constraints and, in the world of imagination, often times unnecessary limitations. It takes a great deal of courage to explore the freedom which lies beyond constraints; as a man Picasso seems, based on my research, a true coward but as an artist, based on his body of work, he was trully heroic . . .

Cristi Stoica said...

@Wes Hansen. I am happy you commented here, because I have some questions, and your answers may enlighten me. I would very much love to see that at least in arts quality and not advertisement is important, for the simple reason that I don't want to think that everything is a big lie.

The first question is about your words "what you consider correct proportions are nothing but constraints and, in the world of imagination, often times unnecessary limitations". Don't get me wrong. I don't consider any violation of proportions and perspective to be a mistake, when it is clear that something is gained instead (Dali) or when it is clear that the violation is done with a specific purpose (Escher). If proportions and perspective are limitations, I expect that by sacrificing them something more valuable is gained, which could not be obtained by keeping them. In the case of the elements of style in Picasso's work which I indicated as being mistakes, could you explain what was gained by sacrificing the constraints? Maybe I will understand and finally my eye for Picasso will open. For instance, why has this kid the legs so short, as compared to his arms?

"If you have never painted yourself you should try it."

I painted only in school, on A4 paper sheets, like everybody. Well, when I was student, I liked to spend summers on the Black Sea coast (with almost no money). One day a group of art students arrived, and made portraits to people, for a small price (the equivalent of a few dollars). One of them thrown away a piece of cardboard, and started again the portrait. I picked the cardboard, asked that student for a pencil and an eraser, and I started making a portrait to a girl, on the other side of the sheet. She loved it and insisted to buy it, although I did not want her money. For some reason, more people liked what I did, and asked me to do them portraits. Since I liked this, I continued. Also I needed the money, because I expected a girlfriend to come in one week, and I already finished all the money I had, and I had to leave soon. I made enough to wait her and to spend one week with her without having to draw again. Now, let me tell you that I was no good at all at portraits. Some of the art students were impressed and thought that I was taking lessons, but one called me an imposter. I was not imposter, because I always told the clients that I don't know the techniques, but they loved it even more. A student explained me that you have to divide the face in some proportions, that there are a few kinds of eyes and I have to see which one to draw, etc. I thought it would help me to learn these, but I decided instead to continue by simply trying to put on paper what I saw, as accurate as I could. I used a lot the eraser, and I was much slower than the art students. But I had my share of the market, and the next year I repeated this experience. I liked it very much, I met pretty girls, and some asked for nudes, so it was like heaven. Here is what I learned. If you follow the rules, you avoid wasting precious time by erasing and redrawing. Those rules prevent you for making childish mistakes. I did such mistakes a lot, and I know that you can start drawing something in one place, continue, and when you return, the part of the picture is not in the right place. This is precisely the kind of mistakes I saw at Picasso. So, if I am the only one who sees them, is because I am the only one who did so many such mistakes. Artists who learned the ABC earlier in their lives, can't conceive that Picasso could do such mistakes, and think that there is a greater good to fall out of this. I just know they are mistakes, because I did them. I did not know the rules, but my eye could tell me that I was wrong, so I could correct them.

The second concerns the claim that Picasso learned to paint like Raphael, but decided to go beyond this. I presume that the decision to go beyond this was taken early, before having the time to paint at least a picture like Raphael.

Cristi Stoica said...

Of course, you can say that "The First Communion", or the portrait of his mother, the aunt Pepa and his sister prove he painted like Raphael. And I agree that they show indeed great technique, and I even consider these paintings very good, along with "Science and Charity". These paintings show that he was careful, and avoided to break the rules. Or maybe his father, who was a professor of art, and his teacher at that time, took care that the initial sketch respects the proportions and perspective, and supervised the painting process. Guidance is very important. But I have seen cases when grandma helps the grandson with the homework, and then the grandson doesn't understand a bit the solution of the math problem he wrote. Guidance can help you catch a fish, but doesn't ensure that you will know how to catch fish alone.

Wes Hansen said...

Boy, you're asking for a great deal here. I'm not saying that the Picasso piece you reference is a great piece of work; what I'm saying is you have to put it in proper context; you have to look at it in the context of his full body of work. It's an evolution . . . and evolution requires creativity!

You say "Here is what I learned. If you follow the rules, you avoid wasting precious time by erasing and redrawing. Those rules prevent you from making childish mistakes." By definition, if you follow the rules you simply tread the same old worn down ground; you become a great craftsman but not a great artist! Think of all the great breakthroughs in mathematics and science, almost all were the result of breaking, or at least deforming, the rules - challenging the status quo! To paraphrase, I believe, Poincare: "where the conformist sees the end of the book, the rule-breaker sees an infinite number of pages yet possible." This is how progress is made in any field of inquiry; the rule-breakers create new rules which become the new tyranny requiring new rule-breakers . . . ad infinitum!

So what did Picasso gain? He gained the freedom of a child; the freedom to see a green sky and magenta cows; the freedom to see his cubist and post-cubist periods; the freedom to see with a beginner's mind which is a Buddha's mind! Not that Picasso was a Buddha; quite the contrary, he was spiritually idiotic which makes his art that much more contradictory.

The key is this, you have to look at Picasso's artwork, every single piece, as a process and keep firmly in mind that he wasn't working for the sake of anyone but himself . . . And this is what I meant when I said, "if you've never painted you should try it"; I meant that you should try breaking the rules simply to find out how incredibly difficult it can be. And oftentimes the mistakes can be the greatest of all teachers . . .

Cristi Stoica said...

"Boy, you're asking for a great deal here."

You said Picasso sacrifices proportion to express something much more beyond this. I just asked what was that thing. I expected you knew it, otherwise you would not mention it.

"By definition, if you follow the rules you simply tread the same old worn down ground; you become a great craftsman but not a great artist!"

I agree with that, although you took something out of context here. I am not the one who preaches obedience to the rules. Nowadays, the rules forces one to claim that Picasso is great, otherwise one will be seen by others as incompetent in arts. So you see, I am the one breaking these rules here :)

Merely breaking the rules doesn't guarantee you to be a great artist. You have to put something in place.

"So what did Picasso gain? He gained the freedom of a child ... the freedom to see with a beginner's mind which is a Buddha's mind!"

Do you know this, or you just wish it? How can someone verify this?

"So what did Picasso gain? He gained the freedom of a child ..."

Remember that it was a child who first realized that the emperor had no clothes.

I think that art is subjective, and it is absurd to expect we see it the same. Art is anywhere, and for any thing or place in the world, it is possible to exist an artist who sees something there, and tries to express it so that others see it too. And it is possible that some see it too. The artist doesn't have to be excellent in all techniques, to do this. Artists are humans, we should not expect them to be gods, nor claim that they are gods. And from some viewpoint, each human is an artist. Including Picasso :)

Wes Hansen said...

First off, let me congratulate you on your placement in the FQXi essay competition; I submitted an essay myself, not with the intent to place (I can't not being a professional), but with the intent of disseminating the work of three scientists whose work I find inspiring.

I DO know what Picasso gained by sacrificing proper proportion: emotive force! I have deployed Picasso's technique with some success myself. You may not notice it so much in the "Boy with Dog" painting but it is quite evident in "The Old Guitarist", "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon", "Guernica", etc. And of course this wasn't something new which he invented, rather, he was inspired by earlier artists, spiritualists every one, and especially by African art which is also spiritualist in nature. Picasso simply made an analogy, the hallmark of creativity. And this is at the root of AI's temporary failure: how do you get a rule-based machine to ignore the rules, to generate novel mappings?

Yeah, one can verify that Picasso gained the freedom of a child by perusing his complete body of work; this has been my point all along. And of course it is always a child, "the fool", who realizes that the emperor has no clothes; this is precisely because their mind is open to infinite possibility! The same characteristic which makes them foolish makes them inventive!

I have no critique with regards to the final paragraph of your last comment but I will leave with a quote from a favored spiritualist, Sri Ramakrishna: “Only two kinds of people can attain self-knowledge: those who are not encumbered at all with learning, that is to say, whose minds are not over-crowded with thoughts borrowed from others; and those who, after studying all the scriptures and sciences, have come to realise that they know nothing.”

If art is anything at all, it is an exercise in self-knowledge . . .

Cristi Stoica said...

I think I agree at some points with you, and I see what you mean, and your arguments are not in conflict with what I said. I agree, but rather from a different viewpoint, that proportion and perspective were slowing down Picasso, and this is in fact the central point of the post. Great artists (for example Raphael) used proportion, and used it well. Proportion and perspective are not diminishing the value of their paintings. But for Picasso was difficult to take them into account. His most acclaimed works are those in which he gave up trying to respect proportion. But those two paintings which I discussed, "Family of Saltimbanques" and "Boy with a Dog", and some others, are before his African and cubist periods. I see that you are talking about what he gained during his career, while I was asking about the gain in the specific cases I discussed. In these two paintings, he tries to respect proportion and perspective in 90% of the painting, and then breaks it at some points. In the cubist ones, he breaks proportion in almost 100% of the painting. My claim is that he did not break it at purpose at least in these two particular paintings, and that those were simply mistakes. I said this to the end of the post, when I wrote "He found in cubism the freedom of expression, but not because the classical means were too limiting. Rather, because he could not master them." Of course, in the cubist period, he decided to no longer try to respect proportion and symmetry, and simply dropped them, so that he can use almost exclusively the means of expression he was good at. So, he avoided doing what he couldn't do well, and resumed to do only what he could.

About that quote from Ramakrishna, and the reference to Buddha's mind. It is so difficult to give up the conditioning and be free. So many people think they are truly independent thinkers, that their "minds are not over-crowded with thoughts borrowed from others". It is one of mind's jobs to trick ourselves into thinking that we are special, unique, important, not copies or combinations of others. And if we are, and if each one of us are so unique and important, most of the time we can't really see why, because the mind tricks us into believing we are important for all the wrong reasons. It does this because this helps us to survive, and not because we really are free. This causes us to think that we are free, when we are still prisoners. There are so many self-proclaimed gurus who claim they are Buddhas, and in fact they are just prisoners of Maya and of their own ego. I am not in position to judge Picasso and decide whether he was truly free, or just a big ego. And anyway, this situations could have changed during his life. But no matter what, a free mind can see beauty everywhere.

jeroenmelis said...

Actually I don't have any words to describe my feeling I have after reading your article..
stomach is getting to burn and I'm feeling sick..

Embrace the child inside yourself and feel free to express without any borders or colored numbers guided by the blueprint of composition and proportions

Grtsz

Disrepute said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Disrepute said...

http://www.wikiart.org/en/pablo-picasso/first-communion-1896

Some of his earlier paintings where he employs a realist style.

sp calvin said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Tom Lord said...

Picasso was experimenting. A few years later, he invented Cubism. Decades later - more than a half century later - you look over his shoulder and you do not understand what he was doing. "He made mistakes", "He didn't follow the rules", you say. Well, no, he did not follow the rules. He invented new rules. He broke the existing framework of art, for good or for ill. He invented Modern Art. He continued to experiment while you were trying to please your English teacher. No one builds monuments to critics. You are a critic.

Cristi Stoica said...

@Tom Lord: Picasso's work itself can be seen as a critique of "the rules", but he built something, so I consider him much better than a critic. Yet, what would be Picasso without the critics that praised him? You know, those critics that many don't dare to disagree with, because they may be called unable to "see" or to create something as great? I hope you can go beyond your generic reply, which works for any critique - "at least he did something, but you are just a critic" - and explain the gain (or the revolution) made by deforming the anatomy of this kid, and of the saltimbanques in the previous post. Yes, he was experimenting, this is great, but are the things I called "mistakes" in these two posts actually the first steps steps in the direction of revolutionizing art?