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Everyone has heard of Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), but perhaps what you think of next is: Oh yes, he’s the painter who paints about as well I could, if I tried, and maybe even my son in kindergarten could give him a run for his money. And what money! He’s the painter that could scribble a circle on a napkin and sell it for thousands!
Well, that last part is true—he could, by the end of his long career, scribble something on a napkin and receive a fortune for it; have people fighting over it. The first part, however, is not true (although we admit we’ve thought it too)—not just anybody can paint or draw or even scribble like Picasso. Picasso was one of the most gifted artists of his time, and of any time. He could paint as realistically as anyone—could paint the human figure, a landscape, a cow. He was a master, young Picasso, who in his youth was the despair of so many hearts—if by the end of his career they fought over his pictures, in the beginning they fought over him.
Not only was he gifted; not only did he show signs of genius from very early on—his earliest sketches of the local whores in his small Spanish town are astoundingly original, and even his technique is astounding in the earliest examples—not only that, but he was a personality like a dark flame of fire, he drew all people to him, men and women, artists and philosophers, fruit sellers and vagabonds; he took what he wanted; he was short, dark-haired, dark-eyed, intense, with sun-dark skin; he utterly captured whatever he wanted. Capturing images on canvas; capturing lives, real lives, real hearts, in his disorderly studio, his low, sun-bleached villa, his bohemian Spain.
You might say that people, in general, feel cold, and that Picasso’s dark flame of genius warmed them. And it is true that Picasso wasn’t careful with hearts; he dropped them and broke them. He burned them though they came for warmth! But he was a genius from the start, and history always forgives genius an infinity of broken hearts. Picasso was a true artist in that he was never content to stay still, he must move, invent, experiment. Yes, he could fabulously paint a woman cooling herself with fresh water in the fresh, cool blueness of her bedroom, he could paint an old man’s memories in an old man’s sad old eyes, he could paint a circus performer in colors cheerily blooming then eerily haunting—red mists that won’t leave you even when you look away. But he must be about something new, he must push the boundaries, always, like Beethoven, like James Joyce, like all the truly great.
And so he slowly moved from realistic images to surreal ones, strange shapes that jarred with each other, colors that were uneasy, as it were, to be together. His humans and animals became monstrous, his horses like something from a nightmare, chomping, stomping, screaming beasts with rolling white moons of eyes. He thought, what if I could represent all the angles of an image at once; what if I could somehow show you a woman’s face and the back of her head, her bosom and her bottom, all of her, all of him, all of a rose, all of a chair, the bow of a brittle violin and behind the bow, beside the bow, both the bow’s sides, simultaneously? Thus cubism was born, a radical new style of painting that attempted to capture the entirety of an image at once, like a mug shot wherein you see the criminal looking left, straight, and right on the same small square of canvas.
Not three separate paintings, three separate heads; one head, but from all directions—a new way of tricking the flat canvas into distances and depths, seeming skies, the detail that comes too close, and you didn’t expect it. Cubism is strange and bizarre, and you must look at Picasso’s cubist paintings very closely and with intelligence and concentration, and, if you do, the image, totally single and totally separate, will emerge like what’s hidden in a 3-D poster, only better.
Picasso tired of cubism as well, and moved again, and kept moving, and never stopped moving, like a shark that dies if it stops moving. Black slashes and look: it’s Don Quixote leaning wearily over his lance; red spatters and look: it’s a field of roses blurring in and out of a rainstorm. We hope we’ve awakened your interest in this fabulous painter, this terrible man, Picasso, who broke the rules because he could, because, like all the truly great, he mastered them until they were his reinvention, and then he broke them into a million pieces. Maybe in the end you won’t like Picasso! Not all people, not all art-lovers, love Picasso. But give Picasso a try, both the coal-haired youth with the huge dreamy eyes and the snow-haired old man, whose eyes will dream one last dream; give Picasso and his evolutions and revolutions a try; perhaps read his biography. The novelist Norman Mailer wrote a pretty good one, and it’s in paperback and sensibly priced and with big vivid photographs.