You don’t want me to teach you facts about other facts, you want some kind of behind the scenes view, or opinion, or personal anecdotes, amirite? I am now going to raid one of the bits nots of my memory untouched by medication.
Despite the fact that he was a complete bastard much of the time, Pablo Picasso is one of my favourite artists. (Also, two P’s for the price of one.) I think far too intensely to spend too much time in “don’t know much about it but I know what I like”territory, so there is (as usual) a whole lot of wordage behind that choice.
I blame/thank a novel called ‘My Name is Asher Lev’ by Chaim Potok, for the start of my awestruck and lovestruck relationship with art; title case Art, in fact. The book is about an orthodox Jewish boy in Brooklyn, who fights hard to become an artist, how his struggle became his family’s struggle and … eh, read it yourself; I still read it every few years.
The only decent art gallery anywhere near where I grew up, had a little Picasso sketch of a dead horse. Awesomely expressive and eloquent lines transformed what should have bern macabre, into a thing of beauty. I stole the little white rectangle of cardboard with its details on it every single time I saw that sketch. Fast forward from early adolescent larceny to late adolescent pretentiousness, and I began to read artist’s biographies obsessively (to be honest, almost all of my reading is obsessive). I read my way through the impressionists, because there were plenty of books about them in the local library – I even read about Pissaro, which is a largely tedious thing to do. I read my way through impressionist rebellion against tradionalist art, through the evolution of what never credits Australian aboriginal pointillism, all the way to Braque and cubism to Picasso, who is frequently and erroneously credited as the father of cubism. And because I grew up with no formal education in art history, there was no spoonfeeding of history and theory, so I had to think for myself. (Since the advent of Google, I’ve completely given that up.) You could say the impressionists mattered more, or that Braque did, but from a small stack of yellowing library books in a small South African town, I decided that Picasso had surfed in on it all, claimed it, cocked a major snook at the art world and proceeded to outshine everyone else, for a considerable length of time. I continued to consume books and gaze at reproductions and think and talk (pontificate a lot of the time), and yearn, the way only an adolescent can, for the real art scene, with real paintings, in real galleries.
Fast forward a bit more and I sat on an upturned milk crate, in an aviary full of lovebirds (that has only just struck me as amusing and I’ve had 21 years to work it out), writing a list in a notebook of all the things I hoped to experience and discover when I flew from Johannesburg to London later that year. The aviary etc was due to my first job after school. Anyway, I had a fairly long list and when I think back to what I can remember of it, it was a good one, I knew myself better then than I do now (I am currently restraining myself from launching into a discussion of the universality of it), and one of the items was something along the lines of see lots of real art. Well, my whole life at that point had been a journey from precociousness to pretentiousness (not much has changed).
Fast forward to the 20 year old me in London, mostly experiencing abject terror, but clinging valiantly to the goal of becoming a snarky, intellectually arrogant twat. I was fortunate enough to end up staying with an aunt who painted, whose son was at the Royal College of Art at the time and who seemed to be all that I had dreamed of. In other words, she was pretentious, well read and intellectually arrogant. I loved her to bits immediately. She used to take me to exhibitions and after a few rooms, she’d fix me with a penetratingly myopic look, ask me what I thought and was even genuinely interested in my impressions.
The first exhibition I ever went to in London was a good one, a major retrospective of Monet, at the Royal Academy of art. And the irony in it has only just occured to me. it was a very, very busy place to be on a Saturday morning and my gob was smacked and my gast thoroughly flabbered at the sight (or even the notion) of crowds in an art gallery. I hadn’t thought I’d like Monsieur Monet very much, and I didn’t. Row after row in room after room of haystacks and gardens, which looked to me, as though they’d been painted every time the sun shifted. In a sense, of course, they had. It gave me a fast lesson in light, but I was relieved to escape the jostling crowds and I still thought impressionism was wank. It remained, however, in the time line I keep in my mind, as an amazingly revolutionary stage in art history, as well as being absolutely pivotal in the progression to Picasso and everything after. Dora Maar said, “After Picasso, God.” She may have been talking about his appeal as a man and his sexual prowess, as well as his art, but the fact remains, Picasso mattered – and he still matters.
“I looked at my right hand, the hand with which I painted. There was power in that hand. Power to create and destroy. Power to bring pleasure and pain. Power to amuse and horrify. There was in that hand the demonic and the divine at one and the same time. The demonic and the divine were two aspects of the same force. Creation was demonic and divine. Creativity was demonic and divine. I was demonic and divine.” ― Chaim Potok, My Name Is Asher Lev
After the Monet, my aunt dragged me willingly to other galleries, other exhibitions; the only one I remember with any clarity, was in the (horribly Soviet seeming) Barbican, a thorough and thoroughly impressive collection of 20th century Jewish painters. I already knew and loved Chagall, thanks to my mother, but I’d never even heard of people like RB Kitaj. Chagall and many overtly religious painters made sense to me, the rest were an adventure. Oops, digression.
My dear, strange and sainted aunt took me to the Tate. There ought to be a fanfare and some footmen along with that statement, because my life changed in a heartbeat. Scraping the barrel of my brain, I seem to think we’d gone there to see a Richard Long exhibition (crap, Andy Goldsworthy pwns him completely), but I don’t know, and what’s more, I don’t care. As soon as I set foot in the abstract expressionism room, I had a name for my -I want to say passion, but it sounds wanky – for whatever had taken up joyous residence in my tiny mind years before. From that first visit, I remember Dali’s lobster telephone, a black brushstroke of an abstract by Franz Kline called Meryon Pollock’s Summertime (which if I remember correctly, was the only painting I actively disliked), Joan Miro’s Dialogue of Insects, that tall red and black one by Rothko, and Picasso. I keep using exclamation marks to demonstrate how astonishingly enthralling he was. Is. But I gotta do it again, Picasso! There were a couple of little ones, I think, though they may have been elsewhere, a blue one amd a woman in a shift … whaaatever … everything paled in front of the big, acidic, expressionist wonder that is The Weeping Woman.
Picasso! Picasso! Picasso! It seemed fucking enormous to me; I’d only ever seen it on postcards. It sucked me into its frame and beat up my eyes and mind. What a challenge, it was the end of my nauseating attitude to art and the start of a cheerfully worshipful one. Huzzah! Picasso! A freakout of a geekout, have I expressed my excitement enough yet? There was a guided group standing in front of it, and while I attempted a subsonic growl and waited to get closer, I started to listen in. I’d sort of heard of Guernica and the Spanish Civil War, but they’re just not hot topics in the tropics, so I learned a little about European history, a little more about Dora Maar, whose face is the foundation of the painting, and a whole lot about analysing and interpreting paintings. For once, I stopped checking to see whether my aunt was giving me the indulgently amused look, for once and for the first time that I remember clearly, I was in my body, instead of hovering around trying to get a bird’s eye view of my self conscious self, within the context of everything else. I learned how to connect my emotions with external things fully and I fell harder in love with paintings that people say “my three year old could’ve done better” about. I began to believe that my intelligence might not be fraudulent after all.
It’s still there, my epiphany in the Tate and I’m still impressed by it. I guess it was my first artgasm.
Every artist is a man who has freed himself from his family, his nation, his race. Every man who has shown the world the way to beauty, to true culture, has been a rebel, a ‘universal’ without patriotism, without home, who has found his people everywhere.”
― Chaim Potok, My Name Is Asher Lev
Here is a really cool article that explains Picasso properly, Large Legacy of the Little Spaniard.