Picasso and creativity: Looking beyond beauty

Posted: November 11, 2009 in Creativity
Tags: , , ,

Cathedrale

Art is not the application of a canon of beauty
but what the instinct and the brain can conceive
beyond any canon. When we love a woman
we don’t start measuring her limbs
—Pablo Picasso

We are a society obsessed with beauty, with the surface of things. Perhaps it is because there are so many of us and we are so hard-pressed to accomplish the basics of survival, that we no longer have time to look very deeply at the people and things passing before our eyes.

Then there is advertising, which homogenizes everything it touches. The models in these ads are attractive, yes. For the most part, however, they inhabit a narrow range on an endless spectrum of “beauty”—and not the most interesting part of the spectrum, by a long shot. We have focused our perception on this single band of color so intensely that we can barely recognize true loveliness, or, rather, authenticity, anymore. I recently spent a considerable amount of time with a woman who had quite obviously had a face lift and nose job—yet, because her doctored appearance coincided with our official understanding of beauty, men and women fawned over her, despite the artifice, to the exclusion of all else around them. But that’s another story.

What I want to write about is Picasso. On a recent trip to France, I had the good fortune of stopping by the Cathedrale d’Images in Les Baux de Provence. This unique museum started out as a limestone quarry but was converted to a gallery of projected images in the late 1970s. Here is a description of the main viewing area from a brochure published by the museum:

…a large gallery disappears 60 metres under the mountain, leading to a gigantic hall that is split up by huge columns left behind by the quarrymen to support the “roof.” The bases of these natural pillars measure between five and 10 metres and they are between seven and nine metres high. Like the walls and ceiling, they are used as natural screens for the projections. Thus some 4,000 square metres of natural screens are available for projecting images in 12-metre high rooms. These surfaces are not completely flat and even, which increases the relief effect. The images are never flat nor centred. Spectators move around, discovering new angles of view and perspectives. They are submerged in a world in which the ceiling is lit up with images and images creep along the floor and burst onto the ridges.

I relate this here to give you some sense of the scale of the exhibition I saw, which took Picasso as its subject. Sometimes whole paintings, but just as frequently fragments of his work, moved across the walls and ceilings and floor, to fine musical accompaniment (works by Nino Rota, Vivaldi, Shostakovich and others).

At first it was a bit disorienting, I must confess. Where was I supposed to stand? How could I take it all in, with different images cascading across different sections of the theater? Eventually, I gave up on doing it “right,” moved toward the center of the space, and gawked. And the thing that struck me about Picasso’s great gift was this: He did not try to paint “correctly,” or apply some standardized criteria to make his images palatable. Although he was a master of technique, and would never belittle its importance, he applied it to his own ends. Take the women, for example. I think it is safe to say that none of the women Picasso painted are depicted as classically beautiful. There is always something off or grotesque about them—some flat-footedness or deformity, some raw need. And yet, they surge with life, your eye drinks them in. There is something essential about them, some basic truth embodied, yours to discover. The world they inhabit is so much more vibrant, and potent, and captivating than ours, thanks to the narrow piece of spectrum we choose to inhabit.

Take, for example, “Two women running on the beach/the race,” from 1922. One of them has turned her face away from the viewer altogether, and the other has thrust her gaze unnaturally skyward. They are pudgy, plainly dressed, each with an ordinary breast exposed. The beach is unremarkable, the sky mostly clear. Yet the whole milieu is captivating. I feel like a pale ghost in comparison.

Even the dark pieces like Guernica cannot deter your desire to look. There are flames and broken weapons. Even ordinary objects, such as a light bulb, seem menacing. The figures seem partly human, partly spirit. With the exception of one figure, who screams into the sky, all the humans and even the horse are gazing off the canvas toward unnamed demons. The painting fascinates and roils. I doubt that even a photograph of war could convey such a strong sense of horror. It could capture the essential details—but only true Art, with a capital A, can get at what lies beyond. (Yes, a photograph can be true Art, but I’m speaking of photojournalism here.)

One more painting: “Girl with mandolin.” The girl in this work is not entirely of this realm. We can make out a head and shoulders, arms, a breast, hands. She is fragmented and indistinct, yet she still has a powerful presence. Even more potent, however, is the music. In fact, the painting, as I see it, seems to gaze beyond the human figure to the music itself, which enters the artwork almost as another dimension. Picasso manages to render both image and sound in two dimensions. He goes way beyond the surface.

Another thing that struck me in the Cathedrale d’Images: Picasso didn’t pussyfoot around. Even his squiggles have more force than a lot of prose. When it came to Art (and a lot of other things, too), he inhabited his power. No mitigating. No undermining of himself. Every stroke is boldly confident. But he is not content to be a simple force. He also looked—really looked—beyond the blinders society imposes.

Can I boil this down to some basic lesson? I’d rather not, but here’s a stab: Don’t always be so sure you understand the meaning and significance of the things you paint, or photograph, or write about. Don’t even waste much time seeking the meaning. Chances are, any significance you assign to your work will be arbitrary. What is important, instead, is the struggle to maintain an open channel, to permit the creative force itself to intervene and direct you. Picasso himself said, “The artist is a receptacle for emotions that come from all over the place; from the sky, from the earth, from a scrap of paper, from a passing shape, from a spider’s web.A beautiful woman is not an assemblage of perfectly proportioned parts that can be replicated on a canvas or page. True authenticity involves much more. The role of the artist is to look beyond assumptions and rules and metrics and inhabit the ambiguity that lies beyond. Then pass it on.

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