Picasso: on painting like a child

I went to the Picasso exhibit at the Virginia Museum of Fine Art last spring, and upon entering the very first gallery space, I glanced upwards and saw the following quote on the wall:

“It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.”

Well, I felt a little ruffled by those words and decided to “write it out”. So here goes…

Psychology and Anthropology offer evidence on the effects of culture on world views: it can take years to untie the knots that filter and distort sensory information. General beliefs about how the world “is” influence the details to which we pay most attention (a basic concept popular in my Into to Anthropology class).

Children, however, have not been subject to so many years of cultural impressions. They have a purity about them, unfettered by the various beliefs and generalities the consciousness takes as truth. For example, where do kids learn that water is blue? And the sky? I mean, bright blue squiggles indicate H20 in every little illustration I’ve seen by elementary school students. But I’d say that for a significant proportion of their lives, the average American child does not interact with Crayola®  “denim” or “blizzard blue” colored water (unless they took one too many trips to pool).

Cultural norms slowly affect young minds. It’s like putting on another person’s glasses: sure, the eyes get the general form of things, but details are blurry. The prescription climbs higher and higher just as more and more world views increasingly cloud artistic decisions. Soon an impressionable little kid is blundering about with his grandfather’s inch-thick glasses, and artistic decisions are being made from general understandings rather than real-life observation. [I’m NOT claiming that the influence of culture is bad…that’s a discussion for another day]. Artists need to have freedom to see what is really there: to take off the spectacles and observe every little detail for how it truly exists in the world.

So, yes. There are benefits to the honesty of a free imagination. Actually, it is the first part of the quote with which I take issue.

You needn’t wander far into the Picasso exhibit to see that the man could paint. He rendered form well, some pieces almost photorealistic. But here is the stumbling block: the result of painting like someone is extremely different from painting as that person.

“La touch” of one artist differs from another, because the life of an artist affects their painting. I do not believe that Picasso could really have been able to paint in Raphael’s style as successfully as the artist himself, because Raphael lived in such a different time. His paintings are magnificent, but to paint modern times in such a way would leave the work seeming a little stale. The form of the painting (the colors and brush strokes and materials that made it) would be mismatched from its content (the overall meaning), and so the work is not a whole, a complete work of Art. Imagine if a question posed by a Russian is answered by an ancient Greek man: the differing world views that shape their languages would make it impossible for one to completely understand the meaning of the other.

I should add that I do like some of Picasso’s work! I just don’t agree that the key to honesty in Art lies solely in painting like a child. He might have missed out on a huge chunk of aesthetic knowledge by assuming he could paint as successfully as Raphael and that there was nothing else to glean from the old masters.


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