(originally written in March of 2015)
I have had the same color photocopy of Picasso’s Pipes of Pan hanging in my studio since 1998. It is so old that it has paint splattered on it. There’s a piece of white tape covering over where I wrote Picasso’s statement, “If there is something to be stolen, I steal it.” I have no memory of writing that down nor covering it over with tape. I routinely revisit this painting for inspiration. I am not even subtle in the way I do it. Why should I be? It is a Picasso. Did he run away from his influences? Hardly. He jumped in with both feet.
I found the image in a book after a professor suggested that I look at Picasso’s neoclassical works. My instructor said, “Look around 1923.” I went to the library and found a book called “Picasso 1923” or something that direct. The book was in French (?) so I could not read it. More than likely if I were a student now, I would have taken the book and scanned the images into my computer and immediately forgotten about them. But in 1998, I did not own a computer and I would not have known how to work a scanner anyway. So I did what I always did: took the book to Kinko’s, ignored the postings about copying protected material and made copies.
I once read that Philip Guston kept a copy of Piero della Francesca’s Flagellation hanging in his kitchen for years. He wrote an essay centered around it as well. There is something unknowable about that painting that makes you return to it repeatedly. Pipes of Pan does that for me as well. If the painting did not baffle me, it would not still be hanging on my wall.
As it stands now, this painting is my favorite painting…that I have never seen in person. I have had the good fortune to visit Paris. The Picasso museum was not open while I was there. One day, hopefully, I will be able to see it. As it is, this color photocopy is enough. I cannot even make a drawing as good as this photocopy. To me, this 17 year old piece of Kinko’s paper is the best work of art in my studio. Second to that is my computer print out of Hugo van der Goes’ Portinari Altarpiece. The only difference is that I have stood before the van der Goes. What is my motivation in the studio? To come anywhere near either of those paintings or the preparatory study/drawing that Dürer made for his Adam and Eve engraving, now at the Morgan Library.
All three of those works address my longtime use of symmetry. The van der Goes maximizes that concept in ways that I have yet to address. Picking apart the compositional structure of that massive work makes me consider quitting art altogether because it is hard to imagine conceiving of something so involved, directional, complex, yet restrained and relatively static. That is all best left to another post.
The Picasso and Dürer are in my wheelhouse. Two figures posed against one another, either at odds or in harmony. Sometimes I will put a tree between the two like Dürer. I think of every tree as a crucifixion. There does not need to be a body on it to imply it. Picasso put the Mediterranean between his men. After all, this painting is classically-inspired.
Dürer’s study and Picasso’s painting flatten space, making great use of the shapes in the negative space of the figures. The slivers of sea under the arms of Picasso’s left figure. The strange patch of blue under right figure’s arm that interrupts the step formation behind him. Both Picasso and Dürer utilize the spaces between the figures’ legs. Where the two separate is the statuesque solidity of the Picasso versus Dürer’s back-n-forth energy between Adam and Eve. Adam and Eve are interacting, fully engaging in original sin together. Adam has an apple in his hand in the drawing, missing from the later print. The arms angle at one another, passing the viewer’s eye between them. Eve’s arms form a line to move you across from one hand to another. Eve’s foot and hand form one part of an X that Adam’s leg crosses.
By contrast, the legs of Picasso’s figures and buildings also create an X, not necessarily to move you around but to put your eye in the center of the piece, at the corner of the top step and sit you there, feeling the stone-like weight of everything. The left figure’s arms hang there, almost pulled downward by their own weight. “Pan” is lost in his music, seemingly unaware of his partner. The bottom third of the painting is heavy with meat and stone. Even their garments look dense, less like fabric and more like a cast.
These are issues in my head while I am working but this is not really about style for me right now. What I find myself thinking about more than anything with this Picasso for the past couple of weeks is the Mediterranean. Picasso visited Pompeii around 1917. No doubt this trip planted the seed for his move to his classical works. There is an ideal embrace of the heat and intensity of the blue water.
But for me, the Mediterranean coast is not Greek for me these days. It is Libyan. It is not blue. It is red. The beheadings of the Coptic prisoners is beyond our concepts of modern warfare. It is ancient. We grew up reading about such events, foolishly thinking about ourselves as being evolved beyond such action. I guess we are the only species that can trick itself into thinking that it is getting smarter. These beheadings were martyrdom on a level we rarely read about even if it is more present than we realize. In no way does any previous execution mean less to me. I do not mean to imply that. The Coptics’ executions are simply the ones that finally made things click for me in terms of what is happening.
What does an artist do? Picasso made Guernica. No one “heard” it, not until it was too late anyway. Despite Guernica being ignored, it was still powerful enough that it needed to be kept away from the Nazis. It was dangerous enough that they would have destroyed it. So what is an artist supposed to do? I think we are supposed to start making Guernicas.