Picasso Was a Genius. No, Really. He Was.

"Head of a Bull," 1942, Musée Picasso, Paris

Yesterday, as one of 14 professors teaching in a Hofstra team-taught Honors College course with over 200 first-year students, I delivered a lecture on Picasso. Easy, right? An artist who teaches and writes about art lecturing on Picasso? No, not right. Hard. This lecture had me holed up in a corner for two weeks. The stack of Picasso books next to my laptop grew tall, and I spent hours poring over images of Picasso’s work on such web sites as ArtStor, MoMA, the Musée National in Paris, and Olga’s Gallery. It took me forever to grind out an outline, an introduction, and finally the body of the lecture itself. At one point, my husband said to me, “Enough already. This is the most over-prepared lecture in the history of academe.”

Like most serious artists, I know by heart a whole lot of the drawings, paintings, and sculptures from Picasso’s massive oeuvre. I know his biography—that he was born in 1881 and died in 1973 at the age of 93; that he invented collage, in 1912; that he painted the still shocking Desmoiselles in 1907 and Guernica in 1937; that he was a life-long member of the French Communist Party (which is why he was never permitted to visit America) and that he had many lovers (several of whom he didn’t treat very nicely). I know how he laid the groundwork for a variety of modern art movements. I can recite a number of his pithy sayings about art and artists. Most important, I know Picasso viscerally. Although Matisse is my favorite modern painter, Picasso continues to astonish me with his acute grasp, in an aesthetic sense, of the essence of modernity—its anxiety, uncertainty, ambiguity, flux, energy, excitement, shock, freedom and passionate joy.

I found it daunting to figure out a way to get the essence of Picasso across to first-year students. Many if not most of them knew little about Picasso other than that he was a famous modern artist.  How to convey the excitement of Picasso? How to convey that he was one of those revolutionary figures who come along only once every couple of centuries, that he looms over 20th-century art the way Leonardo looms over the Renaissance? How to lead students to understand that his art expressed the modern age so brilliantly that it led thousands of artists who followed him to pursue painting and sculpture by following the problems that he had discovered and defined? And how to help them feel the same thrill I feel in the face of his art?

Professors lecturing to first-year college students need to resist the impulse to show off. Expertise is fine, but it needs to be kept in check; otherwise, whatever it is you truly want to convey ends up smothered by obscure asides and references that impress only those already in the know.

When I had finally finished writing my lecture, I felt not success, but regret. After spending two weeks happily submerged in Picasso, I realized I hadn’t thought about him in such a serious way for a long time, and probably won’t do so again anytime in the near future.

For my lecture, I settled on the theme of Picasso’s playfulness. I pointed out that he admired children’s art in the same way he admired African art. Instead of imitating the natural world, both (albeit differently) conceptualize it. Although it would be facile to call Picasso’s art “childlike,” a good part of his genius comes from learning to forget what he had already learned in order to relearn how to draw with the directness and honest innocence of a child. Picasso famously said, “When I was their age I could draw like Raphael. It took me a lifetime to learn to draw like them.” For anyone who knows what it is to draw, drawing like a child is next to impossible to imitate.

I ended the lecture with Picasso’s “Head of a Bull” (1942) up on the screen. This is one of the most witty and brilliant works of art ever made. Here Picasso combined the simplicity of a child’s art with the sophistication of a modern artist’s attention to form and the complexity of the mind’s perception. “Head of a Bull” is a work of profound play—an invitation for us to delight in the way in which reality creates illusion and illusion in turn affects reality. Although our brain shifts back and forth between seeing the illusion of a bull’s head and seeing nothing but a bicycle seat and a handlebar, the end game settles on the bull’s head.

Picasso said that he had found the bicycle parts by chance and had instantly seen in them a bull’s head. He added that it would be ideal if some day a cyclist came along and, seeing the sculpture, decided it would offer useful parts for his bicycle. This way, Picasso said, there would be a “double metamorphosis.”

“Head of a Bull,” then, tells us that art is much more than imitation.  Chance and subjectivity are always at work. The genius of Picasso lay in his expansive imagination, which transformed the absurdity of chance into a matter of aesthetic choice. Art may be a matter of taste, but it involves a lot more than subjectivity.


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