Why Picasso?

<strong>Taken from the <em>New Statesman</em> archive, 15 May 1954.</strong>

It was at the New Sta

Why is Picasso the most famous living artist in the world? Why does everything he does have such news value? Why do even those of us who are more seriously interested than the sensational press, go to a new Picasso exhibition hoping to be surprised? And why do we never come away disappointed?

Take the present Picasso show at the Lefèvre. It contains two jokes cast in bronze. One is an ape with a toy model car for a head, a vase for a belly and a piece of an iron bracket for a tail. The other is a bird with a head and plume made from a gas-tap, a tail from the blade of a small shovel and legs and feet from two kitchen forks. The fifteen paintings include some recent (1953) sketches of women's heads in which profile and full-face are dislocated and re-assembled together, a flippant canvas of a dog and a woman wrestling hammer and tongs on the floor, and two small pictures from the tragic series of women in hats painted during the German occupation – their faces brutally wrenched into shapes reminiscent of gas masks. There are no important works in the show. Yet it remains intensely memorable. Why?

The easy answer is to say: because Picasso is a great artist – because he can set a model car in clay and somehow make it convincing as a head of an ape – because he can draw a goat's skull (No. 20) with such finesse that one can feel every twist and turn worn away by the muscles. But to answer like that is to beg the question. It doesn't explain why the scrappiest work by Picasso is so disproportionately compelling, or why all his work is so much more immediately arresting than that of, say Matisse or Léger who in the long run will probably be seen to possess equal or even greater genius as painters. Those who petulantly and sceptically say "You only admire it because it's been done by Picasso," are in a way quite right. In front of Picasso's work one pays tribute above all to his personal spirit. The old argument about his political opinions on one hand and his art on the other is quite false. As Picasso himself admits, he has, as an artist, discovered nothing. What makes him great are not his individual works but his existence, his personality. That may sound obscure and perverse, but less so, I think, if one inquires further into the nature of his personality.

Picasso is essentially an improviser. And if the word improvisation conjures up amongst other things, associations of the clown and the mimic – they also apply. Living through a period of colossal confusion in which so many values both human and cultural have disintegrated, Picasso has seized upon the bits, the fragments, the smithereens, and with magnificent defiance and vitality made something of them to amuse us, shock us, but primarily to demonstrate to us by the example of his spirit that within the confusion, out of the debris, new ideas, new values, new ways of looking at the world can and will develop. His achievment is not that he himself has developed these things, but that he has always been irreprWhy Picasso? – John Berger

Why is Picasso the most famous living artist in the world? Why does everything he does have such news value? Why do even those of us who are more seriously interested than the sensational press, go to a new Picasso exhibition hoping to be surprised? And why do we never come away disappointed?

Take the present Picasso show at the Lefèvre. It contains two jokes cast in bronze. One is an ape with a toy model car for a head, a vase for a belly and a piece of an iron bracket for a tail. The other is a bird with a head and plume made from a gas-tap, a tail from the blade of a small shovel and legs and feet from two kitchen forks. The fifteen paintings include some recent (1953) sketches of women's heads in which profile and full-face are dislocated and re-assembled together, a flippant canvas of a dog and a woman wrestling hammer and tongs on the floor, and two small pictures from the tragic series of women in hats painted during the German occupation – their faces brutally wrenched into shapes reminiscent of gas masks. There are no important works in the show. Yet it remains intensely memorable. Why?

The easy answer is to say: because Picasso is a great artist – because he can set a model car in clay and somehow make it convincing as a head of an ape – because he can draw a goat's skull (No. 20) with such finesse that one can feel every twist and turn worn away by the muscles. But to answer like that is to beg the question. It doesn't explain why the scrappiest work by Picasso is so disproportionately compelling, or why all his work is so much more immediately arresting than that of, say Matisse or Léger who in the long run will probably be seen to possess equal or even greater genius as painters. Those who petulantly and sceptically say "You only admire it because it's been done by Picasso," are in a way quite right. In front of Picasso's work one pays tribute above all to his personal spirit. The old argument about his political opinions on one hand and his art on the other is quite false. As Picasso himself admits, he has, as an artist, discovered nothing. What makes him great are not his individual works but his existence, his personality. That may sound obscure and perverse, but less so, I think, if one inquires further into the nature of his personality.

Picasso is essentially an improviser. And if the word improvisation conjures up amongst other things, associations of the clown and the mimic – they also apply. Living through a period of colossal confusion in which so many values both human and cultural have disintegrated, Picasso has seized upon the bits, the fragments, the smithereens, and with magnificent defiance and vitality made something of them to amuse us, shock us, but primarily to demonstrate to us by the example of his spirit that within the confusion, out of the debris, new ideas, new values, new ways of looking at the world can and will develop. His achievment is not that he himself has developed these things, but that he has always been irrepressible, has never been at a loss. The romanticism of Toulouse Lautrec, the classicism of Ingres, the crude energy of Negro sculpture, the heart searchings of Cézanne towards the truth about structure, the exposures of Freud – all these he has recognised, welcomed, pushed to bizarre conclusions, improvised on, sung through, in order to make us recognise our contemporary environment, in order (and here his role is very much like that of a clown) to make us recognise ourselves in the parody of a distorting mirror. In Guernica the parody was tragic; there, angrily and passionately, he improvised with the bits left over from a massacre: as in other paintings, also tragically, he improvises with features and limbs dislocated and made fragmentary by the dilemmas of our time. But the process, the way he works – not by sustained creative research but by picking up whatever is in front of him and turning it to account, the account of human ingenuity – is always the same. Even when as now he makes a bird from the scrap metal found in some cupboard.

Obviously this shorthand view of Picasso oversimplifies, but it does, I think, answer the questions I began by asking. And also goes some way to explaining other facts about him: the element of caricature in all his work; the extraordinary confidence behind every mark he makes – it is the confidence of the born performer; the failure of all his disciples – if he were a profoundly constructive artist this would not be so; the amazing multiplicity of his styles; the sense that, by comparison with any other great artist, any single work by Picasso seems unfinished; the truth behind many of his enigmatic statements: "In my opinion to search means nothing in painting. To find is the thing." "To me there is no past or future in art. If a work of art cannot live always in the present it must not be considered at all." Or, "when I have found something to express, I have done it without thinking of the past or the future."

The conclusions one can draw are these: that it is Picasso's simple and incredible vitality that is his secret – and here it is significant that of all his works it is those that deal with animals that are most complete and profound in sympathy; that to future generations our estimate of Picasso, judged on the evidence of his works themselves, will seem exaggerated; and that we are absolutely right to hold this exaggerated view because it is the present existence of this spirit that we celebrate.

Michael Werner, who is showing some figure sculpture at the Beaux Arts, is an artist who has developed and is developing very quickly – and would incidentally be a good choice for sensible portrait commissions. At the Royal Hotel, Woburn Place, there is an extremely interesting exhibition of Rumanian Folk Art that will surprise all those who have preconcived prejudices about "folksiness".essible, has never been at a loss. The romanticism of Toulouse Lautrec, the classicism of Ingres, the crude energy of Negro sculpture, the heart searchings of Cézanne towards the truth about structure, the exposures of Freud – all these he has recognised, welcomed, pushed to bizarre conclusions, improvised on, sung through, in order to make us recognise our contemporary environment, in order (and here his role is very much like that of a clown) to make us recognise ourselves in the parody of a distorting mirror. In Guernica the parody was tragic; there, angrily and passionately, he improvised with the bits left over from a massacre: as in other paintings, also tragically, he improvises with features and limbs dislocated and made fragmentary by the dilemmas of our time. But the process, the way he works – not by sustained creative research but by picking up whatever is in front of him and turning it to account, the account of human ingenuity – is always the same. Even when as now he makes a bird from the scrap metal found in some cupboard.

Obviously this shorthand view of Picasso oversimplifies, but it does, I think, answer the questions I began by asking. And also goes some way to explaining other facts about him: the element of caricature in all his work; the extraordinary confidence behind every mark he makes – it is the confidence of the born performer; the failure of all his disciples – if he were a profoundly constructive artist this would not be so; the amazing multiplicity of his styles; the sense that, by comparison with any other great artist, any single work by Picasso seems unfinished; the truth behind many of his enigmatic statements: "In my opinion to search means nothing in painting. To find is the thing." "To me there is no past or future in art. If a work of art cannot live always in the present it must not be considered at all." Or, "when I have found something to express, I have done it without thinking of the past or the future."

The conclusions one can draw are these: that it is Picasso's simple and incredible vitality that is his secret – and here it is significant that of all his works it is those that deal with animals that are most complete and profound in sympathy; that to future generations our estimate of Picasso, judged on the evidence of his works themselves, will seem exaggerated; and that we are absolutely right to hold this exaggerated view because it is the present existence of this spirit that we celebrate.

Michael Werner, who is showing some figure sculpture at the Beaux Arts, is an artist who has developed and is developing very quickly – and would incidentally be a good choice for sensible portrait commissions. At the Royal Hotel, Woburn Place, there is an extremely interesting exhibition of Rumanian Folk Art that will surprise all those who have preconcived prejudices about "folksiness".