Picasso and the Art of Genius

The following short essay was my entry to the Frieze Magazine 2012 essay competition. It didn’t win but I rather like it (prejudiced as I am) so here it is.


Picasso – Encounters with Genius
(Picasso & Modern British Art, Tate Britain 2012)

I used to be anxious in museums, dogged by a guilty suspicion that my failure to find joy there was due to some congenital internal defect. Vapours of self-doubt clouded my vision. If I read more about art, purchased the audio guide or better-suppressed my impatience with shuffling tourists and hyperactive schoolchildren would I feel something? Once, I stopped and said hello to a little girl sitting on the floor of the Tate Modern, engrossed in Enid Blyton. “I like stories better than pictures,” she said.

As a rule, I do too – with exceptions for genius. “I may say that only three times in my life have I met a genius and each time a bell within me rang and I was not mistaken.”* The first time that bell chimed in me was on the dim-lit first floor of a municipal building in Mérida, Mexico. Sixty-seven of Picasso’s drawings were arrayed across two rooms, the pencil-lines of the sketches beckoning like fingers. Forgetting art exhibition etiquette, and my date, I stood nose to glass, trying to memorise the invisible something captured there. I went back three times in as many weeks.

The next chime sounded in Mallorca. After a late-night ferry crossing my friend and I stumbled into the train station, mute with exhaustion and simmering irritation. There was something insistently familiar about the ceramics exhibited in the main hall. Finally it clicked: “I didn’t know Picasso made plates.” We clutched each other’s arms, giggling like teenyboppers at masks with poked-out tongues and playful pitchers in the shape of fish with painted smiles and – I swear – a twinkle in their exaggerated eyes.

Picasso & Modern British Art
arrived at the Tate Britain. I went warily, half expecting Picasso to sag beneath the weight of expectations. Sure enough, some of the paintings were heavy, clumsy, jaded. The bell was silent. Then my eyes shifted and my ears rang. Picasso’s work clamoured its existence, a barbaric yawp that drowned out the adjoining British artists. I don’t go into a museum expecting to feel sorry for artists, but seeing the canvases of Duncan Grant, Wyndham Lewis, Ben Nicholson, Graham Sutherland and Francis Bacon hanging all limp and seasick I thought: oh, you poor things. Nobody who isn’t a genius should have to share wall-space with Picasso. “I have met many important people, I have met several great people but I have only known three first class geniuses.”*

Each piece pulled me closer. Once or twice, I laughed aloud. The twined black and white fingers in The Three Dancers; the playful, tender sexual energy of his nudes; the puckishness of a domestic collage; beneath the surface of each an unmistakeable, ineluctable energy. What is it? Technique, innovation, and colour; yes. Audacity, humour, sensuality, also. Love, death, politics, and beauty, too. But not one of these things alone, nor any combination, was satisfactory explanation for my smiles or the swift prickle of tears. Enriched and refreshed, but none the wiser, I left and went for a long walk, listening to the bells.

When I described the exhibition to a friend he picked up on a word I kept repeating and asked: “What defines a genius?”

This was an unexpected challenge. The only answer I could think of was: “I don’t know, you just know.” We sipped beer and talked about something else. Then I realised there is a common bond of genius – all genius, whether in music, art, literature, or life. To be a genius is to have a unique perspective on the world and the ability to create something which transmits that vision. Picasso rings true because when you look at his work you see what he was seeing. You are looking through his eyes.

Now, I feel more comfortable in museums. A gifted artist can create something to please the eye but if there is no gong-strike in my soul I don’t worry. “In each case on sight within me something rang. In no one of the three cases have I been mistaken.”*

*Gertrude Stein from The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas

Patti Smith Cardiff Coal Exchange

Photo: Sarah Campbell

They say you shouldn’t meet your heroes. Given how hard I worship Patti Smith this means I probably shouldn’t even be in the same room with her. The thought sticks in my head like gum on the sole of an expensive shoe as my best friend and I scuttle through raindrops into Cardiff’s Coal Exchange. The lights are low and security minimal. An unobtrusive table covered in tee-shirts suffices for merchandising. “When is the support act on?” my friend asks. Security shakes his head: no support act. My heart hippity-hops. I hate the farce of standing around while two guys in black take an hour to plug in the headliner’s guitar. Tonight is already exceeding expectations.

The stage is small, low, close; we could hop over and perch on the edge. No fanfare, no lights-up-lights-down, just a sudden soft landing of feet onstage. Patti smiles at our delayed whoops of recognition. She opens her mouth and the world breaks open. There is no discernible relationship between that slight torso, overhung with an Electric Lady Studios tee-shirt and a too-big black blazer (red marker pen hooked in the left pocket, as if she’d just been labelling boxes) and the voice that envelops the air. It’s like being run over by a Rolls-Royce.

I’m dancing barefoot
Heading for a spin
Some strange music draws me in

“The look on your face,” my friend says (later). I wonder if the look matched my thought: that I am finally looking at a flesh-and-blood human after a lifetime of watching holograms.

She extends her arms in blessing, evocation, incantation. Girl is washed up on Redondo beach by the waves her throat makes. The mike is a token gesture; a puff of smoke to screen the dark art of her voice. There is a peace sign inked on the left knee of her jeans, like kids did back in high school. It matches the girlishness of her grin. “I went looking for a Welsh rarebit today,” she tells us, “rarebit” drawling out like rabbit in flat American vowels. A man in the crowd calls out an offer – he makes a great Welsh rarebit. She chuckles, flashing un-American teeth: “I’ll see you after the show.”

I want to freeze every instant, turn each note to ice then taste it melt. Lenny Kaye, her musical compatriot for over 40 years, is tucked in the corner, making magic with his guitar. The rest of the band moves in orbit; Patti is the centre of the universe. Dedicating a song to the people of Japan Patti says gently: “We’ve been very cruel to Mother Nature and she can be very cruel back… we honour you, Mother.” It should be a platitude, but it isn’t.

None of the words tumbling through my head are strong enough to hold up to her light: sincerity, energy, androgyny, and the one that comes closest yet falls most infuriatingly short: integrity. Patti Smith is the most complete human being I have ever seen. This is not performance, it is revelation.

She tells a little story about her friend, Johnny, before playing (for the first time, live) his birthday song: ‘Nine.’ “We were sitting at the bar and I said, ‘You’re a pretty handsome guy.’” she recounts. “I’d never noticed before because he’s so radiant that even if he were the ugliest man on earth he’d still be beautiful.” If anyone else told this story I’d think: “Lucky cow, hanging out with Johnny Depp” but I’m thinking: “Lucky son of a bitch, Patti Smith wrote a song for you!” Together, they must gleam like stars.

She is the most beautiful woman I have ever seen. Her face should be carved in granite, Rushmore-size. I strain to memorise the slant of her cheekbones, the swoop of her nose, the triumphal lines that mark her as an elder. “I have Welsh, English and Irish blood,” she says. Someone boos the word “English” and she scolds: “What do you want me to do? I can’t divide myself.”

If only time would slow down. She dedicates a sweet, sad song to Amy Winehouse; whisks us to CBGBs with ‘We Three’; then lulls us with the affectionate rollick of ‘April Fool’. Between gripping my friend’s hand and shrieking myself hoarse I try to grab as many details as I can: the black and silver ring on the middle finger of her right hand; the band on her wedding finger; a charm bracelet on her left wrist; the unbuttoned cuffs of her jacket; the jeans stuffed carelessly into cheap-looking gilt biker boots. Her cloud of brownish-grey hair carelessly plaited at the ends.

Then, sudden as she soft-footed on, Patti slips off stage. The band continues. She’s right there – a handful of feet away, next to the mixing desk. She looks over, smiles and waves. Jaw slack, I wave back, willing, praying, desperate to transmit some of my love and awe. You’re more than a hero. Faces around me begin to take note and bodies eddy towards the slender barrier. She blows a pair of kisses then drifts back to perch onstage between the monitors, heels swinging like a kid on the edge of a dock, un-self-consciously singing along as her band mates whirl through snippets of old standards.

Everything is easy. When she’s ready, Patti gets up and sings again, as natural as a cat rising from a patch of sun and stretching. She joins the band in a fierce guitar jam, notes racing, her free breasts moving beneath that baggy tee. I am transfixed. It is almost unbearable.

Desire is hunger is the fire I breathe.

A man with a pink-and-purple Mohawk grabs his partner and they dance as we throw our voices back to her because the night belongs to lovers. I’m sweating; hot and cold as my last first kiss. When the opening chords of ‘Gloria’ reverberate my heart melts into my stomach and fizzes like popping candy. G-l-o-r-i-a she spells and we’re spellbound. My sins my own/they belong to me.

I refuse to contemplate the end. A girl in a black spaghetti-strap vest with cropped blonde hair dances beside me, golden arms twirling in tribute. The band slips quietly offstage. We stomp, whistle, and holler; please come back, please.

Patti shed the blazer a long time ago, stopped once to wipe her mouth on her tee-shirt. She is at once huge, luminous, a warrior king/queen (beyond sex, beyond gender, beyond binary) and a slip of a woman, sinewy, and not young. Anticipation clenches my heart like a fist. “You don’t need their shit!” Patti cries, raising her arms (prophet, priestess, the voice of one crying in the wilderness) “Be free!” The air crackles and atoms smash as the band launches into the driving riff of ‘Rock’n’Roll Nigger’. The blonde and I scream like schoolgirls. Baby got a hand; got a finger on the trigger. Baby, baby, baby is a rock-and-roll nigger. My blood rushes like it’s late for an appointment.

We wobble out: dazed, high, jelly-legged and dry-mouthed. The engine of compulsion is revving: I must write, have to. But anything I muster will be inadequate to the point of dishonesty. There is so much I want to say: thank you Patti, I love you, hallelujah, how?, you’re beautiful, you’re an artist, you’re a blessing. Thank you.

She is benediction

Related Posts:
Best Songs: Top 10 ‘Signature’ Songs
Patti Smith Woolgathering
Patti Smith Banga

Quote of the Day – Bruce Springsteen

You can find your identity in the damage that’s been done to you. Very, very dangerous. You find your identity in your wounds, in your scars, in the places where you’ve been beat up and you turn them into a medal. We all wear the things we’ve survived with some honour, but the real honour is in also transcending them.
— Bruce Springsteen

Kurt Vonnegut on Creativity

The quote below is an excerpt from A Man Without A Country — a diamond of a book by the inimitable Kurt Vonnegut. To be as wise, incensed and articulate as Vonnegut is here (age 83) is surely one definition of success.

If you want to really hurt your parents, and you don’t have the nerve to be gay, the least you can do is go into the arts. I’m not kidding. The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.

Quote of the Day – Javier Marias + William Faulkner

No escribo para encontrar respuestas, ni creo en las novelas que lo hacen. Faulkner decia que la literatura logra lo mismo que una pobre cerilla que se enciende en mitad de la noche, en mitad de un campo. No sirve para iluminar nada, solamente para ver cuanta oscuridad hay a nuestro alredador y lo poco claras que tenemos tantas cosas.
Javier Marias

Imagining Jonathan Franzen

Posted by Cila Warncke


I find literary interviews marginally encouraging. Selfishly, I’m pleased to hear Jonathan Franzen took nine years to complete his novel ‘Freedom’. A paragraph lifts my heart like a balloon, then pricks it:

It isn’t just that the latest novel took nine years to finish. It is also that, within that period, only a little over a year was spent actually writing it. He looks back on that year with something approaching joy. “Most of those months were heaven. I was miserable much of the time, but miserable in the happiest way.”

Imagine, interjects the journalist. “If being miserable in a happy way is his idea of heaven, imagine what the first wordless eight years were like.” Before there is time for imagining, though, it’s off again on anecdotes about Oprah’s Book Club and defunct comic novels. There are two reasons for the athletic leap from “agonisingly blocked” writer, wearing earplugs to drown the world out, sitting in a bare room waiting for inspiration, to the feted, Time-magazine cover star, and putative “Great American Novelist”. For one, a newspaper interview does not permit lengthy discursions on the emotional cost of the writer’s life. For the other, it’s simply too monstrous. To truly imagine those empty years – and not just the recent nine but, especially, the glossed eighteen years spent writing his first three novels – is to go someplace most of us hope to never have to go.

It is tacitly agreed in our culture that we only talk about valleys from the safe height of the mountaintop. No-one, I suppose, much wanted to interview Franzen during the “Days spent asking questions about certain characters in certain situations, trying to work out chronologies, logic trees burnishing off into infinity. [Days writing] Horrible, unreadable, intensely boring stuff.” Triumph we want a piece of, vicariously; of despair we have enough ourselves. Yet that is the bulk of life. We may wish to live like mountain goats, skipping from one high stony perch to another, but reality is a long trudge through boggy lowlands and hands-and-knees clambering through briar-patches. Most of the time we don’t even have the satisfaction of recognisable trauma; of the literal cliff-hanger which provides, at least, the adrenaline-kick of danger, the satisfaction of instant feedback, of adversity overcome. Catastrophe is almost as disconcertingly elusive as victory. In between lies existence.

Imagining that burns like looking into the sun. We don’t imagine the humanity-defying impassivity of time and space because it is unbearable. Car crashes, divorce, a death in the family, the loss of a limb; these are sufficiently big and bad enough to reduce to neat packages of cause-and-effect; stories with morals. There is no way to rationalise getting out of bed every day and not knowing if what you are going to do that day will make a difference to anyone, not even yourself. Where are the words for how it feels to go to a room and sit there, putting one word after another like the footfalls of some poor fool lost in the Gobi? Against trackless time humility, arrogance, hope, and fear are just postures. No-one can feel any one thing, in any one way, over those years. Time erodes everything, especially the possibility of capturing a fragmentary truth or beautifully expressing an idea.

Worse than having nothing to say is the possibility of discovering that, as T.S. Eliot put: “one has only learnt to get the better of words/For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which/One is no longer disposed to say it.” Imagine waking up each day with the bated-breath dread that everything you did the day before, everything the last month, year, decade has lead to might be undone by an unsolicited burst of inspiration. Even the shadow of that thought petrifies me. I would be afraid to speak, afraid to love, afraid to read, afraid even to dream; afraid that the weight of the world, balanced on a pin-point of inspiration, would shift an atom left or right and obliterate forever the idea I was fighting to express. I wouldn’t be afraid of running out of ideas, but of never finding my feet amidst the torrent.

Everything we think we know we learn by a slow process of mistakes and misdirection. We learn heat burns by putting our hand against the stove. I can’t think of anything more terrifying than waking up every day knowing that it might be the day where a newspaper headline, a chance conversation, or a memory, might trigger a realisation that will turn a lifetime of hard-won truths to stony lies. No wonder we use platitudes like shields. It takes years of education and inculturation to build the flimsy shelter of conventional morality. To admit that there is no singular truth, no Platonic ideal, is to gaze into the pitiless inadequacy of our emotions and coping devices. It is to realise that the creative act is not a thrilling distillation of one sensation, or attitude, but a ceaseless struggle through head-high jungle armed with a dull machete and no clear sense of direction. It is to fight the temptation to differentiate between success and failure. It is to accept there are no answers but go out looking anyway.