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

Tate Modern: Pop Life is Rubbish

Posted by Cila Warncke

van_gogh_wheatfield_with_crows

Wheatfield with Crows

The view from the sixth-floor members’ lounge of the Tate Modern is spectacular. A cool sweep across Saint Paul’s Cathedral, the Millennium Bridge and the sludge-grey curve of the Thames. After that, walking through the ‘Pop Life’ exhibition is like touring a crypt: lifeless, rigid, ostentatious, dull.

There are scenes of a sexually explicit nature (in the demure phrase of the small black-and-white signs dotted around the rooms) but the only shocking thing about them is their banality. Jeff Koons aggrandising pornographic (self) portraits are faintly amusing only for the contrast between the unremarkable dimensions of his penis (photographed) compared to its heroic amplification in the accompanying sculptures. Around me, students scribble on notepads. Hopefully they’re writing: Jeff Koons = outsized cock.

Warhol, as ever in these tributes to shit-for-brains interpretations of post-modernism, has pride of place. One whole wall devoted to tiresome screen prints of his warped, ugly little face. I feel like Damien Hirst’s formaldehyde calf. By contrast, when I walked out of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam the sky itself seemed higher.

Take the self-portraits. Jeff Koons creates himself as a comic-book character with a giant phallus; Warhol wallows in profitable narcissism. Van Gogh looked at himself unsparingly and responded with an honesty that still speaks in every rusty brushstroke. It isn’t that Van Gogh was too unsophisticated to be commercial. He worried frantically about money and his letters to brother-patron Theo are riddled with anxious survival schemes. Yet immerse yourself in his wheat-fields or sunflowers and your mind unfurls. ‘Money’ is a tiny notion, reduced to its proper place by his swirling French skies.

It is fashionable to say that technique is unimportant, but how can anyone claim to be an artist if they don’t respect their art enough to study it? Van Gogh spent his living allowance paying models in order to hone his craft. Warhol found the easiest, most repetitive, least-demanding mediums imaginable (and was too lazy to even use them inventively). In another section of the Tate an artist whose name mercifully escapes me destroyed a bunch of his paintings in some kind of ‘performance’. How original. How irritating. How insincere. If you really believe what you’re doing is art then it must have value, must have something of yourself in it. How can you just destroy it? The corollary is if you can casually wreck something then you must not feel it truly represents you; it’s not your art. In which case, go back and try harder. Van Gogh bled for his art. He worked while confined to a sanatorium, he lived in raw poverty, he wrestled with demons. The fragmentary calm in his paintings is heart-rending because it evokes peace in the midst of passionate struggle. Koons, Hirst, et al, I warrant, never fought for anything more meaningful than a parking space.