The Picasso Effect
I wish to share with you the Picasso Effect, a way of reading pieces of art that instead of cancelling the piece when faced with a problematic artistic past, enriches the experience of the spectator.
The art world can seem to be one dominated by elitist ideals and big price tags. We see countless articles commentating on record-breaking auction sales and lost pieces retrieved from thieves and the aftermaths of war. It comes as no surprise that many of us, despite enjoying the presence of art, choose not to dig deeper into the field and further understand its beauty, power, and influence. If you think that you fall somewhere in this category, I want to give you some advice that any spectator should know when approaching a piece, no matter the level of interest given to the art sector. It is something that I wish I learned years ago that would have better developed my taste in who and what I like and how to separate the reputation of the artist and their artwork. I would like to introduce you to the thought concept I refer to as ‘The Picasso Effect’.
The Troubled Artist and his Work
Firstly, I should point out that we will not be referring to the ‘Picasso Effect’ that many galleries and online magazines use to describe Picasso’s genius and masterful approach to his craft. At the base level, and concerning the comments made from these professional institutions, yes, Picasso was a genius that shaped the art world as he walked through it. His pieces are phenomenal in their retrospect and continue to beat the test of time; however, this is where we begin our journey. Many see Picasso in his paintings and commonly refer to each as a Picasso, yet this idea that the artist pours their soul into their work is common, and both inspires and confuses artists across the world.
“How does one pour themselves into their piece?”
“If I do not feel like the piece is who I am, is it still good?”
The questions are endless. I believe that the idea of the artist and their artwork being interluded, or treated as one entity, has been amplified with the story of Vincent van Gogh. Van Gogh’s pieces have captured the hearts of millions worldwide and continue to move their audience with the harrowing tale of his life that we see represented in his paintings. Yes, van Gogh’s pieces are nothing less of masterpieces, but would they be as good if he had, let’s say, a peaceful, ordinary upbringing, not troubled by the demons we know van Gogh fought throughout his life? As big of a question as it may be, and with my background in Dadaism, so my opinion may be a little opinionated, I believe that it is crucial that 1) we understand the difference between the artist and the art, and 2) we begin to create connections between the life influences of the artist, the era, the environment, and the piece of art, as separate, yet finely integrated, details that affect the final product, rather than a singular entity. Let’s look into this a little deeper.
If we continue on the topic of van Gogh, we must first begin with the encounter between the spectator, you in this example, and the artwork. Let’s imagine you are at the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam, and you come across his early masterpiece, The Potato Eaters. The picture portrays a life of poverty, gloom and deformation, aspects that the audience may deem as a representation of, a) life that van Gogh lived, b) van Gogh’s environment and era, and c) van Gogh’s ideas and beliefs. Despite many artists allowing all of the mentioned above as influences in their work, and by no means do I wish to discredit this, it should not be assumed that these points are connected. The artist has every right to be disconnected from their piece as much as their right to, as they say, present themselves on their canvas. This artist-art connection, in my opinion, is a very personal one. An artistic ritual if you’d like.
If you happened to have not seen a van Gogh in person, or better never even heard of the artist, you may decide to purchase a book at the gallery store and learn more about the artist. You’ll discover that van Gogh spent most of his late life in various psychiatric institutions, had multiple problems with alcoholism, and enjoyed visits to brothels. All of this information allows you to create an image of van Gogh in your mind, your truth about who he is. Your newly found information can later, almost subconscious, be used to alter your views and personal opinion on van Gogh’s artwork. Some may deem his life as troubled and sympathise with him, amplifying the status of his work as a representation of his pain, hence the term ‘Troubled Artist’.
On the other hand, if you come from a more conservative background with opposite ideals, you may begin to dislike his pieces based on your judgements of his activities as a person, not as an artist. To allow us to judge art based on life scandals the artist did in the past is personal censorship to talent, beauty, and understanding and utilising history. Unless directly funding a cause or persons that you disagree with, the art should be allowed to stand on its merit and the artist as a craftsman with their craft. If not, we are at the mercy of history to present perfect human beings with perfect lives, which we all know is impossible. Everyone’s lives have had their ups and downs, and by no means are we perfect, so we ask not to be judged by the actions of our past. Let’s begin to view these pieces of art through the same lenses.
The Picasso Effect
You may be asking, why Picasso? What has he done for me to term him as the perfect symbol of art liberation? To answer these questions, we must first understand what kind of man Pablo Picasso was behind the canvas and why his artwork should not be penalised because of the actions done by the artist
Picasso is considered to be the greatest artist of the 20th century and has been referred to not only as a genius but, in recent light, a bully and a misogynist. Throughout his life, Picasso struggled with his relationships with women, both desiring and fearing them. Alongside his affairs, Picasso used these women as his muses for his work. Picasso wished to treat these women as separate reports for his art style, allowing each to act as a report to his skill as a painter. These women were Fernande Olivier, Eva Gouel, Olga Khokhlova, Marie-Thérèse Walter, Dora Maar, Françoise Gilot, and Jacqueline Roque. He told Françoise Gilot, one of his mistresses that was only twenty-one while he was sixty-one, that, “For me there are only two kinds of women: goddesses and doormats.” Picasso would seduce these women and move on when he got bored.
We know most of these accounts from Picasso’s family. For example, his granddaughter, Marina Picasso, saw how her grandfather treated these women that she recalls as a child. She says that:
“He submitted them to his animal sexuality, tamed them, bewitched them, ingested them, and crushed them onto his canvas. After he had spent many nights extracting their essence, once they were bled dry, he would dispose of them.”
- Marina Picasso
This dehumanisation does not sit well with most people in the 21st century and does not reflect traits that can be connotated to a ‘genius.' Despite accounts of Picasso’s love for women, such as the gay American writer Gertrude Stein, one of his closest friends, these accounts paint an image of a human being not worthy of worship and fame. It comes as no surprise that many decide to shut themselves off from Picasso and his work. As long as his work does not benefit an immoral organisation or cause and instead serve a more noble goal, such as his granddaughter selling his work to support her charity work, then the piece continues to serve well.
It is both easy and impossible to shut Picasso out of our lives forever. All this would lead to unpleasant waves of anger whenever art history is discussed, and blank holes in the blanket of information history can provide. I believe these are unproductive and do not provide a solution that fixes the problem. Instead, now that we are aware of the dark past of the artist, we are in a prime position to allow this newfound information to alter our opinion of the artwork; provide the background detail of the era and environment the artist painted and will enable us to see more in the image than initially thought. When I look at a Picasso, I do not see Pablo. I see the women and their pain and the turmoil that they lived through. Their power and individuality as women shine in his pieces. They were not just objects for his paintings, and his paintings are accounts of their lives in history. The art serves them and not the other way around. Hence, instead of cancelling Picasso and his artwork, I rather cancel Picasso and deem his art victim to the Picasso effect, a toxic parent that shadows the child with their dark past.
Example of ‘The Picasso Effect’
Now that I hope you have a better understanding of what the Picasso Effect is, I wish to provide an account of an artist and their art that also falls victim to this toxic relationship. The artists’ name is Marcel Duchamp, the French American Dadaist most famous for his 20th-century masterpiece, Fountain.
The story is quite simple. In 1917, Marcel Duchamp submitted a piece of modern art to be part of the exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists at the Grand Central Palace in New York. He offers a porcelain urinal positioned peculiarly, signs the name ‘R. Mutt’, and presents it as a readymade dada piece called Fountain. The original piece got rejected from the exhibition and the original piece lost; however, many replicas have since been created and is now considered the most influential piece of art in history. This gave Duchamp vast fame and placed him as the father and inventor of modern art, a title that holds great honour and respect. This would all be great if Duchamp was the true inventor of the piece. This is, unfortunately, far from the truth.
In 1982, a letter came to light written by Duchamp on April 11th 1917, which should have changed art history, yet failed to do so. It includes a sentence that reveals that the actual maker of the Fountain is not Duchamp but, in fact, a friend of his, the female Dadaist Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven. What originally happened was that she sent in the piece to Duchamp under a male alias that she wished to be submitted. Instead of giving credit to his friend, Duchamp stole the piece for himself and reigned as its maker for years after. Many are unaware of the Fountains true maker and still reign Duchamp as the father of modern history. I will always claim that modern art has a single mother, forgotten in the past, shadowed by the theft of men in history.
Despite all of this information, I have decided to cancel Duchamp and remain part of his work. He did create some extraordinary pieces, especially regarding the New York Dada movement. I also see von Freytag-Loringhoven as the actual maker of the Fountain and the true mother of modern art.
I refer to the act of stealing a creative idea from a fellow artist as ‘Duchamping’, or in past terms,’ Duchamp’d’. Example: “I am Duchamping you”, or “You’ve been Duchamp'd.” If he is to be remembered, let his name be a reminder of artistic theft rather than one of originality and invention. The Picasso Effect has allowed me to analyse the information found on Duchamp and arrive at a conclusion where: a) his work continues to inspire and shine a light on artistic history; b) I am able to gather a thorough opinion on the artist in question, and c) see the artists artwork in a new light, giving way for more complex emotions, such as anger and anguish, to be part as my response to the artwork.
I believe that the ‘Picasso Effect’ serves as a powerful tool for the spectator when faced with a piece of art that holds a troublesome past concerning its maker. We must see the relationship between all sources of information that leads to creating the work and deconstruct it accordingly before placing our final verdict; however, I ask you not to completely censor the art purely on the disagreement between our morals and actions done by the artist. Each account will have its unique reports, such as when reading Shakespeare or exploring Greek Theatre where both are created at unequal and morally questionable historical periods. We know this only truth: artists live, and artists die—their lives filled with horror and love. The artwork lives forever and directly reflects the artists’ life, morals, era, and society. It is not, however, the artist. Just like Auschwitz reminds us of the horrors humankind can do, so should the artwork.
The next time you stumble across a Picasso, do not close your eyes and shut yourself off from it. Allow yourself to live in harmony and let it remind you of the struggle these women faced and the struggle many continue to do so today. Picasso’s work reminds us to make sure another Picasso does not take its place, as one Picasso is more than enough.
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