Picasso the Realist
Back to Table of Contents >

There is a photograph by Sarah Lucas called Chicken Knickers. In Chicken Knickers, a girl poses in geekily M&S white underwear. A plucked chicken is mounted on her knickers, head up, its vaginal parson’s nose gaping unerotically. The chicken’s thighs are girlishly goose-pimpled.

This photo is a metaphor. It is an obvious metaphor. Sarah Lucas has discovered that there is a visual resemblance between a plucked chicken and a vagina.

There is a hat designed by Philip Treacy called Ship. Ship is a top hat, whose top has been slightly squashed, so that the normally gentle ellipse has become a pointed oval. This pointed oval is exactly the shape of a ship’s deck. On this deck, Philip Treacy has constructed an extravagantly elegant three-master, constructed from black lace and metal.

This hat is a metaphor. It is a clever metaphor. It has discovered that there is a visual resemblance between a ship and a top hat.

Without Picasso, Philip Treacy would not have made this hat. Without Picasso, Sarah Lucas would not have photographed a chicken.

* * * * *

Everyone knows about Pablo Picasso. Pablo Picasso was born in 1881, and died in 1973. He was the greatest artist of the Twentieth Century. He was a very complicated artist. His pictures were unrealistic and obscure.

My argument is this. Pablo Picasso was the greatest artist of the Twentieth Century. He was a very clear artist. His pictures were realistic and subtle.

Picasso was a talent. And this is an essay about talent. It is not very easy to be precise about talent.

Talent is difficult.

* * * * *

So, this is what you need to know about Picasso’s talent. Picasso realised that visual representation was simpler than it looked. It did not require painstaking, anguished reproduction of the minutiae of visual experience. No. It required finding the right equivalent for visual experience. Talking to the photographer Brassai, Picasso said: ‘I always aim for likeness. A painter has to observe nature, but must never confuse it with painting. It can be translated into painting only with signs.’

Maybe this seems obscure. I will give you an example. In his superb 1961 sheet metal sculpture – Woman with a Tray and a Bowl, the woman’s vulva is represented by a triangle cut out of the metal – leaving a jagged gap. It is a sign. And it is absolutely realistic.

Because of Picasso, Ernst Gombrich could write in his best book Art and Illusion: ‘All artistic discoveries are discoveries not of likenesses but of equivalences…’ The essence of Gombrich’s distinction is this. The problem of illusionist art is not to reproduce the precise phenomenology of visual experience, but to ‘invent comparisons which work’.

So when Picasso told Marius de Zaya in 1923 that paintings are all ‘more or less convincing lies’, there is a coherent theory behind this statement. It is a correct theory. But commentators on his work have not often understood this theory. They place the emphasis on ‘lies’. They think that Picasso’s statement proves his refusal of realism. It does not. The crucial words are ‘more or less’. Some paintings are convincing. Others are not. The good ones are convincing. They are all, however, just paintings.

* * * * *

The second element of Picasso’s talent was his talent for economy. Everything extraneous is eliminated. For example, this is Françoise Gilot’s description of the drafts for Picasso’s 1946 Woman Eating Sea Urchins, described in her book Living with Picasso.

‘The Woman Eating Sea Urchins was begun one afternoon in a realistic manner. Everything about the portrait was a recognisable representation of the woman as we knew her: pug nose, corkscrew curls, man’s cap, and the dirty apron in which she enveloped herself. Then, when it was finished, each day Pablo eliminated a few more naturalistic details until there remained only a very simplified form, almost vertical, with just the plate of sea urchins in the middle…’

But Picasso’s economic talent was not just economic with detail. He was economic with his forms too. To depict one of his bullfight scenes, Picasso cut out a picador from a piece of white paper and painted the picador black. Then he stuck this picador down on the right hand side of the paper, on the white background. He then painted the left hand side of the paper black, so that a second picador emerged – the shape left, in white, by the cut out figure. Discussing this process, Picasso said: ‘You must always work with economy in mind. What I’ve done, you see, is to use the same form twice – first as positive form and then as negative form. That’s the basis of my two picadors.’

Or there is his superb vulva shape from Woman with a Tray and a Bowl. Rotated 180°, the same shape is used in Standing Woman, done the same year, for the woman’s mouth.

* * * * *

Economy was central to Picasso’s talent. It was central to his art of visual comparisons.

For instance, in an early pastel study of Picasso’s most famous picture, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, there are seven figures – five naked women and two suited men. One man is sitting in the middle of the group, with three slices of melon on a plate beside him. In the centre foreground is a vase of flowers. In a later watercolour sketch, both the men have disappeared. So have the flowers. The slices of melon have not. They are now in the centre foreground, replacing the vase. In the finished painting, only one slice of melon remains, but Picasso has placed next to it some grapes, a pear and an orange. The grapes spread like pubic hair over the testicular orange and tubular pear.

Traditionally, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is said to represent five women. It does not. It represents five women and one man. In the painting, this man is represented metaphorically. He is his lunch box.

This is Picasso’s most important invention. Painting can be metaphorical. It is an invention that follows from his intuition that painting is a system of signs, and his preference for economy over waste.

Metaphors are quicker than other signs.

* * * * *

In Picasso’s 1912-1913 collage called Bottle and Glass, the bottle is outlined in charcoal. And this bottle is half full. We know it is half full because a tapering piece of newspaper, that has been cut out and pasted within the bottle’s outline, fills half of the shape of the bottle.

A painter has to observe nature, but must never confuse it with painting. It can be translated into painting only with signs. The newspaper does not look like wine, but we read it as wine. The charcoal outline, which is unmistakably the outline of a bottle, means that we mentally abstract the newspaper print. So a piece of newspaper becomes the sign for wine. It is a metaphor.

Maybe this seems easy. It is not. ‘You do not invent a sign,’ Picasso added, talking to Brassai. ‘You must aim hard at likeness to get to the sign.’

* * * * *

‘The papier collé was really the important thing’, Picasso told Gilot. ‘The sheet of newspaper was never used in order to make a newspaper. It was used to become a bottle or something like that. It was never used literally but always as an element displaced from its habitual meaning into another meaning.’

Picasso was being very clever. He was being as clever as Aristotle.

In his Poetics, Aristotle defines a metaphor as ‘the application of a name belonging to something to something else’. Compare this with Picasso’s description of collage – ‘an element displaced from its habitual meaning into another meaning.’ They are describing the same operation. Collage is metaphor. (‘What idiots or cowards we must have been to have given that up!’ Picasso told his dealer Daniel Kahnweiler, talking about collage, as reported in Kahnweiler’s 1948 book, Talking to Picasso.) And the best kinds of metaphors, says Aristotle, are analogies, ‘when b is to a as d is to c; for the poet will then say d instead of b, or b instead of d.’ So, because wine can look like newspaper, Picasso can replace wine with newspaper. And this is only possible because shapes are like words. They are equivalents for things.

Arranged in a certain way, for example, a bowl of fruit can look like genitalia.

Aristotle finishes talking about metaphor by saying: ‘This alone (a) cannot be acquired from someone else, and (b) is an indication of genius. For to make metaphors well is to observe what is like.’

And Picasso was a genius.

* * * * *

For example, in 1951, Picasso made his marvellous bronze sculpture Baboon and Young. The baboon’s head is made of a toy car. The hood and grille is its muzzle. The windscreen is its eyes.

‘I achieve reality’, said Picasso, ‘through the use of metaphor. My sculptures are plastic metaphors. It’s the same principle as in painting.’ Picasso, he said, didn’t want trompe-l’oeil. Or not just trompe-l’oeil. Instead he wanted trompe-l’esprit. Rather than fooling the eye, he wanted to fool the brain as well.

In 1961 Picasso constructed a chair called The Chair. The Chair is made out of sheet metal, painted white. It seems like a simple rickety chair. But there are two unusual features to this chair. The first is a flap of metal, protruding inward from the chair back. The second is a corrugated concertina section, at the top of one chair leg, where the leg joins onto the seat.

Both these features are metaphors.

The flap is a metaphor for the silk upholstered padding on a comfortable Louis XV chair. The corrugation is a metaphor for the ruching and stitching round the edge of the seat.

The whole chair, then, cut out of whitewashed sheet metal, is not quite a chair, nor a representation of a chair. It is a metaphor for a silk and mahogany drawing room piece.

The reason this metaphoric procedure had such an appeal for Picasso is obvious. It is there in the fun with the fruit in Demoiselles. Metaphor is economical. It offers a shortcut. It is structurally the same as all his other efforts at reduction.

* * * * *

In 1961, Brassai visited Picasso in Cannes. Brassai had come to show Picasso his new book of photos – Graffiti. Picasso came to the chapter ‘Birth of the Face’ – where Brassai had ‘grouped the faces made of two or three holes’.

‘PICASSO I have often made such faces myself. The people who carve them turn immediately to signs. Art is the language of signs. When I pronounce the word “man”, I evoke man; the word has become the sign for man. It does not represent a man the way photography could. Two holes are the sign of the face, sufficient to evoke it without representing it. But isn’t it strange you can do that by such simple means? Two holes – that’s very abstract when you consider man’s complexity.’

* * * * *

But Picasso invented two types of collage. He invented the austere version, with only newspaper and charcoal outlines, like Bottle and Glass. This is the simple version. But he also invented a gaudy version – with wallpaper, newspaper, sand, paint and physical objects. He called this type ‘Rococo cubism’.

Picasso was not just interested in reduction and metaphor. He was also interested in detail. His talent was also for exuberant realism.

In 1913, Picasso made a collage called Bar Table with Guitar. The collage hangs vertically. In the left-hand corner, there is a piece of blue paper, on which is shaded the left-hand outline of a guitar. Next to this, a piece of grey paper has been pinned, cut to a parallel guitar shape, with the hole marked in. Then another piece of beige paper is pinned parallel to the grey, with its outer edge cut to the right-hand edge of the guitar. At various points, a trellis and rose-sprig peach colour wallpaper has been pinned on. This wallpaper represents wallpaper.

But the pins are a clue to a metaphorical description in this multimedia concoction. It looks like a dressmaker’s pattern. This is a collage of a dress design. So it is a representation both of a guitar and a dress. But because Picasso has shown that there is a structural similarity between a guitar and a dress, he has also shown, as he often does, that there is a similarity between a guitar and a woman. This collage is also, therefore, a portrait of a woman.

Picasso’s titles are not always useful. But then, Picasso rarely titled his own work. How could he? Bar Table with Guitar should really be titled Bar Table with Guitar, or Barmaid, or The Dressmaker’s Studio.

* * * * *

In many of his collages, including Bar Table with Guitar, Picasso uses gaudily coloured and patterned wallpaper. In some patches, it is a girl’s head. In others, it is a wall, or the wood of a guitar. Sometimes the wallpaper is wallpaper. There is a simple reason for this. The wallpaper is there to show how much the eye can ignore and simplify in search of a realistic resemblance. It is a joke that confirms the picture’s realistic aim.

* * * * *

Picasso, then, is a realist. And his rococo collages allowed him to do two things at once. These collages have the economic simplicity of his early collages and cubist paintings. At the same time, they allow for dense description. And this process culminates in the great rococo cubist portraits.

‘At this period, from 1913 to 1917, his pictures have the beauty of complete mastery’, wrote Gertrude Stein in her 1938 monograph Picasso. Gertrude Stein was admittedly biassed. Between 1913 and 1917, she collected most of Picasso’s work. But she also happens to be correct.

In 1914, Picasso painted Portrait of a Girl. It is over a metre tall, and nearly a metre wide. The background is a virulent green. In this painting, it is possible to identify shadow, hands, a nose and ear, a boa, a dress with a belt, sleeves, a chair, a floral hat with veil, a fruit bowl with grapes, a black marble fireplace, an atomiser, wallpaper, the tassels at the base of the armchair and a dado.

Everything makes sense. Every sign has an equivalent in the world. Nothing is decoratively abstract. The painting, however, seems at first confusing. This is because Picasso has painted a collage.

The fruit bowl looks like a pasted on cubist drawing. The wallpaper looks like patches of applied wallpaper. The marble effect of the fireplace is trompe-l’oeil. The hands look like a quick charcoal sketch. The atomiser looks like a crudely gaudy pastel. The girl herself is constructed from multicoloured pointilliste patches.

Picasso is a metaphorical and realistic painter. He also mixes his metaphors. That is the charming secondary innovation of his rococo collages and paintings.

* * * * *

As well as economy, there is extraordinary detail in Picasso. In the 1930 Seated Bather, a seemingly reductive portrait of a surrealistly manic nude, Picasso has remembered to shade in the rougher skin on the bather’s elbow. In the 1942 The Serenade, the reclining woman, with her arms behind her head, cocks a tuft of underarm hair.

In his memoir of Picasso, Brassai describes a visit with the poet Jacques Prévert to Picasso’s studio. ‘Prévert takes a fancy to one painting: the large window of the studio looking out on the tiers of old Paris roof-tops and chimneys. Above all, it is the rippling line of radiator parts – the round knob, the long pipe rising to the windowsill – that attracted Picasso…PREVERT – Look! Any other painter would have left out the radiator…’

For instance, Picasso is brilliant at painting a person crying.

There is an etching called Weeping Woman, done in 1937, while planning Guernica. A woman is crying. She has an expensive hairdo. She is holding a handkerchief up to her eyes. This is not why Picasso is brilliant. He is brilliant because he shows how ugly crying is. He shows the woman’s gums. Her eyes are a mess. The handkerchief is a pointlessly elegant netting, draped beside her ruined face.

It is not easy showing this. It is much easier being sentimental. It is much easier editing this kind of detail out. But Picasso is one of the least sentimental artists. Looking at a new book of reproductions of Douanier Rousseau’s pictures, Picasso said: ‘Look! This one’s also a fake. And here’s a third, and a fourth. All these heads leaning sentimentally to one side. Rousseau would never have painted that!’ In the same way, Picasso never paints anyone weeping with their head tilted sentimentally to the side. He paints unposed crying, anti-social crying. In Picasso, people bawl. ‘These days’, he told Michel Leiris, ‘there is no longer any way to make anything out to be ugly or repulsive. Even shit is pretty.’ Picasso’s tears are not pretty. They are all precise.

And they are also metaphoric. In Weeping Woman, there are three streams of tears. They are all represented as long darning needles, embedded below her eyes. In other paintings, Picasso even makes tears into miniature galleons. There is a reason for this hyper metaphorical style. Tears, in the vocabulary of Weeping Woman, are painful. Pain is sharp. That is one minor reason. The real reason, I think, is this. Tears can be theatrical. In Weeping Woman, Picasso is portraying both grief and the artificial invention of grief – self-pity.

* * * * *

But to lots of people, Picasso is not a realistic artist. Two reasons are normally given to explain this. One of these reasons is reasonable, the other is not. The wrong reason is this. Some people think that Picasso was a deliberately abstract artist.

This is Guillaume Apollinaire, in his article ‘The New Painting’, written in 1912. Picasso, said Apollinaire, was ‘moving further and further away from the old art of optical illusions and literal proportions, in order to express the grandeur of metaphysical forms.’

Apollinaire was completely wrong.

Picasso was not an abstract artist. He hated abstract art. Looking at some reproductions of the abstract expressionists, Picasso commented: ‘It’s always a kind of bag into which the viewer can throw anything he wants to get rid of. You can’t impose your thought on people if there’s no relation between your painting and their visual habits.’ And he was right. Abstract expressionism is easy on the viewer. It is decorative, not expressive.

And also, it is never abstract. Nothing can be abstract. ‘There is no abstract art,’ Picasso told Christian Zervos in 1935. ‘You must always start with something.’ Even Rothko is representational. The maroon and red Seagram paintings in Tate Modern, say, are not abstract. They are paintings of windows. They were originally painted for the Four Seasons restaurant in the Seagram Building in New York. While painting them, Rothko reshaped his studio so that its dimensions were an exact replica of the restaurant’s dimensions. Rothko said that his central influence at the time was Michelangelo’s Laurentian Library in Florence, whose vestibule is flanked by blind windows – windows blocked in with stone. But this is not quite accurate. There is nothing stony about the Seagram paintings. They are full of light. They are stained glass windows. They look like light looks, pushing through stained glass.

* * * * *

The right reason for objecting to Picasso the realist artist, however, is this. Sometimes Picasso’s paintings, particularly the cubist paintings, are completely unrelated to your visual habits. Sometimes the pictures are obscure. It is not always obvious what Picasso is describing. Because of this, in his 1920 article ‘The Rise of Cubism’, Picasso’s dealer, Daniel Kahnweiler, advised that ‘in order to facilitate [assimilation], and impress its urgency upon the spectator, Cubist pictures should always be provided with descriptive titles.’ Kahnweiler is here proposing the cynical addition of realistic titles to abstract works.

But Picasso’s obscurity is not intentional.

The thing about talent is that it is not consistent. Not all of Picasso’s oeuvre is talented.

Let us take, for example, Picasso’s 1913/14 Card Player. What is the function in this painting of the crudely realist details? In Card Player, there is one identifiable playing card, and one identifiable pipe, and one identifiable moustache. They are cartoonishly obvious.

Are the cartoons there to taunt you or to help you?

The traditional art historical view is this. It is Ernst Gombrich’s view. Because he is an art historian, Gombrich cannot believe that Picasso’s obscurity may not be deliberate. ‘The cubist,’ says Gombrich, ‘is not out to clarify his schema but to baffle our perception.’ The moustaches are, according to Gombrich, therefore deliberately confusing. They are taunting: ‘the function of representational clues in cubist paintings is not to inform us about guitars or apples… It is to narrow down the range of possible interpretations till we are forced to accept the flat pattern with all its tensions.’ They force the viewer to accept that Card Player is simply a composition, not a representation.

Whereas Picasso had another idea. Picasso did not think that they were taunting. He thought they were helpful. Because of the realist clues, he said, the viewers’ mind ‘thrusts forward into the unknown and they begin to recognise what they didn’t know before and they increase their powers of understanding.’ They are, therefore, deliberately realistic. They force the viewer to accept that Card Player is not just an abstract composition, but a representation.

Neither Gombrich or Picasso were right. Gombrich was being kind. Picasso was being hopeful. He was hoping that his failures might be interpreted as mystical successes.

It is not easy finding the right equivalent for visual experience. It is not easy discovering a sign. Talent is not natural. It takes work.

* * * * *

But Picasso did work. He worked very hard. He was prolific. In one week, for instance, 23-30 October 1955, he painted 11 canvases. Four of these were painted in one day. And Picasso’s prolific creativity is the clue to another feature of his talent.

Picasso’s talent was stylistically multiple.

There are two practical reasons for this. The first is hierarchical. When the Bloomsbury critic Roger Fry visited Picasso, Fry worried that Picasso was ‘always chucking his reputations.’ But Fry was not talented. He did not understand talent. He did not understand that originality inherits imitators. And Picasso did not want to look like anyone else. Picasso, therefore, was constantly reinventing his style so that he could throw his followers – the Metzingers, the Gleizes. Talking to Francis Poulenc, Picasso said: ‘Long life to our followers! It’s thanks to them that we look for something else.’

And there was another reason for Picasso’s virtuosity. Talent can be boring. Creating an individual style is essential for most artists, because most artists take a long time to create a work. Paul Valéry comments that ‘it is essential for an artist to know how to imitate himself. This is the only way of solidly constructing a work of art – an undertaking which is bound to be a war on instability, fluctuations of thought and energy and passing moods.’ Valéry is right. He is right in general. But there is no war if one can create four works of art in one day. If Picasso had imitated himself constantly, it would have been tedious.

On 1 December 1955, for instance, Picasso painted a Nude Woman in a Turkish Hat, and a Woman in an Armchair. The Nude Woman is a Matisse, cross-legged and fleshy, full-frontal, with a delicate hat. It is simple – a study in decoration. The Woman in an Armchair, however, is much more similar to Picasso’s own portraits of Dora Maar in the late 1930s. The central feature is the woman’s triangular head in profile, with its one massive mascara’d eye.

The two portraits are deliberately different. They are a study in stylistic restlessness.

* * * * *

But there is also a more important reason why Picasso was so stylistically multiple.

For Picasso, painting was a translation of nature into visual signs. It was not the expression of a personal romantic vision. (‘Variation does not mean evolution’, Picasso told Marius de Zayas in 1923, refusing to accept that his formal choices were governed by any personal narrative.) For Picasso, painting was always interested in the object. And so the idea of a personal signature style was irrelevant. He was always trying to get the best sign for the object, whatever that happened to be. Every other attempt to represent the world was useful too. Even his own previous paintings were fit to be cannibalised or ignored. In his diary, Brassai described Picasso’s uncanny ability to look at his paintings as if they were painted by somebody else.

Picasso’s talent was omnivorous.

This has upset many people.

Writing on Picasso in 1923, Robert Delaunay attacked ‘Picasso with his periods, Steinlen, Lautrec, Van Gogh, Daumier, Corot, negroes, Braque, Derain, Cézanne, Renoir, Ingres, etc etc etc. Puvis de Chavannes, neo-Italian…these influences prove the lack of seriousness, in terms of construction and sureness.’ Sixty years later, talking to David Bowie, Balthus dismissed Picasso: ‘Picasso was a skater. Artistic skater.’

This view is very wrong. I would defend Picasso in exactly the same way Kundera defends Stravinsky in Testaments Betrayed: ‘it is precisely Stravinsky’s vagabondage through musical history – his conscious, purposeful “eclecticism,” gigantic and unmatched – that is his total and incomparable originality.’

Kundera is much cleverer than Robert Delaunay or Balthus. Vagabondage can be original. Style does not need to be consistent.

When Ernst Ansermet, Stravinsky’s conductor, asked Picasso why he varied his style and medium so much, Picasso replied: ‘But can’t you see? The results are the same.’

And he was right. Go back to his rococo brilliance, Portrait of a Girl. At the same time as Picasso painted it (August 1914), he also painted the exquisite and naturalistic The Painter and his Model. Using a drying-up cloth as a canvas, The Painter and his Model shows a seated painter gazing happily at the exposed vulva of his naked model, who has conveniently lowered a towel below her genitals. Behind them, there is an easel, with a landscape painting propped on it. A table with a fruit bowl is on the right.

And Picasso is still mixing metaphors. He is still trying to find equivalent signs. The painter, part of the easel, and the table are all all simply drawn in crayon, with very little modelling. The model, however, and the painting behind her, are painted delicately in oils.

It is also a kind of collage.

Compare two portrayals of hair in the picture. On the back of the man’s hand, there is a thickly crayoned patch of hair. Because the man is crayoned in black and white, with very little modelling, the patch is coarsely described. It is quickly read as hair. But the girl’s pubic hair is different. Black paint has been dabbed on lightly, sparsely, so that the pink flesh tone blurs through. It has been dabbed on so that it is darker than shadow, but still light enough to match the sparseness of pubic hair as it fades towards the stomach.

The painting includes two different ways of representing hair. The results, however, are the same. In both cases, Picasso discovers visual equivalents. He discovers accurate signs.

* * * * *

Yes, Picasso had imagination. He had much more imagination than most people. He was more talented.

In the middle of his collage phase, on 9 October 1912, Picasso wrote to Braque, in his terrible French (Picasso was not talented at French): ‘je emploie tes derniers procedes paperistiques et pusiereux. Je suis en train de imaginer une guitare et je emploie un peu de pusiere contre notre orrible toile.’ The crucial phrase is ‘Je suis en train de imaginer une guitare’: I am in the process of imagining a guitar.’

What does it mean – to imagine a guitar? Surely anyone can imagine a guitar?

They can not.

Picasso made many collages of a guitar. In 1913, for instance, he would make a lovely collage called Guitar where one patch of wallpaper represents the guitar and another patch of the same wallpaper acts as the background. In 1912 he had made his first 3-D guitar out of cardboard. Between 1912 and 1913, he produced Twelve Cubist Studies, each about 5 to 7 inches high. These studies are very important. They use perspective. This may not seem important, but it is. The drawings are blueprints, they are diagrams for Picasso Objects™. They demonstrate his commitment to mimicking the visual world. In 1914, Picasso made his first guitar cut from sheet metal.

The medium was irrelevant. All his representations are equal. They are all metaphors for the object. They are all attempts to find comparisons that work. There is no reason why a metaphor should not have three dimensions rather than two.

A guitar is a guitar – in two or three dimensions. It just needs to be imagined meticulously.

This may seem easy. It isn’t easy at all.

'Arete is a journal as exquisite in its execution as in its intentions.'
John Updike

'Vous m’avez donné un grand plaisir … votre revue m’est très sympathique et proche.'
Milan Kundera