This article has nothing really to do with politics or so forth, but it caught my eye as an excellent piece of analysis of a man’s reputation, not least a reputation that had been assiduously cultivated by the man himself, Pablo Picasso:
“They say that I can draw better than Raphael”, Gertrude Stein recorded Picasso as saying. “And they’re probably right. Perhaps I even draw better.” Picasso made this boast in claiming his right to creative freedom. The truth, however, is that Picasso not only did not draw better than Raphael, he may well have had a very limited understanding of how Raphael drew.
So writes someone called Catesby Leigh, in Standpoint magazine.
The author of the piece looks at an actual attempt by Picasso to draw a human form – a man called Vollard – in the manner of the Old Masters, such as Ingres. The commentary reminds of me of when one of my early efforts at school was given a fairly dusty appraisal by my arts teacher:
For starters, Vollard just isn’t put together quite right. Most problematically, he appears to be missing a goodly portion of his jawbone. His face reads like a rather shallow, U-shaped mask. As a result the structure of the side of his head and its engagement with the neck is badly resolved. Apart from the head, Picasso lavished the most care on the other unclothed portion of Vollard’s anatomy: the hands. Surely he recalled Ingres’s countless masterful hand studies from his Montauban visit. Vollard’s fingers in particular are modeled with excruciating care — a far cry from the familiar Picasso bravura. Even so the back of the outer hand, like the wrist of the partly covered hand, is a lumpen mass and not the articulated anatomical form it should be.
Picasso also failed to draw Vollard’s rump properly. He treated it, along with the better part of his upper left leg, as one big, flat receding plane, with the delineated folds in the trousers of his suit contributing nothing to its modelling. Shading lines continue straight back from the rump’s outline into the space between it and the back of the chair. This is a violation of one of the most elementary canons of classical draftsmanship: that lines should “follow the form” and in doing so indicate its depth. In this case those shading lines should have curved at the rump’s end so as to communicate its three-dimensionality. But Picasso followed the shade and not the form.
The familiar “subversion of academic conventions” apologia for Picasso’s idiosyncracies will not wash in the Vollard portrait’s case. Though working from a photograph, Picasso was doing this one straight, eager to convince himself and others that he could draw like an Old Master. Impressive as the results undeniably are, he couldn’t match Ingres’s draughtsmanship no matter how hard he tried. For economy of artistic means combined with flawless technique, his rival’s Guillon-Lethière leaves Picasso’s Vollard in the dust.
The article’s mood is very measured and polite, but that doesn’t mean we need to be so reticent. Picasso has always left me cold, and assuming the analysis here is correct, could it be said that one reason for Picasso’s move away from traditional forms of art is not just because of a genuine desire to take art in what he saw in a new direction, but because, in terms of the skills of the Old Masters, he just could not quite hack it in every rigorous aspect, and therefore chose forms more in tune with his undoubted talents?
For those interested, this book on the skills of the Old Masters, by Charles Lock Eastlake, looks interesting. Drawing and painting is a skill of mine that I have, to my shame, let go a bit. It is something I intend to put right.