Picasso And The Challenge Of Producing More Work
Picasso is famous for his art. But, seeing his work over and over again reminds us of something more than his technical and artistic genius.
This past summer was one of Europe’s hottest in a century. It certainly felt like that in Paris, walking from the cafes of Marais, past the cute “not open to the public” fashion display stores, to the Musée Picasso Paris. Exhibition Guernica was an 80th anniversary tribute to one of Picasso’s most famous and unsettling paintings, a lasting criticism of the dangers of fascism and the devastation of war. The exhibition featured sketches, paintings and notes made in the lead-up to the famous work, including clues as to why Picasso changed his mind about making “political” art.
A few days later it was an even hotter, stark, cloudless day that greeted us in London as we walked from Southwark tube station to the Tate Modern to see the Picasso exhibition, 1932: Love, Fame, Tragedy, which displayed work from one tumultuous and important year in the artist’s life.
These exhibitions reminded me of another show a few years ago, during an unusually warm October in New York. Picasso Sculpture at the MOMA brought together pieces from Picasso’s so-called “hobby” of 3D art. Picasso formally trained as a painter and that’s what he’s most famous for. But he was a prolific and inventive sculptor, though he shared little of this work during his life, and only very late in his career.
Apart from the recurring theme of visiting galleries on hot days, all three exhibitions left me with the same impression of Picasso. It wasn’t just how amazing his art was, or the vast variety of styles, techniques and mediums he experimented with.
It was the sheer volume of work.
The Challenge Of Picasso
Picasso was no saint. There are plenty of reasons to be cautious about holding him up as an example to follow. He displayed many of the clichés of an artist. Fickle, vain, unfaithful, prone to savage bad temper and treating people in his life poorly. He had good friendships with some women, notably Gertrude Stein and Lee Miller, but he had some brutal and destructive romantic relationships.
His work continues to demand our attention, though, and sells out exhibitions like the ones mentioned above.
The Guernica exhibition highlights how much self-reflection (and convincing) was required to make that great painting, and how long he worked with and refined the themes and motifs that went into it. The 1932 exhibition was breathtaking for the range of styles he used in the space of a year, and how many different versions of pieces, including big pieces, he would make within a short period of time. The sculptures were incredible for the detail and playfulness he brought to working in three dimensions.
Whatever his faults, Picasso as an artist wasn’t just remarkably creative, he was also remarkably productive and industrious as well.
Maybe this is something we don’t talk about often enough: the value of producing a large amount of work, the lessons that can be learnt only by working enough to go beyond trial and error, to something we might better call trial and trial, and trial again.
Not Creative Practice But Practising Creativity
Observe beginners in any creative field, watch or talk to them, and you’ll notice the way they agonise over relatively small amounts of work. Struggling to acquire the skills, unsure of their process, they are like novices on a ski slope tensely reacting to every bump, over-thinking and putting too much effort into every turn.
Watch a budding photographer using their first “big” camera and you see practice in action. They pause for an age before taking a photo, twiddling knobs and navigating menus. They snap a photo and instantly move the camera away from their face to look at the screen, to either confirm their process or show the error of their ways. Then they try again. It’s fitful, emotional, and wholly focused on the technical.
There’s a world of difference between the word practice, the training and development of a skill, and practise, the routine and reliable execution of a skill. Our novice skier is practicing turns. A doctor practises medicine. There’s a word of difference in changing that one letter!
Follow any creative path far enough, especially into a professional field, or in some manner that has your work exposed to public exhibition and criticism, and you’ll face the challenge of moving from practice to practise.
I’ve written before about this, about the connection between practise and mastery, but it bears repeating; without a developed practise, a routinised work habit, you’ll never produce enough of your craft to become really good, and you’ll always be trailing behind others who are putting in the time and producing the work.
The abiding lesson from looking at Picasso’s life is that being a practising artist with a vast catalogue is its own kind of genius.
The Challenge To Create
The most important part of creativity is creating. Being creative is not about feeling special or filled with inspiration or ideas. It’s being able to create, especially being able to create in fresh and innovative ways, over a sustained period of time.
But you have to create, you have to make stuff!
Looking at all the work by Picasso I have to admit I felt kind of impotent, like a pretender. Not because his work is better. Of course it is, but that’s not the point. We do what we can do, and much of what makes the work good is out of our hands and in the perceptions of others.
I felt kind of small because the volume of Picasso’s output so dwarfed my own. I’ve had so many fallow years, so many things I started and didn’t finish, so many paths I walked only part of the way down before turning and heading back.
So many of my efforts were junk, not because they were bad, but because they were unfinished, or in their unfinished-ness, they didn’t contribute to becoming anything more.
I’m not sure I’ve sat for long enough with my failures, in the uncomfortable space where I have to ask why some things didn’t work and why I didn’t return to them, to make something of them. Running from project to project, collaboration to collaboration, I lost sight of my own sense of mission some time ago. Anxiety was the alarm bell that made me look again for the map to my soul.
The curse of our age is to live always in the eternally distracted present. There’s no past and no future; only the next notification.
This makes me angry. Not in some adolescent throw-things-against-the-wall kind of rage, but something deeper, that burns like an industrial furnace, all day, all night.
I don’t think we talk enough about anger in the creative world. Perhaps we don’t talk enough about any of the “negative” emotions (shame, guilt, fear) unless we are trying to medicalise and contain them. Maybe it has nothing to do with the creative world at all, and is a sign of our times. On the rare occasions anyone does speak of anger, it’s as a failure, as if anger were some kind of emotional weakness.
But I want to learn from anger and all the other so-called “negative” emotions. It’s increasingly hard to deny the truth. So many of the greats I admire, Picasso, Goya, Kahlo, didn’t just engage with darker emotions in their work, they were fluent in their language. Guernica is many things, but its potency comes from a deep well of emotion. Only someone who has gone through the gate of anger to find a deep resolve can create something like that.