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Picasso Undone

Collector of traditional art responds to an admirer of art icon

By Fred Ross
Art Renewal Center
Mar 31, 2006

LITERARY FIGURE HIGHLIGHTED: Waterhouse expresses complex emotions in his portrayal of "The Lady of Shalott". John William Waterhouse (1849-1917) was a British neo-classical most famous for his paintings of female characters from mythology and literature. (The Art Renewal Center)

In 2001 Fred Ross, Chairman of the Art Renewal Center, addressed over 700 portrait artists, gallery owners and members of the press at the Metropolitan Museum in New York during the American Society of Portrait Artists (ASOPA) Conference. Following is the third installment. All emphasis is the author's.

Recently, a contributor to an on-line art forum I subscribe to made the following comments about Picasso:

"I love the way Picasso did that woman all shards and angles. I don't recall the name of the work. But, he painted the woman in her turmoil how she tore herself apart within, and how he saw what her turmoil did to her. He painted the way he saw her, as fragmented as he saw her. She was a beauty on the outside. Yet, he painted the ugly face of her turmoil, and in so doing painted his turmoil as well.

Picasso worked in a turbulent time. I think it's why some of his works appeared to be reflections in a broken mirror. Shards, impressions all cut up and each with a voice about his subjects and of Spain. His work shows a deeply sensitive artist and was a pivotal point for the Russian avant garde school that said it was okay to feel in paint, to get all the chaos out in paint... I didn't love him until I studied him..."

- Laurie

I thought it fitting to read here my response to her.

Laurie and Goodart subscribers,

I really need to address these ebullient expressions of praise for Picasso a bit more precisely.

Laurie, this is not to fault you at all, but to analyze the description you have made which reflects the gospel that is taught about him in most art history courses. His name and "achievements" have become so "untouchable" within the sacrosanct walls of modernist cathedrals, that to do any other than you have stated here would be like criticizing the cross or the bible in the College of Cardinals. Let's look at this one idea at a time.

You said that, "He painted the woman in her turmoil how she tore herself apart within, and how he saw what her turmoil did to her".

In fact, all that he painted was a messy characterization of a woman in which the forms and shapes don't align or create any cohesive form. The drawing is virtually non-existent, and the disintegration of all artistic elements are self-consciously laid out for the express purpose of rejecting prior artistic standards.

There is no beauty in her face, or for that matter, ugliness. There isn't even a face... but elements thrown together with just enough evidence to let the viewer know that it was meant to suggest a face.

Everything about the finished product is utterly awful and would be beneath the capabilities of a talented 12 year old. Now, what if you are a theorist who needs to justify this hodge-podge of sloppy color and form? What can you creatively think of to place value and meaning, where none exists... especially, if you are being paid to do just that?

It's simple: you need but approach the work as you would a Rorschach inkblot test, where anyone can use creative ability to make up a story, suggested by little, if any, information. If you want this man's work to be valued highly, you must create a tale of great importance, with meaning, which, when discussed or analyzed in intellectual circles, will be considered profound and meaningful.

The idea of a lady being ugly on the inside is a concept from literature, psychology, and in fact all of human history. Ugliness, mean-spiritedness, and turmoil are major concepts that tint all of human experience. So you simply say that the messiness represents that, and look how brilliant he is to have captured it.

But in truth he has done nothing of the kind. The writers who said that was what it means were the one who did it, and not the artist. Inner turmoil and ugliness on the inside is far more difficult to capture, and takes intense, subtle handling of story telling, composition, drawing, and realistic rendering to successfully convey so that it can be recognized without any words. Waterhouse's "Lady of Shalott" and Bouguereau's "Divideuse" both capture beautiful women loaded with inner turmoil, and Cabanel's Cleopatra testing poisons on slaves portrays intense inner ugliness within a beautiful face and figure infinitely better than these broken blotchy messes on canvas by Picasso.

PASSING INTO THE FATHER'S ARMS: Cabanel's "The Death of Moses" depicts what awaits the man who led the Jewish people to the promised land. The balance of color and shape supports the artist's interpretation. Alexandre Cabanel (1823-1889) was a painter born in Montpellier, France. He painted historical, classical and religious subjects. He was also well-known as a portrait painter. (The Art Renewal Center)

But when the modernist professors say that's what it means, then implicit in their words is that if you don't see it too you're stupid and tasteless. Also to not see it becomes associated with not seeing how wonderful that subject matter would be. And it is after all truly wonderful subject matter. Only one problem; Picasso didn't paint it.

You say, "his work shows a deeply sensitive artist," but I don't conclude any sensitivity whatsoever. What is there is the sensitivity of a bull in a china shop, who stomps around breaking all the beautiful porcelain, and then with an army of critics lined up with their nostrils flaring dares anyone to criticize the dump he just left in the your living room. "Either you love my turds or you are against freedom of expression."

If you don't want it in your museum, you're the enemy of freedom of speech. Faced with such intimidation surely many would rather line up in support. But there is truly nothing there. It's a trick of words and intimidation. An Illusion of social pressure and fearful conformity.

His school, "... said it was okay to feel in paint, to get all the chaos out in paint... I didn't love him until I studied him."

Of course you didn't love him until you studied him. What you learned to love was all the explanations about worthwhile concepts and subjects. And with a training right out of Pavlov, you were taught to salivate when you were shown things that caused associations to those worthwhile ideas.

But Laurie, WHERE'S the BEEF? You're salivating at a symbol much the way people react to their country's flag. The flag comes to be seen as beautiful because it represents family, home and hearth, friends, loyalty, and the things we love. You've been taught to react to symbols instead of responding with the freedom of independent thought to works of art that are not supposed to be flag-like-symbols of great artistic ideas, but the great works of art themselves, which communicate, through a readily discernable visual language, some aspect of the human condition.

You had to be taught to love Picasso, because nobody would love him otherwise. But people don't need to be taught to love Rembrandt, Michelangelo, Bouguereau, or for that matter Chopin, Beethoven, Bach, or Tom Sawyer , The Grapes of Wrath , Alice in Wonderland , or The Christmas Carol .

Teaching and information can add to the depth of understanding of great works of art, but they are great initially by their ability to capture the soul and imagination of the viewer, without thousands of words to instruct us on how to deny the evidence of our own senses and to deny our innate sense of truth and reason.

Of course, what tends to happen to people who have allowed themselves to be convinced that the emperor is wearing beautiful clothes, is that they have become "ego invested" due to years of having parroted the same falsehoods... and the associated humiliation that goes with acknowledging that one has been had.

The more years, and the more said in support of Modernism, the greater the difficulty in breaking through the gestalts, and taking off the iconic blinders, shedding all the preconceptions and looking again with "innocent eyes" and describing what is really there (at least to yourself), and then comparing it to the maligned academics like Waterhouse, Bouguereau, Lord Leighton, Burne-Jones, Gérôme, and Alma-Tadema, and deciding with freedom of thought and an honest wish to find the truth, which of them indeed are works of art, and which are snake oil salesmen."

And so I ended that letter.

The change in people's perceptions about this is happening now very quickly. Even this austere institution, probably the greatest museum in the Western Hemisphere, just a couple of summers ago had a major retrospective of one of these maligned 19th century masters, Edward Coley Burne-Jones. And in their literature on the show declared him one of the three greatest English artists of the last century, along with Constable and Turner. In fact, the Metropolitan Museum deserves great credit for being one of the first great institutions to once again hang their Bouguereaus and Gérômes, Meissonnier and Burne-Jones, on permanent exhibit in the face of scathing criticism from the press back in 1980.

Soon after, Laurie followed this with a good-natured post saying that although she felt that I may have insulted her intelligence, she loved me all the same. To which I responded:


It was not my wish to insult your intelligence. The very brightest of people are just as vulnerable. It is in human nature to go along to get along. I certainly did it too when I was in college and grad school in fine art. Even when I was finally willing to speak my mind about Pollock, de Kooning, Rothko and Warhol.... Picasso was somehow sacrosanct, and I would pay lip service to his brilliance while the works of the other modernists I allowed myself to see as they were.

It wasn't until I hit about 40 years old that I started to more fully recognize the power of prestige suggestion and social intimidation in forming opinions.

To truly judge your own feelings and opinion about a work of art, you need to look at it as if it were painted by a complete unknown, perhaps some student in another town, and then ask yourself what your opinion of that work would be then. Would you think is was one of the greatest works in the history of civilization, would it even be great... or good... or mediocre.... or just plain bad?

I know now absolutely that nearly all the works by most of the famous Modernists are truly awful on all fronts. I also know that the best works by Bouguereau and Waterhouse would thrill me to my bones even if they had been painted by complete unknowns.

When I saw a Bouguereau for the first time, I had never heard of him, but my response was immediate unambiguous and self-validating. I needed no books or texts or convoluted explanations. The strength of the work was powerful, unique, immediate and overwhelming. It was exactly as I had felt in the presence of Michelangelo's David. Ah, but when I saw the David I was already predisposed to see what history considered one of humanity's greatest masterpieces. However, it was that seminal experience at 18 that excited my interest in art.

The Bouguereau that I saw, "Nymphs and Satyr," was when I was 32 years old, and it's effect was equally profound, changing the course of my life, ultimately leading me to this podium here today.

Don't let pride get involved here. Don't even answer me. Just ask yourselves and answer honestly.

One common claim that you hear repeatedly is that the proof that some abstract expressionists were great artists, can be found in their high quality academic student drawings. My answer to this is that it's really irrelevant whether or not they could do a decent student drawing. If anything it only makes it sadder that promising young talent was wasted. The quality and value of their "mature" work is not helped a bit by showing that they could draw decently when young.

The best way to prove that is to consider the inverse. Would Raphael or Bouguereau's mature work be somehow made the worse if their student drawings from decades earlier had been of poor quality? Their great paintings would still be just as great, and de Kooning's hideous smears for which he is so famous are still just as awful.

The Art Renewal Center is a non-profit educational organization committed to reviving standards of craftsmanship and excellence in the visual arts. It features an online museum of thousands of high quality images, and is building an encyclopedic collection of essays, biographies and articles by top scholars in the field. Visit their site, www.artrenewal.org .