Picasso on the Frontier

Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)

“Picasso marked the end of a historical process that had begun in the mid-18th century. At that time, writers on aesthetics, thinkers such as Denis Diderot or [and] Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, had scrutinized and re-defined the meaning and function of painting. Since the Renaissance, art had been of a functional, content-oriented nature, serving to convey messages in visual form. The imitation of Nature and the illusionistic reproduction of the appearance of things was a way of making the world comprehensible. Paintings could tell stories by showing narrative actions, representing emotions and expressing the movements of the soul. The dichotomy between given reality and imitation produced numerous possible ways of communication.”

“In the 18th century this changed significantly. The frontiers of painting were defined anew and it was stripped of its narrative side; now it could only represent. It was not long before the representational function of painting was questioned too, since it was essentially an illusionist process. The philosophy of Kant, Hegel and Schopenhauer prompted a recognition of the absolute aesthetic impact and the autonomous status of draughtsmanship and colour.”   

“This was a fundamental change. Where once content and form, message and image had needed to harmonize, now form became dominant, and indeed became the content. If ways of seeing, conceptualization, and cognition were to be considered inseparable, then the cognitive content of painting must logically enough be purely a matter of how the observer looked at it. Inevitably, once this view gained ground, painting would tend to lose its mimetic character and become detached from the things which it claimed to represent. French 19th-century art and the post-Romantic northern Europe underwent a parallel move toward greater abstraction.”    

Truth and beauty exist independent of form. They are the absolutes and the subject matter is ultimately an ephemeral illusion. The need to derive our human identity from the world of form and the reactions of the false self were unconsciously being expressed in the world of European art with Pablo Picasso leading the way.

The paradigm shift we are advocating requires the courage to move into a new story completely alone, unsupported—in other words it requires self-reliance. In the present moment this is not hard to do because there is a heartfelt security beyond the fear which originates in the false self. To shift narrative without being awake is an extraordinary achievement and according to Gertrude Stein writing in 1938, this is what Pablo Picasso did with his highly controversial approach to painting.

“Matisse and all the others saw the twentieth century with their eyes but they saw the reality of the nineteenth century. Picasso was the only one in painting who saw the twentieth century with his eyes and saw its reality, and consequently his struggle was terrifying, terrifying, for himself and for others, because he had nothing to help him, the past did not help him, nor the present, he had to do it all alone. [The] twentieth century is a time when everything cracks, where everything is destroyed, everything isolates itself.

Both Stein and Picasso were simply feeling the unsustainable nature of P-B which, of course did not begin with the 20th century but had always been the case with an unconscious humanity. Awareness of the fear-driven fragmentation of reality bubbles to the surface in the works of artists because they are involved in an intuition-driven self-expression. In this way art is often prophetic in warning of the unfolding disaster that is P-B.

In his 92 year-long career Picasso was very self-reliant seeming to care little about what others said about him or his art. This independence empowered a prolific output of paintings, drawings, etchings, sculptures and ceramics. Picasso was one of the few communist self-made billionaires. He is said to have been the most potent force in modern art during the half century from 1900-1950. Like Salvador Dali, Picasso was very good at self-promotion playing the “bad boy” in his private life. Maybe his admirers wanted to vicariously express their shadows through him being unable to act out their own repressed shadow-content themselves

Albert Elsen helps us to understand the significance of the career of Pablo Picasso. “No major artist had ever worked in so many media or styles at the same time nor seen his art undergo so many and such radical changes over so long a period.”  In Elsen’s book covering the entire history of Western art, only Michelangelo, Rembrandt and Picasso had entire chapters devoted to them.

Many in the art world took a long time before they could appreciate or understand the art of Picasso. His work might have looked primitive and unskilled at first and, of course, in a way it was meant to look that way. “Picasso felt that as a child he could draw like Raphael, as an adult, he consciously tried on occasion to recapture the open, naïve vision of the child.” 

“With Einstein, Darwin, Freud and Marx, Picasso was one of the five most influential thinkers in modern history. His art contributed to the claims of artistic truth. His words of 1937 are a fitting epitaph: ‘My whole life has been a struggle against reaction and the death of art.’” 

Deepak Chopra often says that we live in a world of “infinite possibilities.” Picasso seemed to embody the capacity to draw upon the inspiration flowing from the Implicate Order to create 30,000 works of art. The number of works of art that he created is unknown, but Ingo Walther gives us that estimate in the text of Pablo Picasso 1881-1973.  

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References and notes are available for this essay. 
Find a much more in-depth discussion in books by Roy Charles Henry. 

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