“We are not executors; we live our work.”
That is the way in which Picasso expressed how much his work was intertwined with his life; he also used the word “diary” with reference to his work.
Although, as Picasso himself put it, he “led the life of a painter” from very early childhood, and although he expressed himself through the plastic arts for eighty uninterrupted years, the essence of Picasso’s creative genius differs from that usually associated with the notion of “artiste-peintre”. It might be more correct to consider him an artist-poet because his lyricism, his psyche, unfettered by mundane reality, his gift for the metaphoric transformation of reality are no less inherent in his visual art than they are in the mental imagery of a poet.
According to Pierre Daix, “Picasso always considered himself a poet who was more prone to express himself through drawings, paintings and sculptures.” Always? That calls for clarification. It certainly applies to the 1930s, when he wrote poetry, and to the 1940s and 1950s, when he turned to writing plays. There is, however, no doubt that from the outset Picasso was always “a painter among poets, a poet among painters”.
Picasso had a craving for poetry and attracted poets like a magnet. When they first met, Guillaume Apollinaire was struck by the young Spaniard’s unerring ability “to straddle the lexical barrier” and grasp the fine points of recited poetry. One may say without fear of exaggeration that while Picasso’s close friendship with the poets Jacob, Apollinaire, Salmon, Cocteau, Reverdy, and Éluard left an imprint on each of the major periods of his work, it is no less true that his own innovative work had a strong influence on French (and not only French) twentieth-century poetry.
And this assessment of Picasso’s art — so visual and obvious, yet at times so blinding, opaque and mysterious — as that of a poet, is dictated by the artist’s own view of his work. Picasso once said: “After all, the arts are all the same; you can write a picture in words just as you can paint sensations in a poem.” He even expressed the following thought: “If I had been born Chinese, I would not be a painter but a writer. I’d write my pictures.”
Picasso, however, was born a Spaniard and, so they say, began to draw before he could speak. As an infant he was instinctively attracted to the artist’s tools. In early childhood he could spend hours in happy concentration drawing spirals with a sense and meaning known only to himself; or, shunning children’s games, trace his first pictures in the sand. This early self-expression held out promise of a rare gift.
The first phase of life, preverbal, preconscious, knows neither dates nor facts. It is a dream-like state dominated by the body’s rhythms and external sensations. The rhythms of the heart and lungs, the caresses of warm hands, the rocking of the cradle, the intonation of voices — that is what it consists of. Now the memory awakens, and two black eyes follow the movements of things in space, master desired objects, express emotions. Sight, that great gift, begins to discern objects, imbues ever new shapes, captures ever-broader horizons.
Millions of as yet meaningless visual images enter the infantile world of internal sight where they strike immanent powers of intuition, ancient voices, and strange caprices of instinct. The shock of purely sensual (visual-plastic) impressions is especially strong in the South, where the raging power of light sometimes blinds, sometimes etches each form with infinite clarity.
And the still mute, inexperienced perception of a child born in these parts responds to this shock with a certain inexplicable melancholy, an irrational sort of nostalgia for form. Such is the lyricism of the Iberian Mediterranean, a land of naked truths, of a dramatic “search for life for life’s sake”, in the words of Garcia Lorca, one who knew these sensations well. Not a shade of the Romantic here: there is no room for sentimentality amid the sharp, exact contours and there exists only one physical world. “Like all Spanish artists, I am a realist”, Picasso would say later.
Gradually the child acquires words, fragments of speech, building blocks of language. Words are abstractions, creations of consciousness made to reflect the external world and express the internal. Words are the subjects of imagination, which endows them with images, reasons, meanings, and conveys to them a measure of infinity. Words are the instrument of learning and the instrument of poetry. They create the second, purely human, reality of mental abstractions.
In time, after having become friends with poets, Picasso would discover that the visual and verbal modes of expression are identical for the creative imagination. It was then that he began to introduce elements of poetic technique into his work: forms with multiple meanings, metaphors of shape and colour, quotations, rhymes, plays on words, paradoxes, and other tropes that allow the mental world to be made visible. Picasso’s visual poetry attained total fulfilment and concrete freedom by the mid-1940s in a series of paintings of nudes, portraits, and interiors executed with “singing” and “aromatic” colours; these qualities are also evident in a multitude of India ink drawings traced as if by gusts of wind…
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