Was Picasso Spiritual? Part 3

I closed Part 2 by saying that it would be easy to subject Picasso the man to a variety of political and spiritual tests — some of which he might fail. But this doesn’t negate what’s spiritual in his work, to be discovered through a careful process of selection.

Have we then settled the question of whether Picasso was spiritual? No, we’ve only scratched the surface! In art, it’s the question and the asking which are often most important. Answers are dull and tend to tamp down enthusiasm for further research. The quest to understand art, spirituality, and life is endless!

What we have discovered is that there’s a spiritual pathway through Picasso’s works. Because his works are so numerous and diverse, we each have the luxury of creating our own personal pathway through them.

To critics of Picasso I would freely admit that the pathway I have chosen is intensely personal. One could just as easily assemble a gallery of his least likeable and most self-indulgent works — an undertaking for which I have no patience.

To those who were determined from the outset that we should judge Picasso harshly and find him unspiritual I would say this: He was an artist, not a spiritual figure. To locate spiritual elements in his work is not to elevate the man beyond his faults, nor to suggest that he should be emulated as if he were a saint. Artists are explorers, and it makes sense to look for what’s valuable in their explorations, what reflects lasting truth.

Picasso paints with light 1

Picasso paints with light #1

A quite different type of criticism of Picasso comes from those modernists obsessed with the Holy Grail of abstraction. For them, Picasso is not truly modern because his works are always based on people, animals, and things. He never cuts the cord and embraces pure abstraction. He’s emotional, political, and biographical. This makes him less spiritual in the eyes of those who equate spirituality in art with the abandonment of content and the emphasis on purely formal elements.

I cannot agree with what on careful inspection turns out to be an elitist view of art. The advances made by modernists are impressive, and the search for truth must needs include not only form, but also the formless as well as the interzones. But it strikes me as foolish if, in evolving some taxonomy of art, we should quarantine Picasso from modernism and chide him for painting what he loved — goats and owls, pigeons and Madonnas. He moved modernism forward by leaps and bounds; and modernism (if I may so suggest) is not the rejection of everything which came before, but the inclusion of everything which has become possible.

Pablo Picasso -- a maker of goats, owls, pigeons, and Madonnas.

Pablo Picasso — a maker of goats, owls, pigeons, and Madonnas.

Especially in their youth, artists often want to “burn the Louvre” (whether literally or figuratively); and indeed, for an artist unsure of his own identity the past can seem like an oppressive weight he cannot crawl out from under. The solution is not to destroy or disinherit the artistic past, but having learned from it to go beyond it with tremendous strength of mind, and a visionary quality which hastens the arrival of the future.

Picasso paints with light #2

Picasso paints with light #2

Abstraction is simply another mode of expression, another way of seeking the truth, another way that art can be. It’s not inherently superior to other modes and other views. The extreme view which extols abstraction as the ultimate in spirituality is incompatible with the view we have arrived at via Picasso that “the art of the Greeks, of the Egyptians, of the great painters who lived in other times, is not an art of the past; perhaps it is more alive today than it ever was.”

It’s absurd to speak of Picasso “betraying” cubism during his neoclassical period, or to suggest that his ceramics celebrating antiquity detract from his reputation as a modernist. Modernism goes hand in hand with freedom of expression, and this includes not only the freedom to paint or sculpt unconventionally, but also to make use of such conventional elements as one finds helpful in expressing what one wants to express.

The human condition is one of social interdependence, and an art which insists on total abstraction runs the risk of becoming not spiritual, but rather dehumanized. This is not to say that the ideal of an art purged of all human concerns and reflecting purely formal elements is entirely without merit; but it should not become an obsession or exclusionary high tower.

I’ve purposely avoided getting bogged down in the sub-question of what is spirituality, because that would have led away from the works themselves. Modern artists often create works which do not explicitly affirm or commend faith, but which do point to some higher beauty which exists, and which might be said to come from the mind (or soul) of God.

Pablo Picasso, "Blue Vase," 1962

Pablo Picasso, “Blue Vase,” 1962

When we lose ourselves in a work of art, this can be a spiritual experience in which we transcend mundane categories that ordinarily separate art, artist, viewer, and consciousness. The experience of oneness and insight which art can foster is a spiritual experience, even if it sometimes lacks religious icons or explicit affirmations of this faith or that. Perhaps what we’re really talking about is art as a way of seeing reality. Reality itself is non-denominational.

In a world that’s often as dull as a railway timetable, the ability to imagine and create speaks of something spiritual. Fixing the exact location of that spiritual something is notoriously difficult, like a problem in quantum mechanics. The closer we get to it, the less it looks like something small, finite, within ourselves, and more like something universal which we can all potentially tap into, colouring it with our own experience. In this sense, we are each writing God’s autobiography. For more on this, see You, a series of guided meditations by Sri Chinmoy.

One last painting I here offer is titled Still Life With Bull’s Skull, though its psychological effect on me never had anything to do with bulls or skulls.

Pablo Picasso, "Still Life With Bull's Skull"

Pablo Picasso, “Still Life With Bull’s Skull”

It always reminded me of a child sitting up in bed and waving, after a dream in which he experienced something which could never be expressed in words. “I’m impossible, yet here I am. I exist. Hi!” the child seems to say.

Picasso famously said that all children are artists. The problem is how to remain an artist once one grows up. I’ll end as I began, with a snippet of poetry:

When 18
I had a black upright piano
with yellowing keys
it was sometimes in tune
a friend once played Bartók
but I doodled modally
and tried to learn counterpoint.

Art posters—
Degas, Miró, Chagall
a pole lamp bounced warm light
up at the ceiling
when dawn searched charcoal rooftops
it found me in Van Gogh’s Room at Arles
I was Picasso’s Guitarist
my arms grown long thin and bony
fingers curved around a fretboard
hair white, sculpted head held akimbo
poised for a lifetime of unemployment.

Michael Howard

*  *  *

Note: A limited number of digital reproductions of Picasso’s works are included here for educational purposes and to promote awareness of his contributions as an artist. Some or all such works may be copyright Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Special thanks to the Masterworks Fine Art Gallery of Oakland Hills, California, which has many exquisite Picasso ceramics and linocuts for sale.

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2 comments on “Was Picasso Spiritual? Part 3

  1. Pingback: Was Picasso Spiritual? Part 2 | Ethics and Spirituality

  2. Pingback: The Best of Leonard Cohen | Ethics and Spirituality

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