Sunday, June 26, 2011

Entry 96 6.23.11

Entry 96, June 23rd, 2011, 3:10pm (ship time GMT +2)

Malaga is shrouded in mist today. We saw some this morning during boat drill, but I assumed that it would burn off as the sun continued to rise . . . this was not the case. Instead, it only rolled in heavier and heavier until by midday visibility at ground level was about forty feet. Walking through it, I could feel the water beading on my skin. I imagined leaving a cookie cutter silhouette behind me in the cloud like the old Warner Brothers cartoons.

It is beginning to thin a little bit now, but is still very thick. This is what I imagine England must be like.

I finally had some good luck today with the Picasso museum. The museum itself is a converted estate not far from the strange cathedral of Malaga. There are two stories, oriented around an open central garden in the Roman style. The permanent collection is of excellent quality, if not very large – I made it all the way through in about an hour, and I move slowly in art museums.

It was exactly the right length, though – after an hour of Picasso my brain needed a break. Some art is calm and soothing, but not Picasso's. That's not to say that I didn't enjoy it – I loved it, in fact – but his paintings strike with such intensity that after a certain period of time one needs to stop and relax the brain. This is intentional on Picasso's part; one of his quotes on the wall of the gallery read, “. . . Any good painting – all paintings! – should be made of razor blades.” That's the kind of intensity that reminds me of Ornette Coleman or certain periods of Coltrane's music.

The museum began with some examples of his early work. It was here that I stumbled across an insight that would help me understand the rest. I realized from one of his first abstract paintings that he was not merely playing with shapes, but painting three dimensional objects. As soon as I saw that, I began falling into the paintings as they took on a sudden, incredible depth. It's as if Picasso was painting pictures of statues.

There was one painting later on in the exhibit that captured this particularly well. At first glance it appears to be two shapes, with a few scratches denoting a face thrown at random onto one of them, ignoring the shading and perspective of the rest of the painting completely. After a few moments, though, I realized that one of the shapes was the triangle of a woman's face carved out of stone and looking upwards, with her neck stretching down to the bottom of the frame. The other stone existed to throw the shadow on the women in the correct way . . . the face was Picasso's way of saying, “Look! This is a face! Do you see?”

For the first split second that one sees a Picasso, the brain has no problems. In fact, usually I know what the painting is of, whether it be a person or a bowl of fruit. After that first split second, though, you begin to see problems. Why is that ear there? Where's the other arm? Isn't the nose supposed to go the other direction? It is precisely when we begin to think about it that we have problems. The painting doesn't look like a person, yet it is clearly human. How do we know?

I think Picasso's point here is that the way we think we see people is not the way that we actually do see them. In one of the other quotes in the gallery he said, “When you love a woman, you don't start measuring her limbs. Love comes from our desires . . .” When he paints a woman, he paints what he desires about her. Her breasts, the curve of her arm, the nape of her neck, her buttocks, the way she looks when she's happy and when she's angry, etc., he paints all these together at the same time because that's the way we think of each other. Never mind if all of these parts don't fit together quite right on the same canvas, he is painting the woman as she actually exists in his reality.

The more I think about it, the more I am convinced that Picasso is right. Think of someone you know right now . . . what do you see? I am willing to bet that it isn't two legs, two arms, a body, and a head. Instead, you probably see little bits and pieces – a birthmark on the knee, a smile, an earring. In fact, I bet that most of what you think of isn't visual at all; smell is supposed to be the sense with the strongest connection to memory, after all (although I have no idea how you quantify a thing like that).

The curious bit, then, is if Picasso is painting the world as we think of it, why does his work look so weird? Perhaps viewing the world forcibly removed from the logical framework that we usually use to sort our impressions is too bewildering, confused and frightening for us to handle on a regular basis? I wonder if it would be possible to see the world the way Picasso paints it all the time? And if it were possible, would it drive you crazy?


  1. I saw a quote from Picasso: "Don't paint what you see, paint what you know". This explains some things about his work, at least for me.
    Dave S.

  2. Exactly -- I think he is painting the impression you would get of something if you held it in your hands.