The two pictures above show facility with a paintbrush as well as a firm understanding of color and composition, but they are not great paintings. What makes them remarkable is that they were painted by a fifteen year old boy by the name of Ruiz. Ruiz would later quarrel with his father, whose surname was common, the Spanish equivalent of “Smith.” The boy would eventually sign his paintings with his mother’s maiden name—Picasso.
Over the years many people have told me they hate Picasso’s work. I’ve said to them, “Look a bit harder; Picasso created more paintings than any other artist in history and I’m certain he painted something you can enjoy.” I doubt I have changed many minds.
In 1940 Picasso was the most famous artist alive. By 1950 he was the most famous artist to have ever lived. It’s understandable that legends would swirl around someone to have achieved this level of success. The following is one of my favorites:
Pablo’s father was himself a painter as well as an instructor at the Barcelona Art Academy. It’s said that one day Pablo entered his father’s studio and studied the work in progress on his father’s easel, a scene crowded with the pigeons that flocked in the plaza outside the family home. As the story goes, Pablo gazed at the body of a dead pigeon his father was using as a model. He picked up his father’s brushes and added his own pigeon to the canvas. His father entered the studio, saw what Pablo had done and vowed to never paint again. According to legend, he was horrified that after years of painting and teaching he couldn’t handle a brush nearly as well as a ten year old.
This account might be an exaggeration, but there’s no doubt that Pablo was a precocious boy and by the time he was thirteen his budding talent already overshadowed his father's.
But Picasso lived and painted for nearly eight more decades. Having mastered all there was to learn about traditional technique, what was left for him to do? Repeat his accomplishments ad nauseum? He chose not to pursue academia, deciding instead to forge a new path, one never before traveled. He shattered reality and reassembled it into what would later be called Cubism. He embraced the ideas of primitive cultures in an effort to probe beneath the surface of things to explore transcendent truths. Museums across the planet were filled with paintings replicating the natural world, but for him this was quite literally child’s play.
I hear people say of Picasso, “My kid can paint better than that!” As if there was no difference between the work of Picasso and a child. I’ve studied Picasso’s later works and they do look childlike. I remember driving past a billboard advertising a restaurant chain. The billboard showed a burger and fries drawn in crayon, designed to look like a child’s drawing. But you could tell a Madison Avenue adman had hired a professional illustrator to mimic the manner in which children draw. This happens all the time; yesterday I saw a TV commercial for an airline with kids drawing the Statue of Liberty, Mt. Rushmore and the Golden Gate Bridge—destinations serviced by the airline. But it was appallingly apparent that a deception was taking place—kids don’t draw that way, but adult artists pretending to be children do.
So when someone says they can’t tell the difference between Picasso’s work and a child they’re unwittingly offering up an extremely high compliment. Picasso could paint like a virtuoso when he was ten, yet in his nineties he became a child and painted like one. Amazing! He’d come full circle, harnessing and reversing the monster plaguing humanity from the start—time. Never before has this been accomplished through the power of art.