I’m sure this gentleman meant no harm. He gleefully shared a lot of information with me about traditional painting technique in a short twenty minutes. Thing is, I didn't remember a word he told me. What I did remember, what resonated in my head for years was the thought, “Picasso couldn’t paint.” I wondered, why is he so rich and successful and revered by so many? I didn't dwell on it very long, it was simple enough to realize that “he just couldn't paint.”
That had to be a fact because an excellent painter who clearly knows a lot more about painting than me told me it was so. From time to time over the years I have run into this very same idea expressed in different ways in the world of representational painting. Old myths die hard.
Another time and place, and I was discussing art and art history with a friend, an art professor. He was a painter, an academic, a teacher, a thinker. He himself had been a product of mid-20th century art education. Many of his ideas and thoughts would be anathema to some painters pursuing naturalistic painting. I pushed him on the work of Picasso. He explained to me what he thought and knew about Picasso. In desperation to feel better about my then current direction, I blurted out, “Yeah, well, Picasso couldn't really paint!” He looked at me, exasperated, but gently said, “Michael, Picasso was a creative genius.” I thought about that for awhile. After all, we are always told in pursuing representational painting to “learn our craft", master the skills and the tools, and THEN go forth and create. So I put down my limited palette, crawled out of my dimly lit studio, and started to read. Imagine my surprise when I stumbled across Picasso’s early paintings, some of which are shown below.
Now, I don't place these works on the same technical level for design as a Titian or Bouguereau. Consider the first painting, Picasso's portrait of his mother, made in 1896. Clearly it is technically stronger than many 'realist' painters work of today, not as strong as others. Weighing the fact he was fifteen years old when he painted it, I'll forgive him any technical weakness. I've often wondered if Picasso had decided to pursue naturalistic representational painting to his fullest ability, would he have out Bouguereau'd Bouguerau? We will never know. Pablo Picasso decided to go in other directions and to explore other visual experiences through form.
Could Picasso 'really' paint? My eyes tell me yes. It is a question easily resolved. Perhaps more interesting questions for understanding are: Why did he choose other paths? What was he exploring? What did he find? How can I use any knowledge he uncovered for my own pursuit of visual art?