I’m sure this gentleman meant no harm. He eagerly shared information with me about traditional painting techniques in the short twenty minutes we spoke. The thing is, I didn't remember a word he told me about those ideas. What I did remember and what echoed in my head for years was the thought that “Picasso couldn’t paint.” I wondered why was he was successful and revered by so many people if what I had been told was true. I didn't dwell on it very long, it was easier to accept the notion that “he just couldn't paint.” I assumed that must be a fact because an excellent painter who clearly knew a lot more about painting than I did was telling my young mind it was so. Over the years I've encountered this exact same notion expressed in different ways in the world of figurative painting. Old myths die hard.
Later in my career I was discussing art history with a friend who was an art professor. He was a painter, a teacher, an academic, a thinker. His own training had been a product of mid-20th century art education. Many of his thoughts would be anathema to some of today's painters who pursue naturalistic painting.
I pushed him on the subject of Picasso. He explained to me what he thought and knew about Picasso. I didn't understand his adoration for Picasso. We argued about it, and in desperation to feel better about my own 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 a long time. After all, we are often told to “learn our craft", master the skills and the tools, and then go forth and create.
I realized then that in order to understand and develop as an artist it would be necessary to not only learn some craft and learn how to expand my creativity, but to also devote time to the study of art history and it's theories. So I put down my 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) which was made in 1896. It is technically stronger than many 'realist' painters work of today, and not as strong as others. But weighing the fact that he was fifteen years old when he painted it, I'll forgive him any artistic weakness the painting might hold.
I've often wondered if Picasso had decided to pursue naturalistic figurative painting to his fullest ability, would he have excelled and matured in that particular expression? We'll never know. Pablo Picasso decided to go in other directions and to explore other visual experiences through form. Truly, he was a creative genius, and he left us many treasures.
Could Picasso 'really' paint? My eyes tell me yes. It's a question easily resolved. Perhaps more interesting questions are: Why did he choose other paths? What was he exploring? What did he find? How can I use the knowledge he uncovered for my own pursuit of visual art?