Picasso This and That

Hated Picasso. I’d never seen anything like it. Something on TV one day made Abuela Marina ask me if I didn’t like Picasso. That word was familiar—Picasso—like other words that had always been around but that a kid did not expect himself to know. Words like subjective and agitation. Picasso was about art, and that was all I knew. Abuela didn’t like it, and I could sense that it would be nice if I didn’t like it either, to be in the same camp. So, she asked me. I was staring at the TV. I was looking at something I had never seen before.

I was into comic books and the art found there. That other stuff was either landscapes or paintings of people. Not my thing. But this Picasso, this word I must have always known but never really knew, was not playing by any rules I accepted. Did I like him? Absolutely not!

One day, I had to study him. This was years later. Him and a bunch of other… frauds. People that were making a joke about everything we valued. I was starting to understand that for me, the type of art you hung on walls was okay until a certain point in art history. Everything was okay until the Impressionists came along. They were okay too, but they somehow created a parallel world for possibilities in art. Impressionist paintings were blurry, but somehow attractive. They gave everybody that came after a license to not just make things blurry but to make it twisted. Garish. Unreal. Ugly. It was something that they did that propelled the people who came after to go off into unreasonable extremes. The next movement would be crazier than the last. And then, the next one even crazier. And it was irreversible. Nothing was ever the same again.

After the Impressionists, there was Van Gogh. And I thought I liked him, but then I wasn’t so sure. Starry Night was palatable. Strange, yes, but easy to understand in its own way. But then Van Gogh had the other stuff. Warped bedrooms and crows slapped together with black slashes of thick paint. This other Van Gogh art was not quite right. And neither was he, so the art history professor explained. He was unhinged, which might have been that thing that made him do what he did—not just the way he painted, but the self-mutilation, and his ingesting oil paint at the asylum, and his eventual suicide. It was like reality itself was dissolving and fusing in those intense colors he chose. And artists thereafter were trying to change our reality through paint. To reflect the world getting unhinged, I suppose. It was a roving parade of hilarious madness.

A long list of names I had to memorize to take my final exams—names belonging to those trying their utmost to shock the public into some kind of submission—told me one thing: this horde was out there hating everything we loved.

It was inevitable that I would one day accept it. At school, everybody seemed to like the Modernists, except me. Enough talk in that direction made me rethink my preferences. A part of it was that there was something thoroughly uncool about rejecting rebellious art. And I wanted to retain whatever level of cool I had—I could afford losing anything else but not my cool. I was trying to understand this art, to actually like it. I was convincing myself. I was playing the part of the contemporary art student that embraces such stuff. I was even trying to deconstruct it in the studio, trying to paint like some of the Expressionists. It was easier than painting like Leonardo da Vinci. Easier to finish an Expressionistic painting, at least, because there was not as much to it.

I was never one to finish anything. As soon as I lost interest or hit a barrier when working on something, I was willing and able to drop whatever I was working on and start something new. This large flaw in my artistic character was an embarrassment I didn’t even acknowledge. I mean, I couldn’t even finish books I would start reading. When teachers assigned something to read, I’d give up. It was too much to focus on. Seemed like the only thing I could finish was a TV show. As a creator, I was negligent. Never finished creating my comic book projects except for one thirty-two-page fantasy comic book that I did the summer before opening my mind to Expressionism.

This Modernism I was being exposed to—now talking Kandinsky, about how nonrepresentational painting was in fact as hard as anything else—I wanted to believe it. Trying to be someone I wasn’t. All that art history.

I graduated from the university and threw that knowledge straight out the window, at the four winds. I didn’t need it. I wanted to learn about other things. Started buying books. Getting serious. Literature and books that were supposed to be great—the classics. The bargain books were all I could afford. Not just literature, but stuff about history and philosophy too.

“I was never one to finish anything. As soon as I lost interest or hit a barrier when working on something, I was willing and able to drop whatever I was working on and start something new.”

I don’t know how I did it. I had an obsessive streak in me that I could put to use. Somehow, I flipped it around and put it to work on the books I was reading. It didn’t matter if I understood what a page was saying. I moved on if I didn’t understand, determined to finish every book no matter what. And it worked!

I was even hellbent on finishing crappy books. If I started it, I was going to finish it. I was actually proud of this. So unlike the me from before.

About two years after graduation, I picked up a slim volume on the story of art for three dollars. To freshen up on my art history. For some reason I can’t remember now, I felt that I did not want to lose any of that information.

I got comfortable and started on page one. It was easy reading, and I found that art history was becoming a delight. I was getting to the end of the book where Modernism was lurking, waiting for me. I now knew what was coming, but I was going to read it anyway. Because that was the kind of guy I now was. And as I read along, the new shock Picasso and the Modernists gave me was unlike the first one. Just two years out, and here I was reminiscing about my time in those classes, gazing at the rough portrait of Madame Matisse with the green stripe on her face as if it were an old friend. Those poisonous images that forced me to pitch invectives at them now gave me warm thoughts of darkened classrooms with slide projections and the accompanying stories of these maverick artists, while I sat in the back of the room, sketching on margins; coming up with some of the best comic book stories I would ever have; somebody going on about creative impetus in a radically changing world, and me half-listening and administering a mixture of post-pubescent heroic ideas to my own would-be works. Those senseless works of famous art became integral to my beloved ballpoint plans—at least by personal association. Back in the days when I couldn’t finish a goddamn thing.

Picasso this. Picasso that. Picasso could do everything. Picasso was the best drawer. Picasso was a prodigy. Picasso was a son of a bitch. A good-for-nothing womanizer. Picasso, and more Picasso. Picasso was the only name that came up for anybody that knew almost nothing about art. The most famous name in art. The artist that people used when people said they couldn’t draw because they were not a Picasso. Or for the opposite, that their kid could draw better than Picasso. That everything he made was crazy. He couldn’t draw a straight line if he had a ruler. As stated by many a casual observer.

His name meant so much to everybody, it seemed. “Look at this guy! We got a Picasso!” Told to me, over and over, when somebody was excited by something I had done.

I was not Picasso. Nothing like him. I wanted to smile, because I knew what the person meant. A compliment, certainly. So I smiled. Even if I wanted to correct them.

Flipping through this book. Remembering what was significant about Picasso. Now I knew and found that I was part of the club—the club of knowing. I knew just what the writer intended for me to understand, because I had already trodden that ground. I was now on the inside, and these small facts were now mine as well as those of the book’s writer and my past teachers. It was mine, and I could even pass on this information to somebody else.

“You don’t have to like him,” I found myself saying to laypeople that hadn’t the foggiest clue about Picasso. “But this is what makes him significant.” He flattened the picture plane. He gave different angles in one picture so that you could see the back of someone’s head at the same time that you were looking at the front. He invented new ways to encapsulate human figures. He broke every rule, but he did it while following other rules. He was a part of almost every Modernist movement, adding his impressive contributions every time the art world changed. And he could also draw better than anybody in his day. He was classically trained. He just chose not to go in that direction. It was a matter of choice. And I was trying to give the idea that there was something commendable about this, because that was the way I was starting to feel.

Back at the bookstore one day, there appeared a Picasso biography in the bargain books. $5.99 plus tax. I shrugged; I would at the very least learn something.

Four hundred pages later, when I put that book down, I made a decision. I decided I was now enlightened. Picasso, I declared, was thereafter someone to admire—one of my heroes! And that opened up the gates for all the other artists I hated. My giving them my time. A chance. Revisiting each one. Finding out if I liked them or not, based on whether their art spoke to me and not on prejudices about what is proper art. It opened up my world. And then I wanted everyone to be like me—not to think like me—but at least to give every artist the benefit of the doubt.

I still love Picasso. Like I love a great many artists I once hated. It is no longer about nostalgia or about wanting to belong to the crowd. It is about going beyond and finding that there is something that has nothing to do with what you thought you knew and what you thought you loved.

Rey Armenteros is a Los Angeles-based painter and writer who has had
his essays and poetry appear in numerous literary journals and art
magazines, including The Nasiona, The Magnolia Review, and Umbrella Factory Magazine.