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By Mary Summerbell

Picasso. I’ve been intrigued by him and his work since I was a kid, from the first time I saw pictures of his paintings in a book. Looking and looking at the strange creations, I was curious, but puzzled, wondering, “What does it all mean?”

I first saw a real Picasso on a grade school field trip to the Art Institute in Chicago. It was “The Old Guitarist” from his blue period. I didn’t understand it, but I felt very smug knowing about the image of a woman faintly visible from a picture Picasso painted underneath it. A secret, hidden in plain sight. Like the hidden picture puzzles I so enjoyed.

As a child, my first impression of Picasso was that he couldn’t possibly be serious. That his work was a joke, a trick. That he was trying to fool everyone. Known as such a great artist, he could paint whatever he wanted and call it great art. Who would question him? I questioned why anyone who could paint realistically would paint the way he did. I thought his style was lack of skill.

As I learned more about him, and saw more of his work, I came to know that he could, indeed, paint very realistically. And incredibly precisely. In fact, his eye was extremely exact. He had so many ideas that he would often paint a picture to a certain point, then have his assistants make copies of it, so he could finish it different ways. Once, on a canvas several feet high and several feet wide, he saw what they had done and told them to “Do it again.” Remeasuring, they found lines that were “off” by a fourth of an inch!

Reading this changed my whole perception of him. I realized that whatever his work looked like, it was not random or accidental. It was intentional. It was exactly how he wanted it to look. I still wondered what it all meant, but in a different way. I wondered about his intended meaning. What he was saying by painting a particular way?

Recently, at the Picasso exhibit at the Art Institute in Chicago, my perceptions of Picasso and his work changed again. I got many new impressions that I hadn’t felt from any books, pictures, or classes in the past.

The exhibit was vast, with hundreds of works on display. It was somewhat overwhelming. Almost intimidating. I read that Picasso did the work of five or six artists in his lifetime. To see so much of it all in one place at one time seemed, to me, almost obscenely prolific. The works were mostly sequential, some never before made public. So it gave a very good feel for the totality, the evolution of his work, and the distinct styles he extensively explored.

Picasso worked in many mediums and was equally skilled in all. A sign at the exhibit said that it was nearly “miraculous” how fast he could master a new medium or technique. And that is impressive. How can it not be?

And yet, as I viewed more and more of his work, much of it seemed almost scientific to me. More like an experiment in elements than a medium for communication. When I was drawn to a picture it was in an analytical way, evaluating, examining details, wondering how he achieved this or that effect, but not identifying with it, not making a personal connection to it. I didn’t smile much, or feel pleased. Not that art must be pleasing, but there was definitely just something missing. For all that talent, for all his technical genius, something was lacking, compassion, perhaps?

Most of Picasso’s work felt cold to me. Some of it tortured and convoluted. Some of it disturbing. From his paintings, I felt he was an angry man, and egotistical. Oddly, for the first time, I felt that if I met him I probably wouldn’t like him. If I had to choose one word to describe Picasso’s work overall, it would be “measured” or “calculated.” Some of it seemed almost diabolically precise – as if the math of it overshadowed any feeling of humanity. It felt as if Picasso used his mind and his great imagination as distractions from his emotions.

There were exceptions. His early work touched something more of heart than head in me. I stood a while in front of The Frugal Repast, and I could see the whole of it, rather than just examining the details of its parts. My favorites were the black and white minimal line drawings. They had spirit. It’s almost impossible to reduce something to its barest essence without showing something of its soul.

Obviously the man was not shallow. He was a complex, complicated person. But that doesn’t mean he was given to introspection. That he was self-aware or self-reflective. One can be very analytical and perceptive of the world and everything in it and not be in touch with their own insides.

I thought the most telling painting was one that hung in two parts on a wall by itself. It was a picture Picasso started as a family portrait – mother, father, and child. For whatever reasons, he cut the father figure off the picture, and painted over what remained of him, making it a mother-child portrait. No one would know, except that one day someone from the Art Institute was at his studio, and he went and got the cut-off piece and said, “Here, you can have this.” He told them it was originally part of the picture they already owned.

In the exhibit the mother-child part was nicely framed – complete. To the left of it hung the cut off father figure – small, unframed. We see an arm and a leg of him, and an ear on the side of part of his head, turned toward the mother and child. In the finished painting there is no trace of the father. Nothing of him comes up from under the top layer of paint.

I was so surprised. Isn’t it ironic that someone who was the master of multi-symbolic images would give the world a message so blatantly obvious that any grade school child could get it? Did he realize what he was doing when he gave that missing part to the person from the museum? Did it mean anything to him? In the end, did he fool us? Did he fool himself?

As I stood and looked at that painting I couldn’t help thinking that Picasso, one of the world’s greatest artists, had, in life, literally disconnected himself from what he most wanted to love. In spite of his greatness, was he disconnected from himself in some deeply meaningful way? Is this his secret, hidden in plain sight?

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