As can happen to an aspiring youth who completes some initial training, Picasso outgrew (and outdrew) his first teachers. The story of his formal artistic education is reminiscent of Mozart’s—a series of virtually unnecessary enrollments in formal classes, contempt for mediocre teachers, unpleasant personal clashes, and a reversion to self-education, at the feet of favorite masters from earlier epochs. Picasso matriculated first at the academy in Barcelona: He passed the entrance exams readily, rarely attended classes, proved completely unable to deal with the rules and regulations, and left soon afterward. His uncle then sent him on to the Academy of Fine Arts in Madrid, where the same pattern of alienation ensued. Unhappy in Madrid, Picasso at age seventeen returned to Barcelona. Here for the first time, he stepped out into a wider world.
Thus, the standard story told about Picasso is that he was a naturally gifted painting prodigy who effortlessly surpassed all the other artists in his milieu. Yet Picasso himself declared: “What one can consider an early genius is actually the genius of childhood. I did not have this genius. My first drawings could not have been hung in a display of children’s work. These pictures lacked childlikeness or naivete… I painted in a quite academic way, as literal and precise that I am shocked today.” And at an exhibition of children’s work, Picasso once quipped, “When I was their age I could draw like Raphael, but it has taken me a whole lifetime to learn to draw like them.” In such remarks, Picasso is at once placing children’s work on a pedestal and, at the same time, distancing his youthful self from such a romantic view of his own artistry.
Apollinaire claimed that there were two kinds of artists: the intuitive virtuoso who draws on nature, and the reflective cerebral structurer, who must draw on himself. Mozart could serve as prototype for the first, Beethoven for the second. Apollinaire asserted that Picasso was able to convert himself from one type to the other: “Never has there been so fantastic a spectacle as the metamorphosis that Picasso underwent as an artist.” Picasso was a masterful and productive artist, painting, drawing, sculpting, or engraving hundreds of works during nearly every year of his long life. Yet, beyond question, Picasso saw these works as differing in importance; and from time to time, he would proceed to work on a canvas that for him represented a summation of some sort—an oratorio among songs, a novel among short stories. The visual and thematic elements would draw together strands that had emerged more fragmentarily in previous works, representing the development of Picasso himself. We see this process at work in Picasso’s most famous paintings. Picasso’s Self-Portrait of 1907 stands out as a pivotal and defining work which demonstrates his artistic transformation: Picasso’s facial features resemble geometric forms rather than contoured living flesh—a masklike portraiture. (Chastised because the portrait did not look like him, Picasso reputedly came back with one of the notable artistic one-liners of the century: “Don’t worry, it will.”)
Unfortunately, we lack drawings of Picasso from the first eight years of his life, and so we cannot determine whether his early works resembled those of other children. My own conclusion is that Picasso’s drawing during the first decade of life was unusually skilled, rather than frankly precocious, but that no word short of spectacular can describe his progress over the next several years. There was something in Picasso that prevented him from ever resting on his laurels; instead, he felt compelled perpetually to face new challenges and scale new heights professionally and personally. Such relentless drive, of course, has characterized history’s creative titans and may indeed be their defining characteristic.
Adapted from “Creating Minds” by H. Gardner. Published by H. Gardner. 1993
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