Posts Tagged ‘The Mystery of Picasso’

Aht & Cultcha

Wednesday, November 20th, 2013

andmischief

Mr. and Mrs. Magician and Their Son Mischief painting by Todd

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser November 2013)

“A triptych (three related paintings) by the artist Francis Bacon sold for $142,405,000 on Tuesday, breaking the record as the most expensive piece of art ever auctioned, according to the auction house Christie’s.” CNN

I was curious to see this creation that someone, ostensibly a human being, paid 142 million dollars for, and when I found the image online and made the triptych large and clear on my computer screen, I was surprised by how unremarkable I found this work to be. I’m sure there are academics and art experts galore who can babble at length about why “Three Studies of Lucian Freud” painted by Francis Bacon in 1969 is of great importance in the history and evolution of modern art, but to my eyes this is yet another case of the emperor’s new clothes, as opposed to innovative, revolutionary, or masterful art. The work left me cold, both emotionally and intellectually. Please don’t tell me it was Bacon’s intention to leave the viewer cold. Or…go ahead and tell me that was his intention and I will respond, “Phooey.”

I have no doubt that “Three Studies of Lucian Freud” is a work of art. An artist painted the thing. Beyond that I will leave the analysis and debate to others, except to say that if I hadn’t been told the work was valuable I would never have guessed “Three Studies of Lucian Freud” had any value at all, save for those super duper matching gold frames. The expression “student work” came to mind when I looked at the three very similar paintings, followed by the thought “needs practice.”

I say this as an art-loving person who was once a voracious reader of art history, art reviews, art theory, and artist biographies. I was also a frequent visitor to art galleries private and public in California and New York and Los Angeles, I have many artist friends, and I have been making art for most of my life, with the intention of leaving my viewers warm in some way or another.

“The only thing that happens overnight is recognition. Not talent.” Carol Haney

My sister, a professor of Biology, was for some years in the 1970’s a weaver of spaciously abstract wall hangings and big puffy pillows. Having pursued her art in the privacy of her home for several years, she decided to make her pubic debut by getting a booth at the KPFK Christmas Faire in Los Angeles. I helped her build her booth, we hung her weavings, arrayed her pillows, and sat back to see how people would respond to what she’d made. To my sister’s surprise and delight, people bought every last one of her pillows and all but two of her wall hangings. By the second day of the faire, she had almost nothing left to sell.

To make a long story short, inspired by her initial success, my sister spent several months creating a new body of work, got a booth at the KPFK Summer Faire, and sold almost nothing. A year or so later, she told me she no longer considered herself an artist. I asked her to explain. She said that having lived through a terrible mudslide that destroyed many of her possessions and forced her to move out of a house she loved, she made a weaving that captured her frazzled and emotionally upset state. “It was ugly,” she said. “Truthful, but ugly, and I realized I don’t want to make anything ugly, which means I’m a craftsperson and not an artist.”

“There is only one way to treat a cold, and that is with contempt.” Sir William Osler

I currently have a cold and a runny nose and a nagging cough. Feeling awful, I looked in the mirror this morning and thought, “If I film my face looking dreadful and forlorn as I talk about how crummy I feel and how that crummy feeling infects my perception of everything, and I put the film on YouTube, I can probably get quite a few people, thousands maybe, to watch the film if I call it A Response to ‘Three Studies of Lucian Freud’ by Francis Bacon by Todd Walton. The search engines will find my little movie and list it on the first page that people come to when they Google Francis Bacon or Lucian Freud, only I’d better make the movie right away while the news of the 142 million dollar sale is still a hot topic.”

Later over coffee I thought, “Then I could make a second film of me sitting in a chair in the manner of the human figures in ‘Three Studies of Lucian Freud’ and I could call that second film Responding To the Avalanche of Comments About A Response to ‘Three Studies of Lucian Freud’ by Francis Bacon by Todd Walton. And so on. Would that be art? Absolutely. Would it leave people cold? I don’t know about other people, but it would certainly leave me cold, so I’m not going to do it.”

“The artist spends the first part of his life with the dead, the second with the living, and the third with himself.” Pablo Picasso

When I was eight-years-old, my parents took me to the De Young Museum in San Francisco to see a big show of paintings by Vincent Van Gogh. Fifty-five years later, I still remember how I felt when I stood in front of The Potato Eaters—amazed and frightened and sad and overwhelmed.

“Competence, like truth, beauty, and contact lenses, is in the eye of the beholder.” Laurence J. Peter

I was ten when I first leafed through a book of paintings by Picasso. I vividly remember two things about the experience: I kept referring to the Table Of Contents because I was sure the paintings in the book were by several different artists and not just one person named Picasso, and after looking at Picasso’s paintings for a long time, I got out my colored pencils and crayons and a pile of blank paper and made dozens of colorful pictures.

The only DVD I have ever purchased (other than the DVD of the movie based on my first novel) is The Mystery of Picasso. Made in 1955 by Henri-Georges Clouzot, The Mystery of Picasso was officially declared by the French government in 1984 to be a national treasure, and if that doesn’t impress you, Pauline Kael called The Mystery of Picasso “One of the most exciting and joyful movies ever made!”

Imagine you are looking at a blank canvas filling the entire movie screen. On the other side of the canvas, invisible to the viewer, stands Picasso, the actual artist, fully alive and raring to go. As Picasso begins to draw, his strokes instantly bleed through the canvas so we may watch his creation come into being stroke by stroke. For anyone who draws or paints or creates things, the experience of watching Picasso work in real time is mimetic heaven. Later on in the movie Picasso paints in oils, and Clouzot uses stop-motion animation to capture the step-by-step evolution of several paintings. In the course of this feature-length film, we witness Picasso create dozens of stunning masterworks, though I’m sure there are plenty of people who would call Picasso’s creations poo poo. Such is the subjective nature of taste.

I first saw The Mystery of Picasso on a big screen in a movie house in Sacramento in the 1980’s when the film was being revived after being out of circulation for many years. The audience was composed largely of artists, and the experience for me was thrilling and joyful and wild, with people spontaneously shouting their feelings in response to the intuitive and uninhibited moves of a master painter. However, as I left the theater, I overheard a woman I knew to be a professor of Art at UC Davis say to her companion, “Narcissistic show off parading around in his underwear.”

“President Obama is asking Americans to give money to help the Philippines recover from the devastation of Typhoon Haiyan.” USA Today

The record high price paid for the Francis Bacon triptych is but a small part of a recent explosion in record prices being paid for art created by dead or soon-to-be-dead American and British artists who are famous for being famous, and not really for their art. For instance, an insignificant piece by Andy Warhol recently sold for 105 million, and a lesser work by Basquiat sold for 55 million. Who has that kind of money? Could real people actually be spending these incredible sums of money? Or is this “art bubble” some sort of money laundering scheme for the super rich? Based on my wholly subjective opinion that most of the art fetching these billions is not particularly great or remarkable or of historic or stylistic importance, I would guess this “art bubble” is, indeed, some sort of lucrative scam.

However, if by some miracle the selling of piles of mediocre art for billions of dollars is not a money laundering scheme, and actual real people are in a frenzy to buy art for huge amounts of money, I wonder if they, these incredibly rich people, would like to buy some of my neato drawings. That would be so cool, wouldn’t it, if they would give me millions of dollars for my art? I could then pay half the money in taxes to fund military and corporate imperialism and to nibble away at the interest on the national debt and subsidize oil companies and carbon-emitting corporations responsible for creating more and more devastating storms and droughts and environmental disasters. And I would still have some left over to give to the Philippines.

When Is It Done?

Monday, December 12th, 2011

(This piece appeared—twice!—in the Anderson Valley Advertiser in 2008-2009. I recently got a request for this article, thought it was on my blog, but could not find it herein. So here it is now. Enjoy.)

Thirty-five years ago, I was hitchhiking from Santa Cruz to San Francisco on Highway One, and I got a ride with the poet William Everson, also known as Brother Antoninus, one of the more esoteric Beats. He sported a wispy white beard and a well-worn cowboy hat, and his old car reeked of tobacco. Recently installed as a poet-in-residence at UC Santa Cruz, he was going to a party in Bonny Dune but had no idea how to get there.

 I knew exactly where he wanted to go and offered to be his guide, though it meant traveling many miles out of my way. I was obsessed with poetry and wanted as much of the great man’s time as I could finagle. He accepted my offer to be his Sancho Panza and did me the honor of asking, “So what’s your thing?”

“Guitar. And I write stories and poems, too.”

He nodded. “Who do you read?”

“Philip Whalen. Lew Welch. Faulkner. Kazantzakis.”

He lit a cigarette and seemed disinclined to continue the conversation.

And then, without consciously intending to, I asked, “So…how do you know when a poem is done?”

So pained was Everson’s expression, I might as well have asked him what he thought of the poetry of Rod McKuen. Here he was on his way to a party, no doubt to drink and smoke and let his hair down and take a break from all the bullshit attendant to his newly won academic sinecure, and his guide to such bliss—a scrawny wannabe with nary a joint to share—asks him the single most annoying question an artist can be asked.

I was about to blurt an apology for my stupid question, when the good man cleared his throat and said, “So you decide this is what you want to do, and you do it for years and years and years, not because anybody gives you anything for it but because you want those poems. And you might work a line a hundred times and never get it, and then you’ll be sure you’ve got a good one and the next morning it reads like shit. But one day, after all that work, something shifts in your awareness, and from then on you just know. You just do. There’s no rule about it. You come into harmony with your feelings and you look at the thing and say, ‘Yeah. That’s it.’”

William Faulkner rewrote his first two novels, Mosquitoes and Soldier’s Pay, many times. But no matter how many drafts he wrote, he always wanted to rewrite. He came to realize that in the time it took him to complete a new draft, he had so changed as a person and grown as a writer, that he had become, literally, someone else; and this new person wanted to make the book his book.

So from then on, Faulkner made it his practice to write three drafts and call the book done. Nikos Kazantzakis, author of Zorba the Greek and The Last Temptation of Christ also settled on three drafts. And I, in the days before computers, would do four drafts before undertaking a final draft with an editor. Of course, with the advent of computers, rewriting has taken on whole new meanings, and our beleaguered bookstores and libraries are jammed with proof that computerized word processing has in no way improved the quality of writing or the quality of books.

There is a marvelous movie made in 1956 entitled The Mystery of Picasso. The film was revived in the 1980’s and shown in art houses all over Europe and America. In the film, Picasso paints on one side of an absorbent canvas that allows colored ink to seep through the canvas unadulterated and without running. The camera is on the other side of the canvas, filming Picasso’s strokes as they appear, as if by magic, and coalesce into paintings. Some of the paintings are shown developing in real time, some manifest in time lapse.

When I watched this movie in a theatre full of artists and art lovers, the response from the audience was remarkable. As Picasso rapidly created a painting, a person—or several people—would cry out, “Stop! It’s perfect!” and then they would groan as Picasso carried on, changing the image until someone else would shout, “Yes! There! That’s it!” only to have the master paint on and on and on.

By the end of the film we had witnessed the making and annihilation and making and annihilation of hundreds of great works of art—done and not done and done and not done and done.

With the exception of The Prince and the Pauper, which may be a perfect fable, Mark Twain had great difficulty finishing his novels, as did Thomas Hardy. Both men would write in trances of inspiration until they reached the climaxes of their stories, and then not know how to end them. Both writers would put their incomplete manuscripts away for several months, even years, then get them out and affix endings quite unrelated to the original spontaneous flow. Sadly, these forced completions are the great weaknesses of otherwise masterful works.

So Twain might have said a book is done when the writer ceases to write it. Faulkner might have said there is no guarantee that when a thing is done the artist will like it. Picasso might have said the thing is always done and never done. And in this moment, reserving the right to change my mind in the next, I say the poem or song or book or painting is done when a comfortable silence falls and I’m absolutely certain it’s time for me to do something else.