On Sunday 3ed March 2019, I went out on a bitterly cold, wet and stormy day to Dun Laoghaire with Carol to see Young Picasso: Exhibition on Screen in the Pavilion Theatre. It was the first time since late 1992 that I had been to Dun Laoghaire, when I had given up my studio in the area within a few months, because my social anxiety made it so hard for me to paint outside the safety of my bedroom at home. Before that, the last time I had been in Dun Laoghaire had been when I had drunkenly returned to the Dun Laoghaire College of Art and Design a few months after I had been expelled - because of my dismal performance and a fight I had with a young man in my class. I had thought my peers would welcome seeing me again - but it quickly became obvious they were uncomfortable and afraid of my reappearance and I was asked to leave.
My trip to Dun Laoghaire with Carol was one of my rare trips out and about - since I had given up all interest in contemporary art and had become contemptuous of the whole absurd, pretentious, effete, snobbish, vain, greedy, manipulative and hypocritical art world. Besides, I had not heard of a single exhibition in Dublin after the Emil Nolde exhibition in the National Gallery of Ireland in March 2018 - that I wanted or frankly needed to see. I only wished to leave my house and travel to Dun Laoghaire to see Young Picasso because since my youth I had been obsessed with Picasso and in particular with his early work and development - and I doubted if I would ever have the money or energy to visit his museums again. The 85-minute documentary highlighted the early work of Picasso in the Picasso museums in Malaga, Barcelona and Paris as well as other museums like MoMA and showed his progress from child prodigy to moody painter of the Blue and Rose Periods and ended with his creation of the iconoclastic Modernist masterpiece Les Demoiselle d’Avignon. I had visited the Musée Picasso in Paris in August 1990 and February 2001 and the Museu Picasso in Barcelona in August 1999. But I had never visited the Museo Picasso Málaga, though I had looked through its fat orange catalogue raisonné in the NCAD library. At home I also had dozens of books on Picasso and many on his early work. So, I went to Young Picasso: Exhibition on Screen just to relive what I had already seen and studied.
When we arrived in Dun Laoghaire at about 3pm, we went to Starbucks and had coffees. Then we went to Dun Laoghaire shopping centre - which I had not been to since a teenager in around 1989 - and I was shocked by how small, drab and dated it was. Trying to kill time, we went in the pouring rain down to the pier and Carol photographed the stormy sea. Afterwards we went to Easons and I bought the magazine Bringing History to Life: Greatest Battles of WWII. In the late evening, we went to McDonalds and had Big Mac meals. Afterwards, we walked about the village as it started to snow! At 6pm, we went back to Starbucks and had coffees and killed time before the movie. Finally, we went over to the Pavilion Theatre so see the movie.
I had foolishly though that many young art students and artists would have flocked to see this story of youthful development - but the audience was overwhelming elderly men and women. In fact, there were only a handful of middle-aged people our age there - though there were some who had brought their well-behaved young daughters or granddaughters. It seemed that most young artists did not give a dam about Picasso! For me, the greatest documentary ever made on Picasso was the three-part one made by John Richardson in 2001 called Picasso: Magic, Sex & Death. Young Picasso was not as good as that, but it was very informative, and I even learned things I had not known before or had forgotten.
Picasso would be merely remembered today as realist child prodigy and minor Symbolist painter, if in 1907 he had not painted Les Demoiselle d’Avignon the single most radical painting of Modernism and then went on to invent Cubism with George Braque - the most revolutionary reorganizing of form since the Renaissance - which then became the most influential movement of Modernism. After Cubism, Picasso continued to startle, perplex and astonish the art world with his protean creativity and constant stylistic changes. But he also came to dominate the gossip pages through his charismatic persona and stories about his innumerable exhibitions, womanising, social climbing, immense wealth, pacifism, and hypocritical membership of the Communist Party. When he died in 1973, he had become the richest and most famous artist in history. And even before his death, his creativity was talked about mythically in divine or demonic terms.
Lost in the long story of Picasso the great artist, was his humble origins as Pablo Ruiz the young son of a mediocre academic painter of pigeons in provincial Spain. Most people were happy to laud Picasso the genius - without ever wondering how he became so great. If people did mention his early work, it was just to prove to philistines who thought Modern art was hoax – that at least Picasso could draw and paint conventionally. But as an ambitious teenage artist, I was obsessed with how Picasso became so brilliant and I thought that I could only beat him as a mature artist - if I mirrored his early development and earned the right to my own future iconoclasm. I recall that when I grew up in the 1980s in Ireland, art was still a very elitist activity, and for the general public and TV audiences alike, virtually all artistic people were considered idiotic con-artists and sexually dubious poseurs - apart from a tiny select few geniuses that might be included in magazine part-works like The Great Artists or Discovering the Great Paintings! And only children in artistic families or in rich private schools were given the kind of creative encouragement many young people enjoy today because creativity has finally been recoginsed as vital to contemporary advertising, branding and social media companies.
Personally my artistic ambition was regarded as a delusional embarrassment by most of my family and they did little to encourage me and mostly tried to ignore it - in the hope I would abandon it. In fact, until I got accepted on the basis of exceptional talent into Dun Laoghaire College of Art and Design in September 1989 – my mother fought my ambition tooth and nail and belittled me constantly. So apart from the praise of a few of my art teachers, I had to motivate myself and sacrifice almost everything in my life to pursue my dream. Because so much of my artistic development was self-directed, I chose to look at the early work of artists I admired like Edgar Degas, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Amedeo Modigliani and Egon Schiele and try to match their early efforts. And it was no coincidence that all my heroes were men – because the brotherhood of art - gave me relief from the terrifying and abominable presence of women. In my mind, I was in an imaginary classroom with my heroes and i thought that only by achieving the conventional skills they possessed at my age - could I earn the right to call myself an artist and later break the rules. Then I discovered the early work of Picasso and my heart was broken - because even at seventeen - I was an abject failure compared to the young Picasso! On the other hand, I suddenly had a visual textbook of youthful creativity from which I could learn. And even now, in bleak periods of artist’s block, I look at the work of the young Picasso for inspiration.
However, I did not realise at seventeen, how perverse and artistically nïave I was to seek to emulate the dated late nineteenth century realism of Picasso in 1988 - rather than reflect the nature of my own time. (Though ironically, it could be argued that ideologically Ireland in the 1980s was similar to late nineteenth century Spain with its Nationalism, insularity, provincialism, dire poverty, petite-bourgeois conformity, medieval Catholic hatred of sex and the flesh, paternalistic censorship, moral restrictions on almost every aspect of life, hatred of rebellious youth, misogyny and ambivalence towards both modernity and Modernism.) I also did not realise that by 1988, Picasso was considered an irrelevant dinosaur in the contemporary art world abroad that believed that the anti-art ready-mades and proto-conceptualism of Marcel Duchamp were far more important.
What I also did not know at the time, was that by trying to emulate Picasso’s early development - I was making things far more difficult for myself - than if I had just arrogantly painted whatever way I felt like and just bluffed it like so many others. I also did not know that no matter what technical achievements I made in my art – they would be undermined and warped by my arrested development, psychological defects and growing mental illness. At seventeen, I had no idea how alienated I had already become from both society and reality and how that would limit the humanity of my art and reduce me to drawing and painting mostly from second-hand media images throughout my life - rather than engaging in the real world with real people like the young Picasso had done so thoroughly. Nor did I realise then, how the damage done to me in childhood would seep into my art - making it anti-social, misanthropic and misogynistic - and guarantee that few people would ever accept it. I also had a totally naïve idea that all an artist had to do was make great artworks and the world would come running. I had no idea how much bravado, hype, salesmanship, seduction, manipulation, arse-licking and social-climbing were involved in promoting one’s art and getting people to believe in and collect it.
What I did know, was that art was literally the only thing I lived for and after making a vow at the age of ten to become a great artist - I would die trying to achieve my dream. Art was the only thing I excelled at as a teenager, it was the only thing I was ever praised for, and most importantly it was the only thing that eased my agonising mental pain and gave me a sense of purpose and mastery. And I foolishly thought that if I became a great artist like Picasso, I would finally be loved, respected, valued and understood. But I did not realise that I was asking for things art could never satisfy, that my childhood neglect could never be made up for, and that most people did not give a dam about art, knew nothing about it and only took notice when fame and money were involved.
If I had seen the Young Picasso documentary in 1988 at the age of seventeen, I might in desperation, have considered throwing myself in front of a train on the way home! Because I totally lacked Picasso’s talent, preternatural skill, work ethic, self-confidence, mental-strength, happy childhood, family support and encouragement and his father’s artistic training and guidance. While Picasso had a cast-iron extrovert self-confidence and self-belief – my mind was shattered and weak and I was an anti-social introvert. On the other-hand, I also lacked the casually arrogant defensiveness of the talentless and unambitious who just cynically shrug at the triumphs of others, make absurd excuses for their own abject failure and make personal attacks on those who have achieved greatness. So, for me as a youth it really did matter to me how crap I was compared to the young Picasso. And as a teenager, I felt like I was wading desperately through a tar-pit in a darkened cave - while the young Picasso danced freely above me on the sunny uplands surrounded by adoring groupies.
Night after night, I would try through sheer force of will to match Picasso - but he had never had to force his genuine talent. But it is notable that while I mimicked some of his styles and subjects - I was more obsessed by his sheer production numbers - so I sought to produce as many pornographic paintings as I could and bizarrely thought that I could become a better artist than Picasso by being obscener. I was even driven to backdate my work from early January 1987 to late January 1993, to make it seem that I was more precocious than I was. And my obsessive-compulsive backdating was such a shameful and mortal secret to me - that when I finally admitted it to my therapist - I tried to kill myself later that night. But when I survived, I thankful gave up my backdating and shuck off my obsession with Picasso’s productivity.
Now as a forty-eight-year-old failure, I am still a wreak of a man, but I am also more realistic about myself, my art and the nature of life. I continue to paint, because I vowed as a child to never quit, but really, I continue to make art more as a form of therapy than out of any real hope of success. Besides the idealistic vision I had of art as a boy has been destroyed for me by contact with its reality - and I feel I belong even less to the world now - than I did as a boy.
I also have a more mature and pragmatic understanding of the nature of artistic prodigies and their frequent ultimate mature failures. Because as Edgar Degas observed, "Everyone has talent at twenty-five. The difficulty is to have it at fifty". And graveyards around the world are filled with the anonymous, forgotten and overgrown graves of arrogant prodigies - who thought they would become historically significant. Moreover, given the nature of today’s art glut - they will continue to be filled for decades to come. But Picasso was rare amongst child prodigies, because he continued to excel and innovate throughout his life and in fact vastly outperformed his early promise. So, while I later abandoned many of my childhood heroes, I continued to be inspired by Picasso and considered him the greatest artist of the twentieth century.
Not only are the combined early childhood artworks of Picasso in the Museu Picasso Barcelona, Musée Picasso Paris and Museo Picasso Málaga the largest for any major artist in art history, it is doubtful if any significant artist will ever bequeath such a body of youthfully painted and drawn work again - given that most children today spend so much of their time indolently and passively watching TV and computer screens and have the attention spans of houseflies. Moreover, while art may never die, and will no doubt exploit the vast new technologies like virtual reality - for me, art has been in terminal decline since the late 1990s and the rise of politically-correct art. Because art it is now so much a part of the global and anti-democratic liberal élite committed to progressive fantasies and no longer willing to say anything honest, troubling or transgressive because art has become so much about reputations, status, money and conformity. So, like a fanatical monk who has abandoned religion and become an aggressive atheist – I no longer believe in the manipulative farce of the art world and only revere a few exceptional geniuses.
As for the nature of artistic prodigies - they are philosophically problematic for me today. They rarely innovate and tend to exploit the well-worn truths of an over-ripe period and style. Like annoying, pampered and displayed parrots - they often just spout prose others invented. So paradoxically, child prodigies are just as often sociologically and art historically the sign of an ending - rather than the heralding of a new beginning. More worryingly, recent child prodigy painters like Alexandra Nechita, Akiane Kramarik, Marla Olmstead and Kieron Williamson have been overexposed before their time, cynically marketed by their families, turned by into commercial and media pawns and uncritically praised - thus almost guaranteeing mature failure. While the ignorant public still think that art is either about painting realistically or with apparent wild and crazy abandon, the art world (at least since the Impressionists in the 1870s put personal, interpretive sensation ahead of objective reality and the tsunami of photography changed everyone’s understanding of the real and made most realist painting a waste of time) have considered realist painting redundant and since the late 1970s and Post-Structuralism the so called ‘death of the author’ are even more skeptical of claims of autonomous and spontaneous expressivity. So, the art of the aforementioned commercially successful child prodigies is treated like a sad joke, similar to the self-love of brain-dead reality stars on TV, who actually think they are the revered authors of their own lives and think people are laughing with them - when in fact they are laughing at them!
In fact, today’s real, élite art world (which still upholds certain standards of originality, meaning and criticality) has turned aggressively against traditional manual skill and realist art which is considered elitist, reactionary and bankrupt. So, figurative painting and drawing has largely been pushed aside in favour of egalitarian abstraction, found-objects, assemblage, installations, performance, photography, multi-media, and ideas-based art. Besides, while it was quite common in the Renaissance for young teenagers to work full-time for up to ten years under a Master or in the late nineteenth century for teenage prodigies to attend art colleges full-time for years - today’s teenagers are lucky if they get to spend two hours a week in art class in high school. And because few Art Colleges today accept pupils on the basis of their portfolios alone - they also know that their only real chance of getting into an art college is to also do well in their other core subjects. So, in their brief art classes, they are encouraged to develop quick, catchy ideas which can be rapidly executed - rather than develop technical skills that require both aptitude and patience and may take years to mature. Meanwhile, if you are a contemporary conceptual artist today like Jeff Koons or Damien Hirst and can’t draw for toffee - but you wish to create say photo-realist paintings or hyper-real sculptures - you can simply buy the souls of the vast unemployed proletariat of traditionally skilled artists and technicians - and instruct them to make what you want!
Then there is the great irony of Picasso’s career, he started as a respectable late nineteenth century prodigy but ended up as a late twentieth century Bad Painter of childlike obscene doodles anticipating Neo-Expressionism. As the arch-conservative art critic Brian Sewell wrote after viewing an exhibition of Picasso’s late artwork in 1988: “A thousand years hence, historians will strive to reverse the chronology, finding it inconceivable that such adolescent graffiti could succeed the intellectual weight of Cubism and the emotional power of the Pink and Blue periods – turn it on its head and it works much better backwards, for in his youth the brilliant Barcelona boy was never the nasty incompetent child he became in his senility”. (Brian Sewell, Late Picasso, Alphabet of Villains. London: Bloomsbury, 1995, P. 178.) The traditional devolution of Picasso’s career was unique in art history (though fatuously exaggerated comparisons between late Picasso and late Titian and Rembrandt were made by his lackies) and was only possible in the twentieth century because ancient skills and traditional standards had been replaced by an art market desire for the rapid turnover of novel styles and media need for sensation and scandal. But Picasso himself was well aware of his problematic relationship to tradition and late in life observed that: “Beginning with van Gogh, however great we may be, we are all, in a measure, auto-didacts – you might almost say primitive painters. Painters no longer live within a tradition and so each one of us must re-create an entire language. Every painter of our times is fully authorized to re-create that language from A to Z.” (Pablo Picasso quoted in Life with Picasso, Francoise Gilot & Carlton Lake, New York: McGraw Hill, 1964, P.67.)
So, the display of Picasso’s early work is theoretically problematic - because even though it is stunning as the work of a child and even though he was proud he was a prodigy - it also represents everything he later rebelled against. Because Picasso’s entire later career in all its various styles, subject matter and ideas was a defiant assertion all of the things restrictive 19th century provincial Spain and Picasso’s father could not dream of in their philosophy. Moreover, the lavish display of Picasso’s early work is now only possible because Picasso later became an infamous Modernist Master and then the most famous and wealthiest artist in art history.
It is notable that the last genuinely great and credible prodigy in art was the twenty-something Jean-Michel Basquiat in the 1980s who was inspired by the late Picasso paintings so reviled by the likes of Brian Sewell. Basquiat inverted Picasso’s white Western pillaging of so-called ‘primitive’ Africa art. Basquiat deconstructed and reversed Picasso’s aesthetic colonisation and gave voice to the black lives, culture and history that had been excluded from Western Art History. He was the greatest Neo-Expressionist painter of the 1980s - but he was also a superb Conceptual artist whose first great idea was to draw like a street-smart psychotic child, and he relied more on stylistic ideas than conventional technical skill. Yet, technically Basquiat (who would have flunked any of the traditional academic test’s Picasso triumphed in as a teenager) also proved himself a virtuoso of the ‘primitive-look’ developed by the likes of Picasso and Dubuffet and he did so, in such a hip, Post-Modern and critical way that he avoided mere pastiche and contributed something genuinely new and telling. Like Picasso before him, Basquiat demonstrated that great art is about so much more than mere conventional talent or skill and requires many other things like creativity, original ideas, personality, awareness of both art history and artistic fashion and frankly something meaningful to say. Given the bankrupt and debased nature of contemporary art education, it is no surprise that far more young artists today, lazily try to mimic Basquiat’s ‘primitive’ and ‘child-like’ Neo-Expressionist mimicry of Picasso’s early ‘Negro’ Cubist mimicking of African ‘primitive’ art - than try to paint a large realist multiple-figure anecdotal canvas like The First Communion which Picasso painted at the age of fourteen. All three types of painting are of course now outdated and to copy them is a form of visual plagiarism. Yet, it is funny that while the vast majority of art students today cannot come up with an original idea, they can satisfactorily copy the African Tribal inspired early ‘Negro’ Cubist paintings of the twenty-six-year-old Picasso or the Neo-Expressionist paintings of the twenty-something Basquiat. Funnier still, is that virtually none of them can adequately copy the realist fourteen-year-old Picasso! And nor could I - even now at the age of forty-eight!
Born in 1881, Picasso was lucky to be born into a family that considered art important, were convinced of little Pablo’s genius and who later did everything to preserve his earliest efforts. He was also born at a time in art history when the study of juvenilia had become fashionable and thought to provide vital clues to the development of artistic genius. Before the youth revolt of Romanticism in the early nineteenth century, the only work considered preserving was the work of mature masters and the idea of glorifying the efforts of children or teenagers would have seemed presumptuous and absurd. So, the early works on paper of student artists were rarely preserved and the oil paintings or sculptures they had worked on that were preserved were usually workshop or academic pieces made under the instruction of a Master - so despite being technically skilled even brilliant, they often lacked a sense of personal authorship. For example, while the early oil paintings of Anthony van Dyke and Théodore Chassériau were technically more complex and accomplished than Picasso’s early work, much of their work that has survived from their youth was produced either in the factory system of Rubens or the academy of Ingres and so they can lack individuality.
Like so many talented and prodigious young artists, Pablo benefited from the fact that his father was an art teacher, who both encourage his talent and taught him the tricks of the trade. His father also bought him art materials, set him tests and hired and paid for models. First taught by his father, Picasso went on just before his eleventh birthday to study at the Corunna School of Arts where his father taught, then at the age of fourteen he was accepted into the Provincial School of Fine Arts (La Llotja) in Barcelona and finally he was accepted at the age of sixteen into the San Fernando Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Madrid. Later in life, Picasso liked to downplay the influence of his father and the various academies he studied in - which went down well in an age that had come to despise both patriarchy and academic art and extolled the virtues of youthful rebellion. Now while there is no doubt that Picasso was a prodigy and he achieved things most children of artists never go on to achieve, it is naïve to believe that his training did not help sharpen his skills - even if he later went on to break them. And if Picasso was later to claim with sadness that he had never drawn like a child - and tried to paint like a child in his later life - it was because the period after World War Two exalted innocent childish creativity in opposition to the catastrophic maturity that had brought about war.
As it is, we have virtually nothing made before Picasso turned nine and some like John Richardson think Picasso destroyed this early work because it was so childlike and unremarkable. And far from being some kind of rebel, Picasso happily learned first from his father and then in the aforementioned academies until the age of sixteen and a half. So, throughout his academic training, Picasso produced a lot of brilliant and conformist academic work and proved that he had the talent, skill, craftsmanship, work ethic and ambition to succeed as a fine academic painter – but ultimately, he had different ambitions. It was only in the summer of 1898 that Picasso began to question what all this traditional training meant in the age of Modernism and his work from mid-1898 until late-1901 was marked by a restless search for a style that had meaning and modernity.
From the moment Picasso left the academy and started to try to make a name for himself as an artist he shrewdly ingratiated himself with other young artists and used portraits of them to create bonds of trust. He also cunningly befriended intellectuals and writers who would champion his art. Picasso had been born after the seismic revolution of Impressionism with its stress upon the immediacy of the sketch, personal sensation and touch. So, one of the most distinct and modern qualities of Picasso’s early work was its often, unfinished, impetuous quality, whether that was in dramatic and intense realist portraits on canvas or on pages teeming with tiny little drawings of street life. Even in his early academic work Picasso rebelled against traditional expectations of finish and he seemed to be loathed to bring an artwork to a conventional conclusion.
It was in Picasso’s many and various portraits, nudes, figure studies and landscapes made in all kinds of mediums and mostly made from life or taken from him memory and imagination - that his tremendous innate creativity was revealed. A naturally fluent and effortless talent, Picasso was thus able to create a youthful visual diary unparalleled in art history. Even today, Picasso’s quick oil sketches, watercolours, pastels and drawings reminiscent of Rembrandt and Eugène Delacroix and made for his own pleasure and self-realisation retain a freshness and vitality that is exceptional - and prove that he had the creativity needed to succeed as an innovator in the Modernist age.
It should also be noted for those unfamiliar with the various drawing and painting mediums, that they all have their own special qualities, difficulties and best practice. So, Picasso’s effortless youthful switching between mediums was remarkable. As was the lasting conservational quality of most of his work - which shows none of the disastrous technical errors that have plagued the conservation of the work of so many other Modern artists - who ignorantly and recklessly made their mediums do things that they were never made to do.
Yet, as I have suggested above, the question of how relevant Picasso the child prodigy was to Picasso the Modernist Master remains debatable. Many Modernist painters from Cézanne to Pollock were technically traditional cripples and countless others from the 1910s onward as members of movements like Expressionism, Dada, Surrealism, Abstract-Expressionism, Pop Art and Conceptualism had absolutely no traditional artistic talent or education - but they were still able to achieve recognition through eccentric showing-off, iconoclastic gestures and media stunts. However, following on from T. S. Eliot there have been many critics like Hilton Kramer and Robert Hughes who have argued that many of the lasting greats of Modernism like Picasso, Henri Matisse, Max Beckman and Willem de Kooning were first and foremost traditionally trained artists with a respect for craft, who combined a reverence for tradition with a Modernist need to recast the human condition in new forms. Although the public often thought they were crude incompetent frauds, the truth was they were very sophisticated artists who had de-skilled themselves so as to make eloquent and original modern works that avoided the traps of academicism and kitsch. Personally, despite what people may think from my anti-social and pornographic subject matter, I have always been philosophically and technically on the latter conservative side of art history. So, I don’t think that Picasso’s traditional grounding was incidental to his later greatness. But at the same time, I recognise that had Picasso not been so willful and radical and not sought to break away from the provincial realism of his youth, he would have just ended up like all those tediously stupid, unoriginal, facile and kitsch painters that fill the walls of shopping-mall galleries around the world with bucolic landscapes, jaunty cityscapes, chocolate-box still-lives and simpering female nudes. As a devastating iconoclastic rebel, Picasso first gained the authority of tradition - only to then repudiate it and thus his rejection was all the more profound. He chewed through all the subjects of realism and proved his genuine talent for it and then systematically deconstructed it and all its pretensions to meaning, value and truth.