The ultimate curiosity


Dear Artist,

Having spent the afternoon in the Picasso show at the Seattle Art Museum, I’m laptopping you from a quiet café near First and Spring. Right now I’m digesting those Picassos along with a nice set of Samish Bay oysters.

The Shadow, 1953 Oil and charcoal  51 x 38 inches The departure of a lovely woman, a child’s toy, sadness by Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)

The Shadow, 1953
Oil and charcoal
51 x 38 inches
The departure of a lovely woman,
a child’s toy, sadness
by Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)

The museum was a hefty bash. For many, seemingly exposed to his originals for the first time, it was puzzling and curious — the prodigious output, the variety of styles, the relentless change, the parade of wives, mistresses, kids. “If you want my biography, look at my art,” said Picasso. People were looking closely, glued to their audios. The collection, borrowed from the currently renovating Musee National Picasso in Paris, represents the very hinges of Twentieth Century art. From the first tentative art school efforts to the mature cubist abstracts — and all the periods in between — it’s a feast. Behind every work there’s a story.

In room 5 we see an unresolved return to realistic painting — a delicate portrait canvas of his first wife Olga and another one of their son Paulo. “A deliberate technique,” we’re told by the intellectual on the audio, “to leave areas unfinished to remind us that we are looking at a painting — an act controlled by the artist.” One might also wonder if he abandoned these paintings because he realized he was outflanked in this department by others. It’s the story of a life with serial and overlapping women. Beautiful in their distortion, classical, submissive, combative, complacent, unreachable.

The Suppliant, 1937 Gouache 9 x 7 inches Graphic strength and the fearful wisdom of Guernica. Full angst by Pablo Picasso

The Suppliant, 1937
9 x 7 inches
Graphic strength and the fearful wisdom of Guernica. Full angst
by Pablo Picasso

We come to the reclining nudes, active demoiselles and energetic cubistic torsos — club-footed, sausage-fingered women seen from front and side at the same time. The real thing beats the picture books. You feel his mind, his cover-ups, his impatience, his adulation, his angst, his fetishes. Everywhere is ego, ambiguity, stabbing energy and a flamboyant creativity. In the last room, lettered discreetly across the wall: “God is only another artist. He invented the giraffe, the elephant and the cat. He just goes on trying other things.”

Best regards,


PS: “The rich and the idlers seek the new, the extraordinary, the extravagant and the scandalous. I have contented these people with all the many bizarre things that come into my head. The less they understand, the more they admire it. By amusing myself with all these games, all this nonsense, all these picture puzzles, I became famous. I am only a public entertainer who has understood his time.” (Pablo Picasso, 1881-1973)

The Kiss, 1925 Oil  51 x 38 inches Full-on sensual and sexual energy together with threatening, playful elementsby Pablo Picasso

The Kiss, 1925
51 x 38 inches
Full-on sensual and sexual energy together with threatening, playful elements by Pablo Picasso

Esoterica: Then there’s the archiving — signing, dating with Roman numerals. It’s as if he knew even at an early age he was precious and important. I was taking notes in my little black book when a heavy-set guard pushed up to me. “No ball-point pens in the museum,” he said, gruffly. “So here’s a pencil,” he added. Ambiguous, like Picasso himself, I thought. The guard had a pocket full of stubby pencils to give to the ignorant carriers of dangerous implements.

This letter was originally published as “The ultimate curiosity” on December 3, 2010.

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  1. Well I missed this letter in 2010 or I would have responded like this: in 1980 I visited New York with a couple of girlfriends. My first New York venture. We each knew what we wanted to see. MOMA was high on the list because it was a Picasso retrospective. 1,000 pieces of art filled the museum. Despite my limited education, of the 3 I was the most informed about this artist having read quite a bit. So I tried to explain the progress and changes in this great artist’s journey. I was never a great fan of Picasso but I left that museum in total awe. I learned so much. I have two framed prints, one of his Roman period and one of his Cubist period. Both of women. The women look strong. I liked that.
    In 3 days, I hit all the big art galleries, fell in love with Edward Hopper, saw 3 broadway shows, went to Long Island to hear Marion McPartland and her band play, shopped in Soho and just generally had a blast.

  2. “…the variety of styles, the relentless change…” I find it interesting that Picasso was highly regarded for doing what most art marketeers and galleries today regard as the mark of amateurism or lack of artistic maturity, which would make the offending artist not marketable. The Picasso quote in the post script is eye-opening for how well Picasso understood the nature of his audience and created what he wanted with what they wanted in the back of his head.

  3. I first saw a Picasso outside a book when I visited the museum in Spain that housed one of his most famous works, Guernica. It was a revelation. The energy, the fury, the sense of urgency was palpable in ways that a reproduction can never convey. The scale of the work alone is revelatory.

    I’ve often thought that a low boredom threshold combined with a rampant curiosity had to be among the drivers for his prodigious output. For me as a painter, the genius of Picasso is that through his work, he shows us a new way to “see.”

  4. No one leaves a Picasso exhibit neutral. All that restless energy. Most of his work is just straight out his fevered and often funny imagination. Most of us are simply tame, domesticated or quiet, while a few of us have momemts of raw energy. Picasso is a volcano, always spewing lava. No one is quite the same after being near that heat

  5. Ah Pablo….the artist we either love, or hate, or a bit of both. He was a masterful entertainer always on the look out for adoration and not beyond despicable behavior to get it. Slave to the love he could never have, he abused, mesmerized and demonized women because he wasn’t one….and left us with “Les Demoiselles d’ Avignon” and a wide range of contortionists. At his place in time, ART was entertainment, and outrageousness (particularly BIG outrageousness) supplanted the need for realism. Although his art teacher Dad’s pigeons are imbued with a gentle power Pablo’s prodigious shock jock efforts fail to realize, I’ll give Picasso his due….he did it his way!

  6. That was the last adventure I had with my mother. She was also an artist so we were able to share art and conversation before she left and I continued our craft. She would have loved to meet Robert

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