Friday Nights at the de Young feature special lectures related to current exhibitions at the de Young. This Friday, July 22 Kieran Ridge presents "Picasso and Modern Literature: Liquid Architecture of the Palace of Marvels," a discussion of Picasso as a writer and the influence of contemporary authors and literature in his art. This is the first of three lectures presented in partnership with Alliance Française in celebration of Picasso: Masterpieces from the Musée National Picasso, Paris.
Mr. Ridge is chair of the English Department at The Marin School, where he teaches literature and film studies. To pique your interest in this fascinating subject, we have asked Mr. Ridge to answer a few questions about Picasso, the writer!
What is one of the most challenging aspects of Picasso's work that you have found in your research and interaction with his work?
One of the intriguing challenges to understanding Picasso is how prolific he was, and how prolific his biographers and critics have been too. Picasso is rare, even among the great geniuses of art, because he produced work in many different styles, each period with its own characteristic vision. Any one of those many periods might alone have made Picasso a big name in the history of art. But Picasso kept advancing from one period to the next, creating up to a dozen or more distinctly identifiable and original “Picassos” that are all complex and fascinating, but as a whole represent almost a Rubik’s Cube of artistic identity, style and vision. Add to that the many biographies by friends, lovers, acquaintances, strangers, detractors, and the many sides of Picasso become even more difficult to encapsulate. And let’s not forget that Picasso was also a sculptor and printmaker, created stage décor for the Ballets Russes and, indeed, was a published author of plays and poems.
In Western art I think you’d have to go back to Leonardo and Michelangelo to find a creative talent broader and grander than Picasso’s. I became interested in Picasso’s writing as a way to peer inside his head, much as reading Leonardo’s journal offers insights into the thinking behind the great Florentine’s amazingly accomplished and diverse body of work during the Renaissance.
During this exhibition, what is one thing that you would suggest a museumgoer look for throughout the exhibition?
What I found in Picasso’s writing that helped me to understand his art can be summed up by a phrase from his play, The Four Little Girls, “liquid architecture of the palace of marvels.” Picasso grew up at a time when the solid beliefs of previous centuries were rapidly melting away and definitions of reality did indeed become liquid, with all sorts of spectacular results. There is also a preoccupation with rediscovering the basic structure, or architecture, of reality—or at least our experience of reality.
His art’s beauty is mixed up with images of brutality in everyday life, war, the bullfight, and elsewhere. Look, for example, at the painting of a cat with a bloody bird in its mouth. In sum, look for how Picasso is using every tool he has to explore the basic shapes and nature of things, and to depict the constant flux of becoming rather than being—Picasso is constantly struggling to clear away the obscuring decorations of “civilization” under which we humans try to hide the raw facts of life. Picasso’s writing, too, is full of such observations, often matching exactly with his paintings, though perhaps the humor that is common in his plays is more often seen in his sculpture than in his painting.
Your work focuses on Picasso as writer. How did contemporary authors, such as Gertrude Stein, influence his work?
In connecting Picasso with literature, I was first struck by how his earliest published poems echoed the work of James Joyce, especially in Ulysses. In fact Picasso was born just three months before Joyce, they both came from countries that suffered civil wars and that were also conservative and Catholic in ways that made Modernist artists emigrate so as to express themselves more fully.
Picasso had close friendships with poets all his life, especially great French writers like Apollinaire and Éluard. In reading Picasso’s writing, the echoes and influences of Modernist literature are present in many shapes and forms from the earliest pieces, written in 1935, to the latest, dated 1959. In Picasso's writing, his use of image and rejection of traditional structure—as well as his themes, sensual tone, and use of “line”—offer perhaps the best bridge to understanding the connections between Modernist painting and literature. Of course, in Paris Picasso came under the wing of noted American writer Gertrude Stein, creating a famous portait of her. In turn, Gertrude Stein’s biography of Picasso is one of the most droll and insightful biographies about the nature of art, genius, and much else about human life—and if for that alone, the name Picasso will have a place on the bookshelf of great literature.
Join Kieran Ridge this Friday, July 22, at 7:00 p.m. in the Koret Auditorum to hear the full story of Picasso and literature!